opinion byBRENDAN FRANK
The delicacy of Grizzly Bear’s music likens them more to sculptors than musicians. They craft their albums with the kind of care and patience that is easy to under-appreciate. Intent on outdoing themselves, the Brooklynite quartet put on a compositional clinic on their fourth album, last year’s Shields. It was a record assembled with a watchmaker’s precision, with all of the shivering translucency of an ice sculpture. To the surprise of no one, Shields: B-Sides is no different. An assortment of outtakes, demos and remixes from multiple studio sessions, B-Sides offers further evidence for Grizzly Bear’s reputation as quality control freaks. While it contains neither the polish nor richness usually found the band’s usual full-lengths, it’s an eminently solid addition to their catalogue.
On the opening moments of B-Sides, singer/guitarist Daniel Rossen implies the collection’s entire reason for being. “Clear out your mind and I’ll clear out mine,” he sings in his signature glassy tone on lead-off track “Smothering Green”. It’s both an emphatic “wait, there’s more!” moment and a palate-cleanser of sorts. Songs of this quality would be album standouts for a lot of bands; from Grizzly Bear’s perspective, not good enough for primetime. While the remixes are relatively disposable, each is worth a listen. Conversely, the B-sides and demos range are all decent or better, and it’s interesting to mull over the permutations and combinations that could have been possible on Shields proper.
But if Grizzly Bear were really that hard on themselves, so dead set on leaving everything but the cream of a bumper crop on the cutting room floor, these tracks never would have surfaced. So why all the extra goodies? I’d surmise that Grizzly Bear were intent on clearing house before allowing themselves—as they no doubt will— to start from scratch. Crucially, for a release of this kind, B-Sides never feels like a desperate move or a cash grab. If you already own Shields, the expansion is available as standalone vinyl or download; if you don’t (for shame), it comes wholesale as well.
The five original songs found here are mostly dark, decorous and raw, embodying the frustration that likely pervaded the earlier attempts at making what would become Sheilds. The general negativity of the preliminary Marfa sessions (not one song recorded in this span made the cut for Shields) is reflected at the chorus of the aqueous “Taken Down”: “You’re a little late/I’m a little tired…Totally agree/Everything is worse.” The melodic somersaults wouldn’t sound out of place on Shields less visceral first half, but it plays out more as an intra-band conversation than an examination of their usual imagery and motifs.
Occasionally, the songs reveal a majestic sweep found much more frequently within their more attractive cousins. On “Will Calls”, the most compelling track of the bunch, vocalist Ed Droste is almost operatic, while rhythm players Chris Taylor and Christopher Bear keep their work to a jazzy minimum before exploding at the chorus. Elsewhere (“Listen and Wait”, “Everyone I Know”), things are solid and steady, if unexciting. Of the remixes, Nicolas Jaar’s reworking of the clamoring “Sleeping Ute” is by far the best. He doesn’t so much remix the track as peel each of its pieces apart and lay them bare before his drizzly production work.
So, five tracks, two very good, three just good, and three remixes, one worth your while, and two that don’t fight to be heard by anyone other than fans of the band. If you walk in expecting less than the world, this glimpse into the busy minds of an uncommonly thorough group of artists is never less than enjoyable, if not totally essential. [B-]