Shock-horror, you won't be hearing the impossibly-legitimate 'I listen to anything and everything' line from me. And not just because I have feelings on pop that should be kept to private discussion rather than public domain, but because genres such as folk and pure indie - whatever context that holds in today's age - just don't cut it for me. Well, if I'm being honest, that's partially a lie...Grizzly Bear are one of those few acts that I can actually listen to and instantly recognize the reasons and the thought-pattern behind such stripped-back (but still psychedelic) harmonizing and minimal instrumentation. 'Veckatimest' was one of those albums that may not have been the biggest and the boldest, but where it mattered, proved just how right bands are when they decide against attention-seeking and just go about carrying an idea forward. 'Shields' is 2012's helping of this similarly juxtaposed treating of sounds as both able and willing to speak of their own accord. And while the former release was a welcome revealing of modest honesty, this new release sees the band progress more towards honesty in emotion than in workload, even if the approach is treated a little more experimentally.
'Sleeping Ute' is a lot more ecstatic and dynamic than previous GB outings. And here, on the album's opener, crashes of cymbals and shakes of percussion delve and dive head-first amidst the roaring strum of guitars. But it's guitarist Daniel Rossen's streaming voice and, more importantly, the lyrics in question that emphasize more as to the track's direction, or lack of it: 'If I could find peace, if this night bleeds/But I can't help myself.' The vocals take a much more upfront approach and what this reveals is a difference in attitude towards the progression of the track. The music feels a lot less stripped back than previous efforts, and because of it, the force and muster to which the music and the lyrics come across is a lot less withdrawn and more directly imposed. Follower 'Speak In Rounds' focuses more on its rhythm and pacing than its exertion; the somber acoustics and light percussion work really well for a track that feels more like it's taken to higher altitude than it has the lower roads of instrumentation. Like 'Veckatimest' though, the vocals return to this more naturally-inclined limitation, as if the vocals themselves are satisfied with where they place amidst the layering.
What you'll find then - just from the opening pair of tracks - is GB's take on variety in musical range and execution. It shows a band intrigued, rather than entirely focused, on differing branches of voluming composites of sound and tone. 'Yet Again' sees Grizzly ditch the loner attitude of keeping to the corners of a room and opens itself up through spacious guitars and vocals that glow with an almost summer-esque warmth. It's the interlocking relation between the tone of voice and each pass of electric chord and drum hit that illuminates the track into a state of majestical awe. It may indeed feel a distant contrast to what fans are used to, but it's bubbly echoey guitars and unison really do catch attention on immediate listen. It's a shame then, that such daring strides into the blur of sonic execution, are in short supply here. Without a consistency and without a solid backbone of trajectory execution, there are times on this record where the very variety on this album, comes across as indecisiveness, and loses most of the magic that the band are keen to generate.
A track like 'A Simple Answer' would have sounded great had it shared the same bold adventurous nature seen on previous track. For now though, the steady clamber of drumbeats and spidery piano keys, while keep the momentum complacent in their attractiveness, the withdrawal of the track's build and energy in the previous half is quite literally stripped away - all that's left is this thinning echo of what was once there. The more then I listen through this album - and the closer I get to the end - the more this uneasy sense of uncertainty keeps building inside me. It's an uncertainty over whether what I'm hearing is going to last until the end, or whether the band are going to use this new-found interest in variety and experiment with it to the point where there's no real identity for either the band or the tracks alone. 'Gun-Shy' thankfully is a welcome exception to this fear, vocals keeping to this lonely stretching of self-reflection and analysis, 'The sky keeps staring at me/Frozen in a trance', a melancholic organ and beat of percussion providing the backdrop to this, a spacious nightly ambience of response and togetherness about the music.
Again, it's the blurriness of the instruments in such a track - and the way they float and sail between each pass - that pulls the listener in and works the best in GB's outer-exploratory venture. For tracks like 'Sun In Your Eyes' however, the mix of the band's past shying limitation as well as this present-day explosion of its dynamics and expression of tone, that comes up trumps on the album. The frosty pianos and eery trails left in the wake of the track's progression automatically sets a sort of middle-of-the-city late-night wake in scenery and anxious aura alike. It only brings the surreal perspective of the track to full attention as what starts as a gentle sway of keys and vocal accompanying, catapults its way into a rough and rich embossing of guitar strums and clashes of drums, the lamp-lit solitude of the scene intensifying into a sun-rich panorama of energetic sounds and lively emotion.
I guess then, an album like this is one of those records that's, on evaluation, a tale of two halves. Not so much in the sense where the ideas are stronger in one half than they are in the other, but rather, the band demonstrate to the masses where their strengths, and so too, where their weaknesses lie, in working together as a mass of musicians and executers of sound. And while the weaknesses do come up in numbers and make themselves known - the same honesty and well-sought deliverance as their previous record is less emphasized - 'Shields' is, with some confidence, a welcome introductory to the band branching out into more spacious rock sounds. It's an album with its highlights...but highlights that, much like the lowlights, are stark in contrast. And when an album like that can be picked apart quite easily on its successes as much as on its flaws, something has inevitably got to give. Let's hope Grizzly Bear can work on this and prove to their doubters they're more than just a one-trick pony. That experimentalism, without sacrifice, can be the way.