In Brief: An interesting exploration of the tension between unpredictable creativity and the oldest tricks in the pop music handbook.
You know how some people get intrigued enough to listen to an album solely on the basis of its cover image? Yeah, I’m not one of those people. I usually need to hear at least a song to pique my curiosity before I’ll dive in and listen to a full album of an artist’s work from back to back, or failing that, at least a hearty recommendation from a friend who thinks I’ll take a specific interest in their style of music. I had none of those things when it came to my first exposure to Animal Collective‘s music. I had a friend or two who liked the group, but given what they knew of my finicky preferences, they could only give cautious recommendations at best, even if they themselves were big fans. But boy, did that album cover work wonders to pique my curiosity! Just stare at it for a few seconds, and you’ll see why. (Seriously, go Google it. And look at the full-size, since the thumbnail doesn’t do it justice.) WHOA, TRIPPY MAN. You’ll swear up and down that you’re looking at an animated GIF or something. But nope, it’s just your eyes playing tricks on you. The physical CD cover that you’ll see in stores looks exactly the same, and has the same effect – it appears to move as your eyes move. I couldn’t help but wonder what sort of mad musical genius a group like this had up their sleeves.
The answer to that question, as I found out when listening to Merriweather Post Pavilion for the first few times, is that Animal Collective’s mad genius plants them somewhere on the difficulty scale between Radiohead and The Fiery Furnaces. They’re a mostly electronic outfit, from what I can gather, with a somewhat fluid lineup from one record to the next that centers around songwriters/soundsmiths Avey Tare and Panda Bear. If you’re thinking ambient techno that is best used to help put you to sleep at night, then you’ve severely underestimated these guys, because their soundscapes tend to contain more spikes and squiggles than smooth, sleepy passages. But if you’re expecting a full-on, dancefloor-ready rave-up, then you’re likely to step on your own toes in the process of trying to stay with the beat. Avey and Panda seem to exist at opposite poles of the electronic music spectrum, with many of Avey’s compositions tending toward the outlandish and offbeat, while Panda serves to keep the group grounded in lush pop melodies and more traditional song structures. Given these wildly divergent tendencies, it’s a wonder that Merriweather Post Pavilion holds together at all, but despite moments where the group is either too abstract or too repetitive, this record actually flows quite beautifully, with no two songs sounding alike and yet none of them sounding like they came completely out of left field. Sure, there are a few “what the hell were they thinking?” moments, but for the most part, those are generally confined to a minute or two out of an otherwise satisfying composition. And those who are more used to electronic music and its common tendency to build slowly off of repetitive musical phrases will likely have fewer-hangups about the sections here and there that I find a bit dull.
You’d probably expect an experimental electronic album like this to be full of abtract, obtuse lyrics, assuming it had any lyrics to begin with. And while it’s true that the both men’s vocals are sometimes hidden behind hazy layers of computerized sound, at other times they’re front and center, and surprisingly relatable. There are a number of songs that seem off-putting at first, only to then reveal themselves as upbeat and optimistic when you take a closer look at what’s being said. These guys are honest about their fears, but they never seem to be consumed by them. A few songs find the band sounding rather affectionate, either describing their real-life roles as husbands and fathers, or imagining what it would be like to one day play these roles. I tend to expect most of your indie studio-tinkerer types to make music with more of an isolated, myopic sort of feeling to it (and don’t get me wrong, sometimes I like that sort of thing), but this is a nice change of pace. And it’s a feat that the Collective accomplishes this sort of a mood without it ever feeling like they’re catering to the common denominator (or would even know how to do so if they tried).
For an album that I just checked out on the whim because it had a cool cover, and that I had no specific expectations of before listening to it, I sure keep coming back to Merriweather Post Pavilion. I wouldn’t put the “Best Album of the Year” tag on it like I’ve seen a lot of folks doing already (isn’t it a bit premature to bestow such an honor on an album when it releases in January?), but I can see it still standing out on my list at the end of the year as one of 2009’s biggest surprises. And I’m sure that existing AC fans will likely get even more mileage out of it than what I’m already getting.
1. In the Flowers
Couldn’t stop that expanding force I felt in me
Everything around seemed to giggle glee
She walked up with a flower, and I cared…
The disorienting whirl of sound that opens the album is a trick that The Fiery Furnaces would probably admire – it’s an off-the-wall example of how to start off with one of your most difficult songs, thereby weeding out most of the casual listeners who wouldn’t get it anyway. I’m not totally sure that I get it, or that I enjoy this track all that much, but it is an interesting way to deconstruct a song, with distant vocals and an off-kilter melody providing only the vaguest hints at how to keep the beat and at where the song’s going. Midway through, it kicks in with thunderous drum rolls and a loud, synthesized squeal, which I’m sure is meant to be the part where the mood gets all celebratory and I’m supposed to be loving it, but to be truthful, the tone of it grates on my ears a bit. The dreamlike lyrics certainly fit the odd flight of fancy that the music takes us on, but they’re so obscured throughout most of it that it’s hard to make out exactly what’s being said.
2. My Girls
I don’t care for fancy things
Or to take part in a precious race
And children cry for the one who has
A real big heart and a father’s grace…
Alright, here we go! Synthetic keyboard notes rain down like loose change from a slot machine that just hit the jackpot, while alien mouth sounds and rubbery bass notes work their hardest to confuse us about which instrument is meant to define the rhythm, and then a surprisingly coherent verse repeats several times, teasing us with this echoing, detached introduction before finally bringing in the beat a minute or two later. Then the whole thing becomes instantly danceable, extremely catchy, and in an odd way, this is one of the year’s most infectious singles. Underneath the relentless, pumping rhythm, the jolly handclaps and excited shouts of “Whoo!” that cap off the chorus, this is really just a song about wanting the simple things in life – love, and family, and the ability to provide for them. Maybe you have boys instead of girls, and maybe you live in a stucco apartment instead of an adobe flat, but in this economy, I kind of figure it’s a song that just about anyone can relate to.
3. Also Frightened
From our window to lanterns go signs on the night
And light up two shadows that watch with delight
Well, I want them to be who they will be
Ooh, to be more like their dad…
The band morphs back into 3/4 time as the joyous storm of “My Girls” bleeds into this oddball, bass-heavy romp which seems to follow up on its theme of being the caring, protective dad. This song either expresses a hope or a worry that one’s children will grow up to be just like their dad. It penetrates through the manly exterior and reaches out to the fellow man also just trying to get by, offering a hand of condolence and asking, “Are you also frightened?” Glittering synths do their best to disorient and distract from the flow of the song – but not in a bad way, they’re just trying to make the musical landscape a bit more alien. The two men’s vocals swell up every now and then, often converging at a loud single note when a verse ends – it’s one of those things that jumps out at you and refuses to let the song be just a transitional track in the background between two of the album’s “big pop singles”.
4. Summertime Clothes
Let’s leave the sound of the heat for the sound of the rain
It’s easy to sleep when it wets my brain
It covers my rest with a saccharine sheen
Kissing the wind through my window screen…
This would be “big pop single” number two, and judging from the title and the trashy, syncopated beat, this one would hit its popularity arc right around August if this was the kind of group that you could actually expect to hear on the radio. It’s all about sleepless night spent in a big city with the A/C on the fritz and no easy way to get away from all of the urban hustle and bustle. And yet none of that seems to matter because, as the all-too-simple chorus says, “I want to walk around with you.” Somehow companionship makes the unbearably humid, sweaty nights a little better. While I’m not terribly knowledgable about the progenitors of synthetic pop music, I’m pretty sure that this song must owe a huge debt to Depeche Mode.
5. Daily Routine
Make sure my kid’s got a jacket
Keys and coat and shoes and hat
Strap a stroller to my back
Bouncing along every crack…
This track perfectly illustrates the Collective’s ability to describe the everyday while making the most outlandish music possible. It opens with a series of trippy, blurting notes from an organ that attack faster and faster and faster until they spiral into chaos, which then becomes a part of this song’s insane rhythmic backbone. I want to say it’s in really fast 3/4 time, but those wacky organ interludes keep throwing off my attempts to count it out, so let’s just say it’s maniacally fun. It’s actually pretty melodic, too, going through the hurried motions of getting out of bed and getting one’s kids ready for school and slogging through the morning traffic, and I’m really enjoying the whole thing until midway through the song, the speedy rhythm is dismantled and stretched out into a long, dreamlike section that repeats the first stanza of the song in a drawn-out manner, vocals layered on top of themselves as if the music is being smeared like watercolor paint, pining for “Just a sec more in my bed.” I don’t mind the sound of this, actually – it’s a nice outro to a highly unusual song. But it lasts a bit too long. The song’s over five minutes (as they all have been thus far), but the “action” part of the song probably takes up less than half of it.
Put on the dress that I like
It makes me so crazy, though I can’t say why
Keep on your stockings for a while
Some kind of magic in the way you’re lying there…
Amidst all of the experimentation and sometimes furious dissonance that Animal Collective has to offer, probably about the last thing you’d expect at this point is a dreamy love song that takes its melodic cues from The Beach Boys. But that’s exactly what they’ve got in this ode to a woman who apparently looks her sexiest wearing the color blue, and Panda Bear is at his most cuddly when he asks her to linger just a little bit longer and let him admire her soft curls and her sexy stockings and whatever else it is that he likes about her. It almost feels like this song’s driven by an electronic approximation of a toy piano, if that makes any sense. The moments where the dual vocal harmonies slip into falsetto are just too glorious for words. There’s a strange, hazy undercurrent to it all just to remind you that these guys never completely sell out to the conventional pop song. But I like that about it – it honors the timeless tradition of a beautifully simple melodic pop song while still striving to take it off the beaten path.
7. Guys Eyes
I want to do just what my body needs to
If I could just hold all the thoughts in my head, and just keep them for you
I want to show to my girl that I need her
If I could just purge all the urges that I have, and keep them for you…
Here’s where the album hits a bit of a weak spot for me, with a track that has to contend with “In the Flowers” for the distiction of being my least favorite Animal Collective song thus far. (I’ve heard that there are much longer, drawn out, and more bizarre tracks on their older albums, so perhaps I should count my blessings.) It’s actually pretty agreeable to start off with, as one guy sings the repeating line “I really want to do just what my body wants to” while the other overlays his own lyrics on top of it, and it’s a “mad genius” sort of moment as the ear is distracted, not sure which voice to follow, but there’s a lot of satisfaction in the way that the two melodies chase each other around. Whatever charm is built up here is rapidly undone, though, by the group’s need to get tediously repetitive in between verses as they repeat the line “Need her, need her” about eleventy hundred times while the beat clicks and claks around and the music generally goes nowhere. This happens again later with another repetitive line sung over and over: “What I want, what I want.” It’s weird – you can take a full-bodies, catchy chorus like that of “My Girls” and repeat it a good eight times (which that song seems to do), and I don’t get bored with it, but repeat a much shorter fragment over roughly the same interval of time, and I find myself lunging for the “skip” button. There’s a fine line between emphasis and redundancy, I guess.
She’s too good to share our favorite things
I’ll keep an open mind if you let me in
Don’t let your temper rise, don’t get a bitter face
Try not to judge me on my kind of taste
And don’t go changing clothes when they don’t like yours…
Here the band challenges my sense of taste while asking me if I can appreciate the subtlety of other people’s tastes. Ah, the old “Bulletproof against critics” trick! Actually, it’s one of the more ordinary songs on the album, just kind of clicking and clacking its way along while the synthesizers squiggle all over it (another favorite trick often employed by The Fiery Furnaces), not really doing much to break out of its basic melodic mold as it asks us over and over, “Am I really all the things that are outside of me?” There’s an entire philosphical discourse that could probably be written about just that one line, but I’m too eager to get to the next song, which is much more dynamic and exciting, so I’ll just accept that we have different tastes and move on.
9. Lion in a Coma
Sometimes the sun will shine, yes I am just feelin’ fine
Sometimes I’m not aware where I am or why I care
Sometimes I’m well-to-do, but I don’t know what to do
Sometimes I don’t agree with my thoughts on being free…
For a lot of folks, it’s going to be hard to top the exultant pleasure of “My Girls”, but this deliciously odd, frenetic track actually manages to eclipse it in my mind. It starts off with the sound of a didgeridoo, of all things, but it sounds like the instrument is being banged around in a washing machine, continually knocking it off of its intended rhythm. And so the song goes, throwing the album’s most insanely off-kilter rhythm at us, with all manner of hi-hat hits and drumstick clacks just to accentuate the wonderfully odd beat. (Ever heard the song “March of the Pigs” by Nine Inch Nails? Yeah, it’s kind of like that, minus the seething rage.) The vocals are similarly hurried, mangling a few words every now and then just to stay with the alternating count of 5 and 4, and it’s amazing that they run through so many sections of the song, even with a chorus that drops out the beat entirely at the end, while never faltering from the established time signature. Strangely enough, it’s also one of the album’s most “singable tracks” – OK, so maybe I don’t have a chance in hell at understanding or memorizing most of what’s being sung here, but at the very least I can pick up, “Lion in a coma, lion in a coma, da da da da da da da da da.” it sounds pretty silly, but I feel like there’s something important being said here that I just haven’t taken the time to interpret. I do appreciate the inherent pun in the song title, though. There are just a myriad of things to love about this one.
10. No More Runnin’
I lock my bones and trip my feet
I told them I’ll find a place to be
Stick like candy in your teeth
Will you lose your faith in me?
Here the band goes into chill mode, with distant plinking piano notes sounding like they’re echoing from drainpipes on a rainy day. In some ways, it’s the antithesis of a song like “Summertime Clothes” – it’s laid back and it’s not trying to overwhelm us with frenetic beats or dissonant sounds. And yet it’s like the winter version of the song in terms of what it’s about – just wanting to settle down and be with someone, and not be in a hurry to run off to somewhere with better weather or more exotic scenery or whatever else. The way that the guys’ vocals bend and sway and lock into harmonic step with each other is almost as beautiful here as it was in “Bluish”. This one might be a tad repetitive too, but it’s not overly long, so I don’t mind.
11. Brother Sport
You got to weigh what he said
To help you shape the way you play
You gotta get rid of the mourning
Sort out the habits of your mind…
The band finishes up with a lively, upbeat, encouraging dance number that sounds like something you’d hear either (a) at a football match somewhere in Latin America (and by “football”, I mean soccer), or (b) while staring at an epileptic seizure-inducing YTMND page with a bunch of dancing cartoon characters on it. It’s fun, but it’s also repetitive to the point of absurdity, with line “Open up your, open up your, open up your throat” forming the backbone of the song, and a long, chirpy, synth happy breakdown in the middle of the song that builds up for well over a minute before finally giving way to the song’s glorious coda. The song appears to be about one brother encouraging another to do his aobsolute best in life (or in a sports match, or whatever) even though “it sucks that daddy’s dumb”. So basically, don’t resign yourself to a mediocre life just because your father’s constant criticism left you with daddy issues. It’s instantly memorable and I have the feeling it’s going to be a fan favorite for many – but I also feel that a minute or two could have been shaved from the song without it losing any of its power to put a happy exclamation point at the end of the album.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
In the Flowers $.50
My Girls $2
Also Frightened $1
Summertime Clothes $1.50
Daily Routine $1
Guys Eyes $.50
Lion in a Coma $2
No More Runnin’ $1
Brother Sport $1
David Portner a.k.a. Avey Tare; Vocals, guitar, samples, keys, percussion
Noah Lennox a.k.a. Panda Bear: Vocals, percussion, samples, guitar
Brian Weitz a.k.a. Geologist: Electronics, samples, vocals
Josh Dibb a.k.a Deakin: Guitar, vocals (currently on hiatus)
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.