Grizzly Bear came out of the great “bands with ‘Bear’ in their name” musical gold rush of the early 2000s. Minus The Bear, Bear in Heaven, Bearnaked Ladies(okay, that’s not a real band.) Grizzly Bear always seemed to have loftier goals. From starting out as just a bedroom project of Ed Droste’s to becoming a full blown band, Grizzly Bear painted their musical landscapes with wide brush strokes and made them as big as they could. 2006s Yellow House was a lesson in restrained beauty. The music sounded as if it had been unpacked from some dusty, antique steamer trunk found in the attic of said yellow house. It felt like it had come from another era, not from a bunch of young 20-something dudes from Brooklyn. 2009s Veckatimest continued the precise, chamber pop that Yellow House had introduced us to. With 2012s Shields the band sounded looser; like the guys had been on a Neil Young and Crazy Horse binge and spent a few months in the studio lashing out at each other with guitars pointed defensively.
With all of these albums, Grizzly Bear have never sounded like a band stuck. They seemed to continue to move forward even if they could’ve lingered a little longer in the sitting parlor playing more beautiful music. Painted Ruins, Grizzly Bear’s new album, is more forward movement. But this time there’s room to move on this album. They seem to have moved the clutter out of the way and have made an album that is loose and open to interpretation.
Album opener “Wasted Acres” is sultry and groovy, like a Tennessee Williams play put to music. Ed Droste sounds more confident on here than he has since “Cheerleader”. It’s a stunning opener. “Mourning Sound” is quite a different beast altogether. It’s a sparse, bass-driven track that leaves all the nuance and mystery at the studio door. I’ve heard critiques of the track as being too simple and not sounding like Grizzly Bear. It does have its own sound in the Grizzly Bear discography, but why is that a bad thing? Droste takes the lead for most of the song, with Daniel Rossen coming in on the bridge. It’s a great change of pace. “Four Cypresses” could pass for a St. Vincent track with it’s jaunty rhythm, but the vocals reveal that Grizzly Bear sound.
What is that sound? Part chamber pop, part jazz-inflected experimental, and indie choral group. There’s 70s influences, vocal group influences, and possibly some folk roots as well. But with these four guys together all of the influences come together to create something completely new.
Elsewhere, “Three Rings” brings a Gothic lean to the proceedings while “Cut-Out” is a quiet and jaunty track. It opens simply only to reveal sonic delights as the song rolls on. “Glass Hillside” sounds like a psychedelic Fairport Convention with cryptic, otherwordly vocal harmonies. “Neighbors” sounds like something Simon and Garfunkel might’ve done in the early 70s had they been slightly hipper cats. “Sky Took Hold” ends the album beautifully. It’s sensuous and mournful. It retains all the melodrama and preciseness we’ve come to love about Grizzly Bear, but with more room to stretch out and feel the track.
Painted Ruins sounds like Grizzly Bear in a good place. These tracks are loose but vital. 15 years in and there seems to be no slowing down for our favorite “Bear” band.