laIt often takes only the smallest of hallmarks for a band to leave their stamp on a particular style of music. On paper, the bedroom-quality indie pop stylings of Grizzly Bear may seem to differ little from the neo-psychedelic indietronica of Animal Collective, the progressive freak folk of Fleet Foxes or the vocal-driven art rock of Dirty Projectors, and this is undoubtedly true to an extent, with the Brooklyn-based band, conceived and masterminded by Ed Droste, evolving alongside the aforementioned acts as to shape the indie rock, pop and folk scenes of the 2000s, with the group even collaborating with Dirty Projectors, as well as Balkan folk troupe Beirut, on their 2007 EP Friend. Despite sharing many of the same progressive, psychedelic and experimental touchstones with these outfits, however, Grizzly Bear could hardly be said to lack their own definitive sound or musical identity, which are largely underpinned by the band’s keen ear for, and unique usage of, luscious, well-structured vocal harmonies. This may not sound like much, but when a band’s approach to composing and fashioning grooves exhibits so many points of symmetry with their contemporaries, something as simple as a very particular flair for crafting and layering vocal harmonies can do wonders for establishing an individual voice for said group amidst their associated stylistic scenes. In the case of an act such as Grizzly Bear, it’s hard to imagine that their crowning achievement, 2009’s Veckatimest, would have captured the imaginations of fans and critics alike the way it did were it not for Droste and Dan Rossen’s harmonic latticework and vocal chemistry. As such, it has long since been established that, regardless of where on the musical map they should find themselves, this aspect of Grizzly Bear’s artistry will remain, which is especially relevant as concerns the group’s newest full-length endeavour, Painted Ruins. Compared to the texturally-dense, baroque pop-inspired stylings of their most celebrated material, Painted Ruins stands as perhaps Grizzly Bear’s grizzliest album thus far. Despite still utilising a significant portion of the chamber timbre to have appeared on their past output, with woodwinds being plentiful at certain points throughout the tracklisting, there is nevertheless evident a rougher tone to the way in which these pieces are presented. The guitars are sharper, the synths, as well as being far more prominent, are often eerier and more nocturnal, and the grooves are grittier and more driving, in a way that undoubtedly preserves the indie and art rock groundwork of Grizzly Bear’s earlier work and, in fact, builds on it in a similar fashion, but the resultant structure is nevertheless more jagged and craggy, as if an auditory mirror image of the dilapidated imagery evoked in the record’s title. Whilst the end product is undoubtedly an exceptionally striking release from Droste et al. aesthetically speaking, Painted Ruins nonetheless suffers from some of the same structural issues that have bogged down Grizzly Bear’s most compositionally underwhelming material in their back-catalogue. Despite the more propulsive nature of the grooves across the course of the album, these tracks struggle to pick up momentum much of the time, often as a result of the fact that the band utilise the arsenal of instrumentation at their disposal in a more restricted and claustrophobic fashion than usual, making for a series of songs that are lacking in the same dynamic range that made a project such as Veckatimest so engaging. Ultimately, although there are some arresting tones struck over the course of Painted Ruins, Grizzly Bear’s compositional prowess across the album falls short of allowing the sonic scope of the album’s timbre to come to full fruition, leaving the end product feeling somewhat structurally deflated.
Having reined in much of the traditional timbre and organic instrumentation that has typically comprised much of their past output, in favour of some more synth-driven arrangements, the overall tone of Painted Ruins is missing the same resonant swells that provided Grizzly Bear albums such as Veckatimest with their full, forceful sound that could easily grip the listener right from the onset. If anything, this is made all the more clear by the fact that the tracklisting opens with Wasted Acres, which plays more towards the territory of previous Grizzly Bear projects and stands as one of the richest and most vibrant songs on the record. With the ambient, overlapping electronic buzzes and hums that introduce the cut giving way to a flurry of woodwinds, to the point that these two sources of sound are almost blurred into one and could certainly deceive the listener were they not paying close attention, Wasted Acres establishes a finely polished semblance of sonic shading that encapsulates just how effective Grizzly Bear’s use of both natural and electronic instrumentation can be when refined this well. As the soft swells of the plaintive clarinet, dulcet saxophone and brooding piano subtly develop into a mellow, chamber pop backdrop for Rossen’s honeyed, cocktail-lounge crooning, the band demonstrates, once again, how cogently they can unite their organic and electronic worlds, with the outbreak of a chilly, almost trip hop-inspired electronic drumbeat seeing layers of fizzing synth purrs and wistful woodwinds interwoven as to almost be indistinguishable from one another. It seems as if the rest of Wasted Acres was put on auto-pilot, with the instrumentation building exactly as one would expect, although the song is no worse for it, with the swooping strings and nocturnal guitar licks being integrated seamlessly into the song’s resonant, yet ice-cold, soundscape.
This being said, despite Wasted Acres marking such a promising start to Painted Ruins in terms of the overall vibrancy and dynamics of the record, very few other tracks strike the same balance of natural and electronic instrumentation, largely because of how much more synth-orientated this album is compared to previous projects from Grizzly Bear. This is by no means a problem in and of itself, but the group do little to justify such a move, rather it only highlights that they don’t seem to be playing to their strengths by restricting the prevalence of their usual, balanced timbre. The odd track may strike some interesting tones, such as the snarling synth bass on Neighbors that could be mistaken for a grumbling horn arrangement or the discordant layers of woodwind towards the beginning of the closing track, Sky Took Hold, but for the most part, there doesn’t exist the same compelling light touch when it comes to texturing the arrangements across Painted Ruins, with even the endearing serenity that introduces the latter track being cut through in a horribly jarring manner by some abrasive, squealing guitars that seem woefully misplaced. The blaring, sawtooth synth bass that opens Mourning Sound, as another example, is paired with a simple, post-punk-esque drum and bass groove as if this alone would be enough to fill the mix with a rounded, reverberating sound, but it does this more so in such a way as to swallow the mix in a rather claustrophobic fashion, which also hampers the extent to which later instrumental developments can have much in the way of a dynamic bearing on the track. The glistening synth leads that are brought into the fold are fitting enough, largely in that they bolster the classic, post-punk sound of the song, but the hollow, monotone bleeps that line much of the mix from this point on only work to clutter it further. Likewise, the roaring, distorted synth bass on Three Rings comes across as a very odd choice when paired against the dainty, blipping lead melody and the elongated, ethereal intonation of Droste’s Thom Yorke-esque vocal delivery, in that it seems as if the band was going for a similar sense of contrast to that featured on a track such as Wasted Acres, albeit in a rather different form, but instead, the end product is more of a clash than an effective polarity in tone.
The lacking textural proficiency of Painted Ruins is made all the more pronounced by the fact that the usual harmonic tapestry of Droste and Rossen’s vocals is far more limited across this record, to the point that Grizzly Bear sound less like Grizzly Bear than ever before. It’s not so much a case of the band trying and failing to achieve the same harmonic tones of their earlier material, rather they seldom even include their signature vocal embroidery in the first place. Of course, on the more positive side of things, this does mean that songs such as Neighbors, wherein the interwoven, soaring vocals and overlapping call-and-response from Droste and Rossen are executed with remarkable elegance, are made to stand out in the tracklisting even more, but it’s nevertheless a shame that the staple of Grizzly Bear’s indie rock sound did not carry over to Painted Ruins as it could or likely should have done. The fact that the group should choose to not include the vocal harmonies that have hitherto typified their sound within the indie climate of the 2000s seems to reflect the somewhat lacking compositional innovation across the course of the record too. Whilst I have personally found much of Grizzly Bear’s past work to have been unfortunately limited by their songwriting chops, Painted Ruins highlights this issue more than any of the band’s previous albums, to the point that the listener would do well to pick up on any semblance of the progressive rock influence that has previously pervaded the outfit’s output. The aforementioned Mourning Sound, for instance, whilst staying true to the propulsive, groove-driven song structuring of its post-punk influence, lacks the same dynamism that typically makes the genre’s strongest acts so compositionally engaging, which only emphasises the track’s limited progression. It’s this same deficiency in textural or dynamic depth that underlines the extent to which songs such as Four Cypresses and Losing All Sense fall short of entirely warranting their five-minute durations, given the limited amount of refreshing compositional ideas that are worked within their structures. In the case of Four Cypresses, although the swells in the instrumentation certainly justify the pay-off that arrives just after the track’s halfway point, as the tinkles of both organic and electronic instrumentation give way to a triumphant, glistening guitar strum as the drums break out in a more solidified pattern, it seems as if the song got lost on some minor detours, with the band being very gradual in the build-up of its instrumentation, to the point that some of the tension and urgency created by the song’s timbre is lost to its circumspect development. Whilst there are cuts such as Glass Hillside, which, despite its blatant Radiohead worship, witnesses a fascinatingly peculiar, classical guitar-driven introduction, complete with rich vocal layers, build momentum before unfolding into one of the most gripping grooves of the entire record, such moments are evened out by songs such as Systole, whose airy, wistful timbre is merely used to prop up a similarly sparse song structure that does little to develop the ethereal, emotive tone established by the atmospheric synths and wispy vocal textures.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Painted Ruins is the extent to which Grizzly Bear don’t seem to be playing to their strengths for the most part. With the slight tweaking to the band’s aesthetic that the album marks has come a sacrifice of some of their most significant hallmarks for seemingly no good reason, as it’s the cuts in the tracklisting that preserve the more creative side to Grizzly Bear’s sound and, most importantly, their keen ear for finely-worked vocal harmonies that stand out as being by far the strongest, both structurally and sonically. There’s no real reason why a more synth-orientated release from Grizzly Bear would be destined to fail, but Painted Ruins exhibits some substantial growing pains in this regard, with the group struggling to strike the same dynamic resonance of their previous output on the tracks that rely more on the electronic side to their sound. The existence of songs such as Wasted Acres, Glass Hillside and Neighbors demonstrates that the indie outfit has hardly lost its flair for crafting vibrant, engaging and novel chamber pop, but the rest of the tracklisting is undercut by a deficit in the nuance that has previously made Grizzly Bear’s songwriting so strong, even in spite of some of its structural shortcomings. Overall, with the best moments from Painted Ruins seeing Grizzly Bear stick firmly to their guns, it’s clear that the band’s more electronic-focussed direction is in dire need of the same vitality and refinement of their more balanced material.
The Vinyl Verdict: 6/10