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Grizzly Bear: (Not) too big to fail

| Wednesday, August 30, 2017


grizzly bear banner webCharlie Kenney | The Observer

Grizzly Bear seemed like one of those bands that’s just too big to fail.

The band’s painstakingly produced records have been virtually flawless in the past, as far as the indie rock scene is concerned. Grounded on perfectionism and subtle progression, records like “Veckatimest” and “Shields” were landmarks to which other indie rock bands could only aspire. If there’s such a thing as a 21st century indie rock trinity, Grizzly Bear enjoys a seat next to Vampire Weekend and Arcade Fire.

But Grizzly Bear is on its way down.

What happened to Grizzly Bear on “Painted Ruins” is not altogether surprising, though, if you look back keenly enough.

Let’s start with their breakthrough: The layered chamber pop of “Veckatimest” (2009) remains the best of its kind, with an unprecedented blend of poignant songwriting and dynamic arrangements that run counter to the four-chord ennui of alternative rock music. Still today, “Veckatimest” is easily my favorite indie rock record of all time.

Released three years later, “Shields” (2012) marked an understated career shift. The band retained its attention to detail and still shunned predictability, but somehow Grizzly Bear still upped the accessibility, producing a record that’s virtually impossible to hate. Where “Veckatimest” was meditative, rewarding on replay, “Shields” was energetic and stuffed with catchy, quickly rewarding moments. In brief, “Shields” could pass well-disguised on the pop charts — and there’s certainly no problem with that.

Five years later, you could argue that “Painted Ruins” is the logical next step. The band has ditched its knack for layered progression entirely this time, taking “Shields” to its logical extreme and opting for easy-listening indie rock “bangers.”

Look, it’s an indie rock record with a capital $ — and that’s not necessarily disgraceful. So the band’s aspiring to the charts again. Fine.

But if Grizzly Bear thought it could ride on the coattails of its former glory and succeed with a wholly unmemorable record, the band was mistaken.

I was thoroughly excited in anticipation of “Painted Ruins,” mind you. Based on my experience, everything that Grizzly Bear touches turns to gold. And in a way that hasn’t changed. The record features dense instrumentation: drums echoing from the background, smooth moments of brass, quaintly distorted guitars — you know, the usual.

But the songwriting is disastrously boring, with all the portents of a band who has lost either its inspiration or pure force of will. There are “pretty” moments — that’s the Grizzly Bear special — but every track feels like filler, like a record of resurfaced B-sides.

“Systole,” with its lush synth pads and quality vocals, is a rare track, both gorgeous and memorable; but it repeats the same lyrical motif over the entire course of its brief run.

It’s said that Grizzly Bear records are supposed to grow on you, but from the beginning the record sounded less like Grizzly Bear and more like disenchanted Grizzly Bear imitators: They follow the recipe, but the magic’s just not there. Every track gets to the point immediately, so to speak, and stays there the entire time; you’re virtually encouraged to skip after the first minute and a half. The repetitive lead single “Three Rings” is the representative offender.

According to the band, the actual artistic transition here is supposedly the unprecedented use of electronic production. Grizzly Bear has used electronic sounds tastefully in the past, though, and on “Painted Ruins” the band doesn’t develop the aesthetic in any significant way; the record is still fundamentally acoustic.

Opener “Wasted Acres” is perhaps the only track on which Grizzly Bear genuinely dared to try something different. The slow trip-hop rhythm feels odd at first, but it works surprisingly well with the band’s penchant for lush instrumentation. Alas, the lyricism is lacking. The refrain — “Were you even listening?” — comes off as deadpan and uninspired.

In the process of writing this review, I listened to both “Veckatimest” and “Shields” for the purpose of comparison. Perhaps I shouldn’t have; it was demoralizing. The former’s opening track, “Southern Point,” is more stunning and dynamic than all of “Painted Ruins” combined.

Is it possible for Grizzly Bear to recover from this path? I’m not so sure anymore.

Artist: Grizzly Bear

Album: “Painted Ruins”

Label: RCA

Favorite Track: “Systole”

If you like: Vampire Weekend, Arcade Fire

Shamrocks: 2.5 out of 5

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