Artist: Animal Collective
Album: Painting With
In Brief: While the hyperactive vocals and wall-of-sound approach can get exhausting over 12 tracks, there’s a certain economy to hitting listeners with a solid beat and a hook without belaboring the point, and I find this appealing. It’s no Merriweather Post Pavilion, but this is a way easier record to get into than the overwrought Centipede Hz.
It can be fun when an artist known for being wildly experimental, or even a bit difficult, decides to make what, in their minds at least, constitutes a straight-up pop album. While sometimes the result of this can be sadly pedestrian, just as often it can streamline a band’s sound and keep them from overthinking too many aspects of the production. It’s an interesting exercise even if I wouldn’t necessarily want a band to put that sort of a limiter on all of their records going forward. Animal Collective has essentially given us their version of such an album on Painting With, and while one might argue that their highly regarded 2009 effort Merriweather Post Pavilion already had some incredibly solid, pop-oriented singles, there were some stretched-out, ambient experiments on that record as well, and they were consciously trying to avoid that sort of thing here, instead loading the album up with almost nothing but upbeat, hook-driven compositions, while retaining their penchant for idiosyncratic electronic arrangements and oddball vocal samples. Of course there are pros and cons to that approach, but for the most part I’d say it works quite well.
Longtime fans of Animal Collective may of course have a different opinion here. I’ll probably always seem like a Johnny-come-lately by comparison, due to not getting on board until Merriweather, but I liked some of that record’s more ambient tracks as well as the much spacier Fall Be Kind EP released in its wake, so it’s not like I’m only into this band for one thing. Still, I can’t count myself among this band’s hardcore following because I emphatically did not like their 2012 follow-up Centipede Hz. A few tracks were interesting, but for the most part I just found that record to be a tedious mess, where they were so preoccupied with bleeding the songs into each other and subverting whatever hooks or grooves most of them had that it just wasn’t worth the effort it took to dig for the truly memorable bits. It seemed like that one was a tough sell even for fans of their earlier work, but I don’t know, every Animal Collective release is so different from the previous one that virtually nobody who liked one is guaranteed to like the next. Painting With, at the very least, ought to bring in a wider listener base than Centipede, perhaps bringing back lapsed fans like me who found Merriweather to be more their speed.
If there’s an Achilles heel present in their approach on this new one, it’s that a lot of the tracks can bleed together simply by virtue of so many of them having similar tempos and vocal approaches. Avey Tare and Panda Bear are unique in the vocal department, in the sense that they trade vocals back and forth so quickly that you often can’t tell (on this record at least) which songs originated with which songwriter. That befits their status as a collective (with third member Geologist back in the saddle after his absence from Centipede, and Deakin sitting out this turn after participating on that one), but it can be mildly headache-inducing as their sampled and re-sampled vocals bounce back and forth off of each other, making them come across as hyperactive children more often than not. Even though the hooks are often straightforward, this doesn’t always make it an “easy” listen, as it takes some effort to work out what’s being said on most of these tracks, and the staccato effect of a lot of the vocals and electronic melodies can be taxing if you’re not 100% in the mood for it. After a while, the individual personality of several songs does begin to shine through, and a few favorites begin to stand out for me beyond the obvious big single at the front of the record. It probably won’t be my favorite thing released in 2016 when all is said and done, but the year’s kind of gotten off to a slow start for me in terms of new releases that I’m really invested in, so the fact that this one gets a lot of repeat plays from me says that they’ve got to be doing more things right than wrong.
There’s a lot to love about the project’s lead single. It’s easily the catchiest thing they’ve done since the monolithic “My Girls”. It’s got a bumpy, sorta-tribal rhythm (think “Summertime Clothes”, but more aggressive), manic, electronic squiggles running up and down the scale, and a chorus that will have you singing, “Flori, Flori, Flori, Flori, Florida! Flori-dada! Flori-dada!” over and over in your head for weeks. (Oh yeah, and they sample the classic surf track “Wipeout”, which I just now found out is by The Surfaris, NOT The Beach Boys.) And it’s about the weird stuff that only happens in Florida – or rather, our perception that Florida is an easy target for jokes based on its reputation as a weirdness magnet. That’s the stated intention of the song, at least. You’ll find out pretty quickly that it’s almost impossible to understand most of the rest of the lyrics as Avey and Panda bounce back and forth off of each other almost non-stop, so consider this one a litmus test – if you like what you’re hearing here, you can probably stomach most of the album. If you find this annoying, BAIL OUT NOW.
2. Hocus Pocus
Despite how immediately nearly every track on this record hits you with a bumping beat and some sort of a catchy melody, I’m kind of surprised that it’s track two that seems to take the longest to get going. The beat’s there right away, as well as a snippet from a traffic report informing us, “If you’re out and about on the freeways, no… dinosaurs to worry about.” (Well, that’s a load off my mind, because all it takes is one T-Rex and suddenly the 405 is a parking lot!) The vocals actually take a while to get started, and the song’s melody twists and turns enough that I don’t realize right away when they’ve switched from verse to chorus. Messing with the expected song structure isn’t a terrible thing, but I have to be honest and say that for all of the fun sounds on display here, I don’t tend to remember much about this song once it’s over. “Wander from the cynical/Take a look at this atypical” would certainly be a quotable lyric, if I could even tell that’s what they were singing in the first place. That’s how it is with a lot of this album, so if you notice I don’t talk as much about lyrics here as I normally do, that would be why.
The nice thing about “Hocus Pocus” is that it sets things up perfectly for its Siamese twin song, which has a similar staccato rhythm that flows seamlessly out of the previous track. This one does its fair share of obscuring vocals as well (especially with the creepy pitch-shifted spoken word bit at the beginning), but the rather silly chorus hook, “My feet can’t cross the parking lot/The parking lot is way too hot” comes through loud and clear. There’s something appealing in the hypnotic way that the melody of this song worms its way into my brain over time. The song appears to be an ode to tall buildings over time, subverting the usual commentary a lot of songwriters make about wanting to get away from the city and out into nature and admitting that they actually really like those huge, imposing towers of glass and steel. (And a lot of other stuff that I can’t even begin to understand.)
4. Lying in the Grass
My mind has determined that the title of this one is “The Gummy Bear Song”. I can’t help it. I interpret the weird vocal sample at the beginning as saying “gum-my-bear-ah-gum-my-bear” over and over, and it just sticks. There are a lot of fun little quirks to this song – the big buzzing sound of synth bass that provides its main hook, the little bits of off-key trumpet that make it sound like they accidentally wandered into one of Cake‘s recording sessions, and an overall happy-go-skippy sort of mood and melody that contrast with lyrics that seem concerned with truths that are delibarately concerned. With the two guys trading off literally every other syllable for much of this song, I can’t say I’m all that invested in exploring every nuance of lyrical meaning here, but it’s a fun listen.
5. The Burglars
The next three songs are all under three minutes long and fly by in rapid succession. Thankfully there’s a lot about this one that’s memorable despite the warp speed nature of it. The motor-mouthed lyrics thankfully don’t feature as much back and forth between the two guys, with one simply harmonizing here and there, so while I still can’t tell you the half of what’s being said without going online to read it, at least enough of it’s clear to make sure I understand that it’s a warning about burglars sneaking up and taking whatever you think is guaranteed in life when you least expect it. (The way they pronounce “bur-gu-lars” as a three-syllable word amuses me for some reason – the rhythm of the song would be totally thrown off if they didn’t do this.) At times the rapid-fire nature of this one reminds me of “Lion in a Coma” – easily my favorite Animal Collective track out of the limited amount of their stuff I’ve explored thus far – though without the off-kilter time signature. It’s fun for so many reasons, and I’m actually impressed at how many lyrics they manage to pack into such a short song, even if I’ll never understand most of ’em.
6. Natural Selection
So there’s another song here that I keep forgetting about, and I can’t really fault the band for that since they’ve been mostly successful with their upbeat, hit-’em-hard-and-get-the-hell-out approach thus far, but this one just never stands out to me despite it seeming like the band wanted it to be every bit as grabby and addictive as the song right before it. I remember bits of stuttering vocals in the chorus, and more of a direct vocal approach that makes the lyrics a little easier to understand, though there’s nothing beyond the “sneaky ways” hook that really grabs my attention. It’s like the one energetic child who acts like the other children around him that actually have some sort of hyperactivity disorder, but he really doesn’t, so he’s just trying to fit in.
7. Bagels in Kiev
When American bands write songs about Communist Russia and they have to name a city, Moscow seems to get all the attention. Maybe Leningrad gets a mention if you’re lucky. The rest of the Soviet Union may as well have not existed – when’s the last time you heard a song about life in Vilnius, or Minsk, or Bishkek? Animal Collective at least makes sure the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, gets a mention here, in what might be a political song, or what might be an admission that since they weren’t around to watch the rise and fall of the Iron Curtain, they can’t necessarily comment on the various conflicts happening in that part of the globe. “I was’t there when Moses parted the sea, I wasn’t there with your grandpa back in Kiev,” they confess in the chorus. Once again, the lyrics fly by pretty quickly, but I feel like this is one of the easier songs to understand what’s being sung and to hum it back to myself later. I like the rapid blastbeats and how they contrast with the otherwise easygoing nature of the song. This one’s a bit of a break in all the chaos despite keeping things up-tempo, and it really stands out as a result.
8. On Delay
Say the title of this one out loud, and you’ll sound like Speedy Gonzalez, which is kind of ironic, since the Spanish phrase “Andale” basically means “Come on” or “Hurry up”, and delaying something would be the exact opposite of that. It’s clever wordplay, if they’re doing it intentionally. Far as I can tell, the kind of “delay” they’re actually singing about here is a sonic delay, like the echo you get when using a delay pedal. Judging from the song’s opening lyric, “I hear it doubly clear”, and the later hook “And it was nice/it happened twice”, they have a major fetish for the repetition and echoing of sounds, because the song seems to be all about their love for that effect. A lot of the lyrics are about doing things twice or seeing/hearing things that are reflected back at them. If there’s a deeper meaning, it’s lost on me. I love the absolutely huge synth bass that looms over the song like a storm cloud, but melodically and rhythmically, it never really stands out to me for any reason other than the unusual subject matter.
9. Spilling Guts
I kind of found this short little song to be annoying at first, so I’m a bit surprised that I ended up coming to like it later on. It’s the shortest thing on the album at less than two minutes, which is probably a good thing because everything is staccato here – the rhythm comes in abrupt little blasts, the synths follow suit, and the two vocalists are slightly delayed from each other, giving the song a claustrophobic echo effect. Something this busy and repetitive could get old after more than a few minutes, so it’s good that they say only what they feel they need to say here and then get out with minimal rehashing of the same verse melody and no real chorus to speak of. Despite the jarring sound of it, it’s actually quite catchy, so I think it works well as a quirky intro to the following song.
10. Summing the Wretch
Speaking of things that people might find annoying, imagine if singers had hype men like rappers do. Now imagine that the hype man’s job was simply to echo every note sung in the background on a split-second delay. Now finally, imagine that this was being done to a nursery rhyme-like melody that you could almost sing your ABC’s to. That’s basically this song. Of course that doesn’t to justice to all of the clicking and whirring and interesting electronic sounds buzzing about as this childlike melody plays out, and I’ll give credit where it’s due – switching out of 4/4 to a syncopated 6/8 helps the song to stand out for the same reason that “FloriDada” did. But since I doubt anybody has a clue what is going on here lyrically, or can even make out the vast majority of the words, obviously this song isn’t to get as much attention as that one, at least not for positive reasons. Despite my complaints, I don’t hate it. It’s superficially enjoyable, but at this point I am getting a bit weary of straining to understand a lot of the words being sung on this album.
11. Golden Gal
Even if you’ve gotten lost in the muddle of weird sounds to the point where you’ve long since stopped paying attention to which track you’re on, you’ll still remember this one quite distinctly. I almost guarantee it, because it’s basically about the sitcom Golden Girls and it actually goes to far as to sample a few audio clips from the show. This basically started as Avey Tare’s attempt to comment on gender roles, as filtered through the show’s lens of letting older woman talk freely about their sex lives and intellectual pursuits and do other things perceived as “unladylike” at the time when it first aired, and the effect this had on his sister’s perception of herself. The lyrics seem to involve him cautioning himself, as a man, not to speak out of turn on women’s issues or try to force them into a box where they’re expected to behave stereotypically. Something like this. It’s lighthearted and genuinely fun, and I love the funky beat and the excited “Golden Gal!” hook that shows up near the end of the song, giving us a little something to sing along with even though the rest of the song might be too wordy for anything quotable to easily come to mind later on. (It’s a pity that three of the four Golden Girls didn’t live to hear this one. I have the feeling Betty White will be down with it, though.)
This track’s here to cool things down at the end up the album, and due to its more relaxed tempo and its not having as strong of a melodic hook as the others (something I hate to be so dependent on, but they’re the ones who tried to make an immediate pop album, so it seems like a fair expectation, doesn’t it?), it ends up being the least memorable thing on the entire record for me. I like the clicking and whirring machine sounds and the slap bass sound that seems to jump right out of the mix at me, but mentally I’m starting to check out at this point. There’s something that Avey is trying to say about the creative process and his love/hate relationships here, but since the lyrics are a bit of a disjointed series of one-liners as far as I can tell (not jokes, but just in the sense that they don’t feel like a continuous stream of thought), it’s hard for me to get a whole lot out of it. On a record like this, you’d expect more of a sprint to the finish like like “Brothersport” was on Merriweather Post Pavilion, so this is a bit disappointing by comparison.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Hocus Pocus $.75
Lying in the Grass $1.25
The Burglars $1.50
Natural Selection $.75
Bagels in Kiev $1.50
On Delay $.50
Spilling Guts $1
Summing the Wretch $1
Golden Gal $1.50
Noah Lennox (aka Panda Bear): Vocals, drums, percussion, samples, synthesizer, electronics, guitar
David Portner (aka Avey Tare): Vocals, guitar, synthesizer, sequencer, keys, piano, percussion, autoharp
Brian Weitz (aka Geologist): Electronics, samples, minidiscs, vocals, synthesizer, piano, percussion
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: