ALBUM REVIEW: Grizzly Bear – Painted Ruins (2017)

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The latest record from indie rock mainstays Grizzly Bear comes five years after their last – 2012s Shields – and it has certainly benefitted from that long gestation period. Painted Ruins is a record that sounds laboured over, carefully coloured in with lots of sonic details and ideas, and it finds the band deliberately pushing their sound into new territory.

This is Grizzly Bear’s most psychedelic album yet, and also their most panoramic, featuring some truly eye-widening moments of echo-drenched bliss courtesy of bandmate/producer Chris Taylor. Songs like ‘Four Cypresses’ and ‘Aquarian’ build up into impressive walls of sound comprising vintage synths, guitars, piano, strings, saxophones and other noises I can’t identify.

At times like this the band recall climactic prog-rockers such as King Crimson, while at others we find the band searching in unexpected places for inspiration. ‘Glass Hillside’ has a sticky, buoyant chorus that sounds like a psychedelic take on dub reggae, with vocalist Daniel Rossen’s languid singing guiding the song smoothly between ominous verses. It lands as one of the album’s stranger but more compelling tracks.

Taken as a whole, however, the vocals on Painted Ruins are a bit patchy. For starters, it feels as if Ed Droste and Daniel Rossen – the band’s two primary songwriters – are working at a slightly different wavelength. Rossen’s lyrics and singing are often ambiguous and psychedelic, as in ‘Glass Hillside’, but they sometimes ring a bit hollow. Droste, on the other hand, comes off as rather drippy in a number of songs, spouting heartbroken vagueries at odds with the tone of the record.

Still there are moments where Droste and Rossen harmonize to wonderful effect, as on the funky ‘Losing All Sense’ and the elegiac ‘Neighbours’. And Rossen shines on the aforementioned ‘Four Cypresses’, where he sings, mysteriously: ‘It’s early / Make no sound / Living in a pile / It’s chaos, but it works’.

True to form, the more chaotic moments within Painted Ruins do prove to be its best. ‘Mourning Sound’ and ‘Systole’ strike me as the weakest tracks on show here, the former being a fairly by-the-numbers indie rock bopper dressed up with some hazy synths, and the latter being a sleepy, underdeveloped ditty that didn’t really need to make it onto the record.

All in all, though, Painted Ruins is another great album from one of the more adventurous bands working in indie rock today. It isn’t quite as consistent as Veckatimest or Shields, but it feels like the thoughtful product of a self-aware band looking to stay relevant and fresh in a changing musical landscape.

8.3/10

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