Monthly Archives: September 2012
Grizzly Bear – Shields
From the flurry of solo and side projects that followed in Veckatimest‘s wake, it became increasingly clear that the members of Grizzly Bear wanted to broaden their horizons, expanding beyond their own brand of smoothed-out psych-folk. To a certain extent, 2012’s Shields confirms this suspicion, but they don’t so much leave their comfort zone as try to find some discomfort within it. Everything on Shields sure sounds like Grizzly Bear—the wonderfully complex harmonies, the interweaving acoustic instruments, the meticulous attention to detail, Daniel Rossen and Ed Droste’s plaintive vocals—however, this is some of their most cerebral and complex music yet. Previous Grizzly Bear records would keep everything relatively clean and trim, with little fuss in the arrangements and melodies. (Even Droste’s lo-fi debut Horn Of Plenty was hypnotic and accessible, despite its murky production.) Here, though, the band sharpens the edges and lets the seams show: guitar chords are more often trailed by messy feedback; the percussion hiccups and shuffles, and dissonant effects heave beneath the surface, sometimes erupting in a fit, like at the end of “Yet Again.” And keep in mind that “Yet Again” is actually the closest thing to a conventional single on this album—with no “Two Weeks” or “Knife” to buoy the record, Shields was designed as a grower, sounding like a set of sketches upon first listen, before slowly revealing itself as Grizzly Bear’s most mature album to date.
Though typically abstract, the lyrics seem largely concerned with relationships in peril, so it’s fitting that the band explores a lot of moods and textures here. On one hand, the cool “gun-shy” is one of the absolute highlights, feeling slick, controlled and almost celebratory, especially compared to the languid, paranoid “What’s Wrong,” where Rossen sounds like he’s too afraid to even leave the house. Then you have the two openers, “Sleeping Ute” and “Speak In Rounds,” which contain some of the heaviest and straightforwardly rocking material they’ve ever committed to tape, while “Sun In Your Eyes” wraps things up with a trembling, widescreen epic that’s both the group’s longest song and one of their most nakedly emotional. That Shields tries so much and never feels strained is a testament to Grizzly Bear’s abilities as musicians and songwriters. It may not be as cohesive or impactful as some of their earlier work, but Shields is a necessary step in Grizzly Bear’s evolution from a prim and proper indie pop outfit to something wholly more unpredictable.
The xx – Coexist
The xx’s debut benefited from the fact that it sounded like little else at the time of its release. This isn’t to say it was without precedent: xx is steeped in familiar sounds, both old and new, combining ethereal dream pop and the claustrophobic precision of post-punk with touches of dubstep and R&B. Nevertheless, while that album was always reminiscent of other artists, the band mixed and matched those styles in a way that felt fresh and unique. Moreover, they had the gall and the smarts to strip their sound to the bare essentials, refusing to go for easy club hooks and emphasizing space and silence in a way that distinguished them from their peers. To their credit, the group doesn’t try to do anything radically different on their 2012 follow-up, Coexist. The album features the same basic xx sound, but the group is more assured and confident, and they take a more streamlined approach. They go over each song with a scalpel, slowing down tempos, burying some elements down in the mix, cutting others out entirely, shifting the focus to Jamie xx’s subtle yet detailed production. It’s not uncommon on Coexist to hear little else besides Romy Madley-Croft or Oliver Sim’s vocals (which sound lovelier here than ever) and a gentle percussion or guitar track to back them up, the whole thing doused with a healthy dose of reverb to add to the album’s barely-there quality. Sometimes this barebones technique leads to some nice dramatic tension in the music, like how “Try” abruptly breaks away from its howling siren riff to quiver with hushed keyboards and gently plucked guitars, or how the floor drops out from under Sim and Madley-Croft as “Unfold” closes out. And because so much of the record relies on atmospherics, it’s worth noting that throughout the album, Jamie xx once again proves himself to be a producer of significant talent, navigating these dark, sinewy arrangements with ease and intuiting just where in the mix everything should land. That being said, the downside to Coexist‘s skeletal songwriting is that it results in a slighter album than the xx’s debut. With such deliberate minimalism, the group may have created something delicate and affecting, yet it’s a record that’s both less substantial and less diverse than xx since most of the songs here work within the same limited parameters—and with diminishing returns. This isn’t a huge issue, especially considering how well-crafted these songs are, but when “Swept Away” kicks in with the record’s only genuine dance beat, it’s revelatory in a way that only serves to remind how static the rest of the album can sound. Even so, if fans are simply looking for another shot of the xx’s singularly icy beauty, then Coexist offers more than its fair share.
Cat Power – Sun
The cover of Cat Power’s Sun is a portrait of Chan Marshall with a new, short haircut and a rainbow plastered across her face. If there was ever a metaphor for change, maturity and overcoming personal turmoil, this is it. And if there was ever an album that captured this metaphor perfectly, it’s Sun. Six years have passed since Marshall’s last album of original material, The Greatest, and during that time, she struggled with long-simmering medical issues and entered a healthy relationship, all the while agonizing over which direction to take her music next. Largely produced and recorded on her own, it follows, then, that Sun represents a clean break from her past, a conscious shift from both her intense, lovelorn early work and the lush soul of The Greatest. Early reports suggested that Sun would be Cat Power’s “electronic album,” and while synthesizers, digital effects and drum machines indeed make their appearances, this isn’t exactly Marshall’s trip to the disco. This is still the Georgia singer/songwriter we know and love, just embellished with some computerized accouterments like the Auto-Tune that pops up in “3,6,9” and the glitched-up vocals in “Silent Machine.” However, it’s these embellishments that give the album a propulsive kick that other Cat Power albums don’t have, and it’s something that matches perfectly with the tone of her lyrics. Essentially a song cycle about working through times of struggle, Sun captures Marshall at her most driven and optimistic, a side of her that had only rarely surfaced before. It’s refreshing to hear some of her social commentary set to a lively backbeat on “Ruin,” and “Human Being” finds the mantra “You got a right to anywhere, anything” among its gloomy synths and Moroccan-inspired guitar lines. All the same, the album occasionally seems to get by more on sound and production than actual songwriting. Sometimes, it works: the transcendent “Nothin But Time” is an uplifting, skies-are-clearing 11 minutes of encouraging words and affirmations, set to an insistent piano line and backing vocals courtesy of Iggy Pop (!). Yet, her eclectic approach also results in a less satisfying set of songs than normal. Initially, it’s bracing to hear Marshall utilizing a broader sonic palette than usual, but after a few listens, much of that excitement dissipates and what’s left is a handful of fine songs—namely, “Cherokee,” “Ruin,” “3,6,9,” and “Nothin But Time”—among slighter, pleasant tracks that don’t stand as tall as her best work. Still, when you’re an artist as talented and consistent as Marshall, even your lesser songs are still worth listening to. Sun is a welcome, if imperfect, return of an accomplished artist who continues to find new avenues to stroll down, and hopefully it won’t be six years until she walks us down another one.