Grizzly Bear underwhelms with ‘Shields’

Ricky Stein

“Shields,” the fourth album by Brooklyn-based indie rock band Grizzly Bear, ostensibly finds the quartet painted into an art-rock corner. After the widespread critical acclaim for “Horn of Plenty” (2004), “Yellow House” (2006) and the majestic, piercingly haunting “Veckatimest” (2009), Grizzly Bear struggles for direction in its latest release.

Each of the band’s first three albums displayed a marked progress from its previous work. “Horn of Plenty” was a lo-fi experimental catharsis by founding singer/songwriter Ed Droste, “Yellow House” documented the group coming together as a band, and with “Veckatimest” they hit full stride, creating a lush, cinematic indie rock masterpiece that exceeded their fans’ already high expectations.

With “Shields” they have no such luck. The music isn’t unlistenable, but the songs on a whole don’t have the same captivating power as their preceding three albums. The first five songs all bleed into one, as they are set mostly in minor keys (fun has never been Grizzly Bear’s forte) and contain the occasional obtuse line, such as “If I speak in rounds for a while letting my tongue swell / I’ll be sure to try and explain myself to dispel.”

The second side of the record is much better, opening with the obvious standout track “A Simple Answer.” The song is reminiscent of John Lennon’s solo work, with its driving piano, “Instant Karma” shuffle and soaring vocal lines.

The subsequent song, “What’s Wrong?” is another standout track, tying an orchestral arrangement to a gaiting jazz beat. Singer/songwriter/guitarist Daniel Rossen lends his breathy, pleading intonation to the lines “Cloistered from yourself, you never even try / Best just lie down, and close your eyes for once, before your will just goes” and reminds the listener of everything that was great about “Veckatimest.” The song is simultaneously redolent of “Pet Sounds” and “A Love Supreme,” which is no easy task.

The rest of the album fades back into indistinctness, listenable without being particularly impressive. Grizzly Bear has made some great music, and will continue to make more, but first-time listeners should begin elsewhere in their catalog.

 Printed on Thursday, September 20, 2012 as: New Grizzly Bear album may only please veteran fans