Music

Grizzly Bear: Painted Ruins

Photo: Tom Hines

Grizzly Bear returns with Painted Ruins, the band's best album to date.


Grizzly Bear

Painted Ruins

Label: RCA
US Release Date: 2017-08-18
UK Release Date: 2017-08-18
Amazon
iTunes

Irony is not dead; it's been upgraded. Major label money funded Arcade Fire's Everything Now, a gag album marketed as such, once the sort of thing only possible on an off-major release like the Melvins' Prick. In the pivotal 13th episode of Showtime's Twin Peaks revival, David Lynch followed an impeccably arranged, equally hip lineup of Roadhouse performers with a "live" reprise of (cool) James Hurley's long-maligned "Just You". And Grizzly Bear, a band that once publicly lamented the low-quality leak of Veckatimest and now idealistically urges listeners to listen to new release Painted Ruins "as a whole", allows RCA/Sony to furnish reviewers with choppy online streams that expire after a few listens, stripping away listened-to tracks as the album vanishes song by song.

Okay, then. Though to flip a phrase by Yoni Wolf, facing history with a little irony is one way to prepare for changes ahead. For more than a decade, Grizzly Bear has been praised for a brand of ornate rock that is, from a songwriting perspective, less memorable than contemporary music from peers also exploring baroque pop or progressive folk styles. The few years leading up to the band's breakthrough album Yellow House (2006) saw the release of Rufus Wainwright's Want One and Belle and Sebastian's Dear Catastrophe Waitress, both in 2003, Heavy Blinkers' The Night and I Are Still So Young and Magnetic Fields' i, both in 2004, and Joanna Newsom's Ys and Midlake's The Trials of Van Occupanther, both in 2006. In this same period Sufjan Stevens released Michigan (2003), Seven Swans (2004), and Illinois (2005).

All of these pace-setting albums featured excellent songcraft as well as splendid production values and arrangements. To this day, many of them have not received due acclaim, while the musicians of Grizzly Bear have enjoyed a reputation as masters of a style they never owned. Yellow House impresses mostly as a mood piece, an album about place, with songs designed to linger within rooms and chambers. This quality, combined with the Warp label, motivated listeners and writers at the time to use the word "ambient" when discussing the album, though that description only works to a point.

When Veckatimest was released in 2009, the music was more highly decorated, but many of the compositions lacked distinction. Jeanne Fury, writing for Record Store magazine in June 2009, described the songs of Veckatimest as "drenched in gorgeous harmonies, like chamber music by way of Laurel Canyon". That's a good way to describe how the band adorns its songs, but if that drench dries, it becomes more apparent that the band "spend[s] more time on expensive and fastidious arrangements than choruses", as Dan Weiss observed in LA Weekly ahead of 2012 release Shields.

Painted Ruins is the best Grizzly Bear album to date because the band has turned away from previous tendencies to oversell folk-rock "ambience" or to crowd songs to alienating effect. The album begins like Tracks and Traces and ends like b-sides from Amnesiac. As a whole, Painted Ruins is more concentrated than its predecessors, but at times it is also noisier, messier, and considerably more populated with hooks than any previous release by the band. Ironically, working against its presumed brand positions the band to be more vital than ever. What the band does differently this time includes a refreshed variety of musical references, a sturdier, more focused approach to rhythm, and most significantly a unifying theme of ruin.

Painted Ruins makes a strong impression right away with "Wasted Acres," which plays in form and function like Robert Wyatt's version of "Stay Tuned" from Comicopera. While the song is admittedly front-loaded, the image it paints of riding a Honda and asking "were you riding with me / were you even listening," paired with "trust in your machine" invites some kind of emotional recall that intensifies as the lyrical and musical phrases repeat.

Another single, "Mourning Sound", builds on "Wasted Acres" by being likewise concerned with moving and motion, and with listening to a place, including sounds of trucks and shots. It's a song that borrows from a number of pop/rock music periods, including new wave and whatever turn-of-century revivals thereof informed these musicians' approach to rhythmic rock. But the stunning chorus takes a detour, unexpectedly and pleasingly, into a mode heavily indebted to The Trials of Van Occupanther, the defining "progressive folk" album of 2006 and also sharing the theme of needing to move outside of modern time and space. Contrasting with the pleasant melody of the chorus are noisy, even abrasive, guitar textures that move Grizzly Bear away from the handsome production style that has stifled some of its past work.

"Four Cypresses", which concerns immobility rather than moving, similarly uses noise to tell a story about chaos and sound. It's so satisfying to hear Grizzly Bear follow a progressive rock thrust outward into the kind of territory King Crimson covered on its underrated Lizard. "Three Rings" is the first song on the album that seems overstuffed, but the song works in the manner of In Rainbows-era Radiohead and includes a touch of Animal Collective's "Leaf House," as if the album is fixated on sources from the years surrounding Yellow House.

"Losing All Sense" updates Veckatimest hit "Two Weeks" by picking up that song's pace but also finding more musical and emotional variety within it. To include a song that could be accused of calculatingly attempting to recapture past glory is a risk, but it pays off here because this song bests "Two Weeks", exhibiting a greater range of musical directions, such as a chorus that creates the effect of a physical descent and emotional unmooring.

The highlight of Painted Ruins is "Aquarian", a song that pushes further into a heavy progressive rock mode, in this case sounding similar to Goblin, the likeness a welcome surprise. A menacing instrumental introduction sets up vocals that seem somehow too upbeat, but that impression of incongruity pays off when later movements of the song tie those strands together. "Neighbors", a later track, offers a quasi-medley of earlier moments from this very album, a technique that seems to inductively illustrate the spirit of the project as a whole; bringing the Grizzly Bear sound into more precise shape, combining a few judiciously chosen, distinct elements, and then reaching some conclusions about how those elements fit together.

The lesser material on the album all occurs in the second half. "Cut-out" seems alternately overwritten and stuck in a rut. "Glass Hillside" plays like an inferior version of Ween's "Right to the Ways and the Rules of the World". "Systole" is particularly anemic in its counteraction of the brawnier sound of much of the album that precedes it. But none of these songs derails the album because the thematic unity remains strong from start to finish.

Though it is stating the obvious to identify "ruin" as the primary theme of Painted Ruins, Grizzly Bear explores the emotional and philosophical dimensions of that theme in a profound way. This, too, connects to Yellow House as the first song on that album ("Easier") was memorable in part for its portrait of domestic ruin and another song, "Marla," was a family story of a late musician's unrealized potential. Thus ruin has been present in Grizzly Bear's music since these musicians released their first album together, but Painted Ruins is an extended rumination on ruin, particularly in the way Svetlana Boym articulated the connotations of ruins as "remainders and reminders."

Remainders and reminders, present as mentioned in the musical forms of Painted Ruins, permeate the lyrics of the album, assessing what's lost, what's left, and what can be learned. In "Mourning Sound," love is the thing that ages, left to "burn out and die". The "Four Cypresses" are "torn from the roadside… some thousands of years built up / some crumbling form to be torn down / living in a pile / tangled in a pile." "Losing All Sense" might well be a summary of the album's relationship to ruin: "take the past, own your scars, let it show."

"Aquarian" involves "the knowledge you can’t win with what remains" and "burning ground / that separates this mind from all that’s passed." Perhaps most poignant is "Neighbors," which confronts breaking bodies and the fact that "every passing day / our history fades away." In the end, the chief irony of Painted Ruins is that this album tackling the heavy subject of all things crumbling and passing ends up being the band's most alive, cohesive offering.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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