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Snapshot Review: Grizzly Bear – Shields [Warp]

Sonically speaking, Grizzly Bear shouldn’t be the sort of band described as “difficult.” Close listens to their early work like 2006’s Yellow House prove they have a knack for writing slower but very complex and beautiful melodies replete with vocal harmonies. It’s not nearly post-rock, as there is far too much verse-chorus-verse structure contained within the songs and not nearly enough explosive crescendos and waves of sound. A better comparison would be to call them a less poppy version of that other animal band Fleet Foxes, because while their songs more often than not lack dynamic hooks, they make up for it in pure pastoral folk atmosphere. Of course there are moments on 2009’s Veckatimest such as “Two Weeks” and “While You Wait for the Others” that felt like they should have been massive hits but failed to fully connect for one reason or another. On their new album Shields, Grizzly Bear seem to have fallen off the map once again, pushing aside the small gains they made in the mainstream music world in favor of staying true to themselves and the purest of songcraft. They still sound rather effectively like themselves, as in you’re not going to mistake them for another band, but the ease and charm by which they worked their magic last time has been scaled back in favor of a much more cerebral and measured approach. The melodies reach a new level of complexity and detail, positively oozing with glorious ambience and texture. Opening track “Sleeping Ute” bounces, weaves and rolls like waves on a choppy but positively electric sea as the band stuffs a truckload of sounds into it. You absolutely need to devote time and effort to allow yourself to be absorbed in the world this record inhabits, and such precise attention winds up well rewarded with each successive listen. Much like Beach House’s latest album Bloom, this is a record less concerned with breaking new ground and more insistent on condensing the band’s strengths into something more potent and captivating than they’ve ever done before. The person who excels at this the most on this particular record is Daniel Rossen. He’s never quite been the shining star of Grizzly Bear (that honor goes to Ed Droste), and occasionally he’ll have a clunky song (see “Dory” on Veckatimest) or a quieter one (see “Deep Blue Sea” on Yellow House) amidst a gem like “While You Wait for the Others.” In the time since the band’s last record, he’s kept busy by recording and releasing a solo EP, which didn’t venture very far from anything he’d done previously. It made him a better songwriter and composer though, as his tracks “Speak in Rounds” and “A Simple Answer” are two of the album’s best moments. Of course there are quite a few of those when your record functions as a proverbial highlight reel of original music. Droste’s times to shine happen on the single “Yet Again” along with “Gun Shy” towards the end of the record. Of course it is those final two tracks “Half Gate” and “Sun in Your Eyes” that truly raise the bar for Grizzly Bear and any band that sounds like them. They swell with the sort of brightness and beauty you expect them to explode at any moment out of sheer intensity. So much of Shields is a dark and lonely journey punctuated by remarkable arrangements, but the last 12 or so minutes break free from that depression and that feeling is simply euphoric. Just when you think there’s no way Grizzly Bear can top themselves, here’s a record that proves they can. May there be many more as fundamentally challenging as this one in their future.

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EP Review: Daniel Rossen – Silent Hour/Golden Mile [Warp]

Daniel Rossen is best known for his exceptional work in Grizzly Bear and less known for his side project Department of Eagles. The man is in many ways a wellspring of creativity and gorgeous melodies, boosted all the more by his unique guitar playing. You don’t even need to hear his voice to know he’s had a hand in a song. He’s also exceptional when it comes to arranging songs – breathing plenty of life into a track without overstuffing or cluttering it up. The last couple years Rossen has been working hard and touring with Grizzly Bear in support of their 2009 album Veckatimest. That record brought a somewhat unexpected dose of legitimate popularity to the rather subtle indie band, and all those guys did a great job handling the additional responsibilities that came along with an increased profile. Last year Rossen wrote a bunch of songs to prepare for the next Grizzly Bear LP, but a handful of them didn’t quite fit for one reason or another. It was mostly an issue of collaboration, in that he’d done about 90% of the work on these songs and felt like a more evenly balanced approach would benefit the band as a whole. Instead of ditching the tracks entirely or saving them for a rainy day re-working, Rossen chose to throw some polish on them and push them out into the world on his own. The Silent Hour/Golden Mile EP is the result, and it highlights exactly what makes the man an asset to whatever project he’s working on at the time.

Like The Beatles, Grizzly Bear is made up of four distinct personalities, and their working in tandem with one another creates beautiful records with intense vocal harmonies. It makes plenty of sense then that Rossen’s solo EP sounds an awful lot like something Grizzly Bear would put out, mixed with a touch of his other, similarly styled band Department of Eagles. Every song except for “Saint Nothing” features a lush acoustic guitar base, often supplemented with a smart variety of other instruments from electric and pedal steel guitar to piano, bass drum and even a string section. In its full glory you get the impression it’d make for the perfect soundtrack to time spent alone reflecting on the immense power of nature.

From start to finish, the EP plays like the storyline of a man retreating to the woods in search of serenity and meaning in his life. Opening track “Up On High” makes the lyrical observation of, “In this big empty room/finally feel free.” Though it’s not explicitly stated, that “big empty room” could very well be a forest devoid of people. “Silent Song” continues that trend with mentions of hills and fields and digging. Rossen’s lyrics aren’t exactly what you’d call poetry, but everything else about the songs is so impressive it’s tough to pass too much judgment on the guy for a few clunky or bland lines. When all else fails, you can look to the immense spectacle that is “Return to Form” for guidance. What starts as a babbling brook of acoustic guitar work builds to an orchestral crescendo complete with some electric guitar riffs stolen almost directly from “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. Ok, consider it more of an homage than anything else.

By the time “Golden Mile” turns up after the meditative piano dirge of “Saint Nothing”, the mood has become sprightly and upbeat. “There is bliss in this mess/there is madness all around,” Rossen sings, and you can almost hear a wink and a smile tacked onto it. Our world-weary main character has returned from his retreat into nature having learned a valuable lesson; when life becomes a burden and your emotional reservoir fills with despair, take a few moments for yourself and appreciate the little things. That same lesson can be applied to the Silent Hour/Golden Mile EP itself. At 5 tracks and 23 minutes, this is a small, elegant delight to enjoy when you need a few moments of peace. It’s also a nice stopgap for those unable to wait for this fall’s new Grizzly Bear album. Daniel Rossen may just be one leg of the Grizzly Bear table, but this EP goes a long way towards proving that should he truly want to, he can stand on his own.

Daniel Rossen – Silent Song

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