New Al­bums

the un­cut guIde to thIs month’s key releases

UNCUT - - Iron & Wine Omd Steven Wilson Kd Lang U2 Sly Stone - Beauty and dark­ness merge on Brook­lynites’ fifth full-length. By Rob Mitchum

In­clud­ing: Griz­zly Bear, Randy New­man, The War On Drugs, Queens Of The Stone Age, Ar­cade Fire

f re­cent his­tory has taught us noth­ing else, it’s that democ­racy is messy busi­ness. De­spite its high­I­minded

ideals of rep­re­sen­ta­tion and ac­count­abil­ity, it can be slow and cum­ber­some, in­hibit­ing good ideas while let­ting un­for­tu­nate ones oc­ca­sion­ally slip through. Even its vaunted ro­bust­ness can be un­der­cut by a few bad ac­tors, as we’re re­minded al­most hourly of late.

Per­haps we shouldn’t be sur­prised about those po­lit­i­cal re­al­i­ties, given the poor per­for­mance of democ­racy in the mi­cro­cosm of mu­sic. In the band struc­ture, to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism oftren rules, with groups or­gan­ised around an undis­puted leader typ­i­cally show­ing the great­est longevity. Egal­i­tar­i­an­ism, on the other hand, can be band poi­son, as at­tested by the tomb­stones of many acts whose sec­ondary song­writer sought greater author­ity.

Griz­zly Bear stand as the ex­cep­tion to this rule, a band that, de­spite all odds, have only grown more demo­cratic over their ex­is­tence. from their gen­e­sis as Ed­ward Droste’s solo project, the group has grad­u­ally de­cen­tralised, adding a sec­ond singer and song­writer in Daniel Rossen, the multi-in­stru­men­tal­ist and in-house pro­ducer Chris Tay­lor, and the as­sertive drum­ming of Christo­pher Bear.

Since 2006’s Yel­low House, every Griz­zly Bear track has cred­ited all four mem­bers as song­writ­ers. The lines be­tween “Ed songs” and “Dan songs” grad­u­ally blurred as they in­creas­ingly traded lead vo­cals within songs, while col­lec­tive har­monies be­came their most dis­tinc­tive voice. Even their on­stage set-up re­flects this equal foot­ing, with all four pri­mary mem­bers or­gan­ised in a line at the front of the stage.

But that re­mark­able com­mit­ment to democ­racy comes with its disad­van­tages, too. It’s been five years – an eter­nity in in­ter­net time – since the group’s last record, 2012’s Shields. Like many groups of friends in their thir­ties, they’ve drifted apart ge­o­graph­i­cally, spread­ing out across both US coasts. And a healthy amount of in­di­vid­ual side projects – solo records, tele­vi­sion scor­ing, pro­duc­tion work – have con­spired to keep Griz­zly Bear on the back­burner.

As a re­sult, there was a lack of ur­gency in pro­duc­ing what would be­come Painted Ru­ins. for months, the four­some shared scraps of mu­sic on­line, paired off on song­writ­ing ex­cur­sions, and for­bade the use of the word “al­bum”, keep­ing the pres­sure as low as pos­si­ble. Even the record­ing process was bi-coastal, with sep­a­rate ses­sions in Hol­ly­wood and the ru­ral New York stu­dio where they recorded 2009’s Veck­a­timest.

Given its frag­mented cre­ation story, the co­he­sive­ness of Painted Ru­ins is a won­der. Ex­pertly blend­ing the band’s four strong per­spec­tives and pa­tiently ex­pand­ing on their pre­vi­ous work, it’s a con­fi­dent ef­fort that be­lies its halt­ing con­struc­tion. As Rossen sings on “Four Cy­presses”, the band’s process is “chaos, but it works”.

Con­sider the many mov­ing parts of “Los­ing All Sense”, which moves from itchy post-punk to dreamier en­vi­rons (com­plete with harp) to an elec­tro fan­ta­sia, re­lays lead vo­cals from Droste to Rossen for a haunt­ing bridge, then cir­cles back to its wind-up-toy be­gin­ning. If it de­vel­ops like four songs in one, that’s be­cause it prob­a­bly is – but wo­ven to­gether so skil­fully you can’t see the su­tures.

Other songs flu­idly move through sev­eral sec­tions with­out ever feel­ing cum­ber­some. “Cut-Out” jour­neys from a sparkling Droste verse (with a great open­ing line for a love song – “You are like an

in­vad­ing spore”) to a loud Rossen sec­tion over re­verbed guitar fire­works. “Three Rings” keeps a steady rhyth­mic floor but pro­gres­sively ap­plies mul­ti­ple vo­cal and in­stru­men­tal ideas on top, from Droste’s gen­tle croon and the band’s air­tight har­mon­is­ing to stretches of wood­wind buzzes and sing-song arpeg­gios.

Through­out, Painted Ru­ins is son­i­cally brighter com­pared with their oc­ca­sion­ally drowsy back cat­a­logue. Opener “Wasted Acres” is prob­a­bly the first Griz­zly Bear track you could con­vinc­ingly rap over, with a lop­ing drum loop, strings in full glis­sando and lyrics about a four-wheeler off-road ve­hi­cle. “Los­ing All Sense” shares DNA with their for­mer Brook­lyn neigh­bours Yeasayer, a syn­co­pated groove gilded with elec­tronic in­ter­ludes. Even “Glass Hill­side”, which head fakes as a folky dirge for its first minute, mood­shifts to a bouncy elec­tric pi­ano part that dom­i­nates the rest of the track.

While not fully trig­ger­ing the nar­ra­tive of the “post-guitar” record, songs such as “Mourning Sound” do a lot of work with­out the in­stru­ment, de­ploy­ing it only for the oc­ca­sional acous­tic tex­ture or brief lead melody. Where Rossen and Droste’s guitar in­ter­play does ap­pear, it’s just as strong as their vo­cal blend, as on the chug­ging acous­tic cho­ruses of “Neigh­bors”.

The other half of Griz­zly Bear also hold their own. Tay­lor’s pro­duc­tion tal­ents, re­spon­si­ble for defin­ing much of Griz­zly Bear’s hazy, calmly psy­che­delic sound, con­tinue to ma­ture, plac­ing sub­tle horn or string drones in the corners to un­set­tle songs such as “Sky Took Hold” and “Four Cy­presses”, while keep­ing ar­range­ments deeply lay­ered with­out spilling into clut­ter. Painted Ru­ins also in­cludes Tay­lor’s first turn on lead vo­cals, the ethe­real “Sys­tole”, a pro­ducer’s pro­ducer track loaded with stu­dio shim­mer and crys­talline fin­ger­pick­ing.

Mean­while, Bear’s drums are fre­quently staged as a lead in­stru­ment, whether em­bel­lish­ing around sim­ple loops through­out “Three Rings” or “Los­ing All Sense” or lead­ing the charge through the proggy snags of “Aquar­ian”. Of­ten, his per­cus­sion skit­ters anx­iously with spo­radic 16th notes, in the style of Phil Sel­way’s most para­noiac pat­terns, knock­ing any pas­toral vibes off-cen­tre in dis­qui­et­ing fash­ion. In fact, it’s tempt­ing to draw deeper the­matic par­al­lels with Ra­dio­head, who en­listed Griz­zly Bear as open­ing act in 2008. Though the lyrics here are as opaque as ever, re­peated themes of dis­tress­ing sounds, great dis­as­ters and en­vi­ron­men­tal de­cay butt up against the tran­quil im­agery of songs con­ceived in Big Sur and ru­ral up­state New York. As a band known for its se­date moods and crys­tal har­monies, the slow-build panic at­tack in the mid­dle third of “Four Cy­presses” cre­ates an am­bush of con­trast with its sud­denly sharp­ened in­ten­sity.

In­deed, if Painted Ru­ins fits the cur­rent po­lit­i­cal mood, it’s as an al­bum of songs beau­ti­ful on the sur­face, but with dark­ness nib­bling on all sides; hope and de­spair on an end­less see-saw. It’s also a record of thir­tysome­thing friends, es­tranged by both ge­og­ra­phy and nav­i­gat­ing the adult ter­ri­tory of mar­riage, di­vorce and par­ent­hood, fight­ing through frus­tra­tion and sep­a­ra­tion to find the com­mon ground that once and still ex­ists. It’s po­lit­i­cal and per­sonal – democ­racy func­tion­ing at its messi­est yet most ide­al­is­tic, but­tressed by the sim­ple but ever-elu­sive act of lis­ten­ing and trust­ing each other.

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