As far as being a band in 2012 goes, Grizzly Bear has it pretty good. Critical darlings aren’t often financially successful as artists and vice-versa. Yet, the Brooklyn troupe has spent the past decade creeping up Top 10 lists while winning over throngs of fans from sorority sisters to (you knew this was coming) the one-fifteenth-of-one-percent stakeholder (and recent New York Times Style Magazine cover boy) of the Brooklyn Nets. Later this month, Grizzly Bear headlines Radio City Music Hall, but they’re still not a household name: The quartet maintains a relatively autonomous pairing with Warp Records, one of the more idiosyncratic and innovative labels in the biz. And on Tuesday, that imprint ships Grizzly Bear’s most profound, intimate record yet, Shields.
As cursory surveys go, some might balk at Grizzly Bear’s output since their founding in 2004. Ed Droste recorded the band’s first effort, Horn Of Plenty, almost entirely on his own (with some help from drummer, Christopher Bear) in the typical indie lo-fi manner. Its successor, Yellow House, was Grizzly Bear’s first “real” album, boasting the addition of songwriting cohort and singer Daniel Rossen as well as producer/multi-instrumental wunderkind Chris Taylor. It was recorded in a not-so-typical manner: at the founding member’s mother’s home.
Yellow House and its follow-up, 2010’s Veckatimest, are dense and complicated affairs. Horn Of Plenty’s cramped and often sloppy feel gave way to a grandiose openness: a dark basement blooming into the nave of a cathedral. And, if the multiplicity of poignant tracks from full-lengths weren’t enough, Grizzly Bear has peppered their history with experimental and gratifying EPs — the equivalents of spun-out road trips to a beach party before an inevitable return home.
It’s the overall strength of Grizzly Bear’s efforts that makes deciding an A-team from its canon a knotty enterprise. On Shields, “A Simple Answer” is a stand-out, cranking out rolling rhythms like a Ford assembly line. Rossen anchors the vocals, singing “Some tired mantra, crawls ever onward.” It’s just a snapshot of the most formidable lyrics the group has ever written, perhaps a tongue-in-cheek swipe at Grizzly Bear’s forging ahead. The tune is carnival-esque, poppy, and introspective: a gem. And it didn’t even make the cut.
10. “Fix It” from Horn Of Plenty (2005)
Droste’s semi-solo debut as Grizzly Bear is rife with many of the pitfalls of experimental music, from unbalanced levels to overly ambitious atmospherics. But it sets a template for what was to come and “Fix It” — quite fittingly, as per its moniker — exemplifies all that was right with Droste’s aspirations. The song is epic, wandering, and trippy, yet hinges upon a fairly basic chord progression. That march is soaked in a reverb-heavy effect that sounds similar to many a forthcoming GB guitar or bass spine. “Fix It” opens with a lilting flute passage that sounds as though it were plucked straight from a Native American campfire in a Spaghetti Western. It plows ahead with an unexpected transition — the first of many for Grizzly Bear — Droste’s muffled vocals spinning into echo-laden, utterly buoyant closing.
9. “Sorry For The Delay” from Sorry For The Delay EP (2006)
It had been a couple of years since fans had heard from Grizzly Bear and, as something of an appetizer offering before Yellow House, the group issued an EP complete with an apologetic title. If the album’s release was meant partially in jest — it does contain a Yes cover — its title cut allays any such joyfulness. Grizzly Bear, its name an irony in some cases, can drift into oversensitivity. It’s not often, but songs can quietly drag on into soft lifelessness. Here, though, is early backbone. Cymbal and drum hits snap to the fore as Droste’s distorted vocals do their best flight-attendant-on-the-mic impression — delay squelched.
8. “Half Gate” from Shields (2012)
Shows with the L.A. Philharmonic in 2008 and, then, with the Brooklyn Philharmonic in 2009 must’ve struck the proverbial chord with Grizzly Bear. Nico Muhly tackled the string arrangements for Veckatimest and, this time around, Rossen and Taylor have taken the reins. The two haven’t missed a step, and “Half Gate” is emblematic of Grizzly Bear’s orchestral and operatic ambitions. This penultimate saga is grand, soaring, and fearless. And that’s just the instrumentals. The lyrics point to an overwhelming sense of inward reflection: existential questioning from a band growing older together, thinking about what comes next. “At the end of the line, it’s as if there’s no time at all,” Droste reflects. “Nothing left to win, every pleasure burned to the wind / I tend to be alone, quiet pictures drawn each day before it ends to remind me, once again, why I’m even here.”
7. “On A Neck, On A Spit” from Yellow House (2006)
Here’s one of the great opening harmonies of the past decade, yet one that is just a blip on the radar of this nearly six-minute epic. “On A Neck, On A Spit” is unmistakably a team effort, with banjo plucks and bass flourishes anchoring an almost Last Waltz-like intro. Then, booms and bashes surge up, smashing it all to smithereens. Rossen and a guitar remain and usher the song into a new partnership that combusts yet again.
6. “Two Weeks” from Veckatimest (2009)
“Two Weeks” is, without a doubt, Grizzly Bear’s best pop song. It’s catchy in ways most of the group’s material doesn’t try to be, a popping key movement cycling throughout. It’s fitting, then, that the first taste many fans got of the cut was during an appearance by the band on The Late Show With David Letterman in July of 2008. Rossen was seated at the organ dropping those indelible keystrokes as Droste harnessed his gorgeous vocals as unassumingly as possible. A white button-down with rolled-up sleeves — like a candidate on the campaign trail — Droste shifting back and forth to the microphone, unable to resist bopping his body along to the rhythms. Everyone at home watching felt the same way.
5. “Central And Remote” from Yellow House (2006)
This one is forlorn and downbeat right off the bat. Oh boy, it seems, this is going to be an exhausting ride (almost five minutes); did Grizzly Bear have their coffee this morning? It turns out they did, and “Central And Remote” accomplishes an almost trademark about-face, climbing into a giant and symphonic mass before coming back down to Earth. And then does it all over again. The outsize enterprise might also be one of the few times, on record, where you can really catch Grizzly Bear jamming out into the stratosphere. The band really broke out as meticulous studio warriors on this record — and “Central And Remote” ain’t “You Enjoy Myself” — but Grizzly Bear readily embraces tangents herein.
4. “Yet Again” from Shields (2012)
“Sleeping Ute” was the first studio track unleashed from Shields and, make no mistake, it’s a wonderful album opener. But, then: boom! The second cut released (it runs fourth on Shields) goes and outdoes “Ute,” a guitar down-stroke that ushers in a call to arms. “Yet again,” are the first words sung by Droste on the song. The phrase can’t help but bring a knowing smile to listeners’ faces: Yep, they did it again. And as with much of Shields, there’s a struggle. The song points to the inherent loneliness of man, a sort of anti-Donnian perspective. But, there’s a message of optimism: “Take it all in stride,” Droste proclaims. Then, the last minute of “Yet Again” devolves into a cacophonous blur, everyone in the band playing ferociously — Grizzly Bear with a mean bite, creating beauty from a mess.
3. “Ready, Able” from Veckatimest (2009)
The most immediate takeaway from “Ready, Able” is its crisp production. Audiophiles might insist it be listened to on obscure speakers from the 1960s, while other dorks would recommend $2,000 Sennheisers for full appreciation. But, really, this level of mixing — Gareth Jones massaged Veckatimest — would still sound great as radio-rip piped through United Airlines headphones. The tune has a bold transition, too, and if there’s some reservation at the beginning — “I’m gonna take a stab at this,” Droste reservedly sings in the opening lines — “Ready, Able” lives up to its name during its rousing second half. “They go, we go / I want you to know what I did, I did,” he confesses and then repeats. It’s a mysterious, intriguing, and guilt-ridden line. The more you listen to it, the more classic it becomes.
2. “While You Wait For The Others” from Veckatimest (2009)
It’s unfortunate that, three years later, “While You Wait For The Others” has been relegated to footnote status. Yes, Michael McDonald of Doobie Brothers fame did indeed sing lead on the B-side of the track in what amounted to a pseudo-cover, pseudo-prank that just happened to be pulled off pretty damn well. But unless you’re Jane Lynch’s character in The 40-Year Old Virgin, McDonald’s version doesn’t hold a candle to the original. “While You Wait for the Others” is a Daniel Rossen vehicle, and his most impressive at that. The song is at once simple and huge. The guitar strokes are a minimalist’s wet dream but are as gripping as they come. There are also starring roles for seemingly meaningless “oohs” and “aahs.” But they anchor the build of the chorus. “You can wait for some substance,” Rossen quips. And at its best moments, the song seems to figure itself out, instrumentals dropping out to highlight vocals, vocals bowing to instruments. On it, Rossen — also of Department of Eagles — does well to fashion Grizzly Bear into something of a supergroup, with two lead singers any band would be glad to employ full-time.
1. “Knife” from Yellow House (2006)
There really can’t be any other choice. That opening guitar effect. Those background hums that would later become a Grizzly Bear staple. And Droste’s entrance into the affair: “I want you to know, when I look in your eyes / with every blow, comes another lie.” Heavy. “Knife” has a sinking feeling — which is further exploited and doubled-down upon by its infamous, insane music video — but it’s of an order only Grizzly Bear can get away with. The group has long been associated with an Apollonian ethereality. Here, the group’s second-to-none harmonies are at their best. It’s that coordination of vocals and instrumentation that puts a song like this on another level. There’s a paradox at work: What might otherwise be glum is lifted up by sheer elegance. How can you not love something so beautiful?
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