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Animal Collective - Strawberry Jam Print E-mail
Tuesday, 01 January 2008
ImageIt may be treacherous to use one event as a definitive example of what a band stands for, but Animal Collective’s recent appearance on Late Night with Conan O’Brien is quite emblematic of their staunchly idiosyncratic approach to self-promotion. With their eighth album, Strawberry Jam, not even a month old and the first single from it, “Peacebone,” garnering raves around the world, they chose to use their first nationally-televised performance as an opportunity to perform “#1,” arguably their new album’s least marketable track. Built-out cascading synth tones, ethereal chants and viscously manipulated spoken lyrics, it’s a song with no real hook, one that must have baffled the few million viewers who tuned in expecting another scruffy guitar-pop band. But Animal Collective has never been a scruffy guitar-pop band, and after seven years of creative machinations, they show no signs of making any concessions to capitalize on their growing audience. If you’re going to like their music, you’re going to like it on their terms.

That Animal Collective would choose to perform a song that has little chance of helping them sell albums is no real surprise, as the band has never adhered to standard promotional strategies, often using live shows to explore their unreleased material and encouraging file sharing of their already-released albums. Formed by childhood friends from Baltimore, sharing a love of the most noisy and experimental pop forms, the quartet has grown increasingly approachable over the years, successfully integrating an astoundingly imaginative melodic aesthetic into their staunchly unconventional arrangements. Still pop songs, they are chopped into odd tempos, with melodies bending at odd intervals and the instrumentation often deconstructed into dazzling rhythmic oscillations over which the vocals coo and yelp. Everything in the mix serves the song, but nothing seems particularly tied together, as if each track evolved in a piecemeal fashion where any one element could fall out and not dramatically change the essence of the track. And while the noisy meditations and sound experiments of the past are largely gone, they’ve maintained their remarkable ability to subvert pop song structures without losing their core ethic. With Strawberry Jam, they’ve made their most immediate release yet.
Cleaning up and brightening the textures they used on 2005’s Feels, the band carries over much of that album’s visceral drive and giddy sprawl, here replacing many of the guitars and acoustic textures with manipulated keyboards, frantic rhythmic rudiments and computerized sound effects. But where previous albums have all taken quite a few listens to fully digest, Strawberry Jam storms out of the gates with tracks that are no less complex but appreciably more immediate.

With main songwriters Avey Tare (David Portner) and Panda Bear (Noah Lennox) having released albums under their own names this year, there seems to be no shortage of ideas flowing out of the Animal Collective camp. As their most experimental inclinations were indulged on those albums, here they sound exceptionally focused, honing their sprawl around an unwinding (and wound up) vocal motif while the arrangements build and collapse around it. And yet the formula never becomes formulaic, as the textures and melodies are so ingenious that the band never repeats themselves over the album’s 43 minutes and nine tracks.

Though both songwriters bring forth some of their best material, Tare dominates the set, singing lead on most of the tracks and using his staircase-jumping vocal tones to carry the momentum of the album’s energetic first half. The aforementioned “Peacebone” is the best example of Tare’s exceptionally sharp instincts as a pop tunesmith, as the track spirals from a sparkling keyboard riff through five minutes of monster shrieks, sing-along hooks and falsetto climaxes. Like Brian Wilson updated for the era of avant-pop, it’s a breathtaking example of how much unexplored territory remains in the pop format, taking the conventions of the form and turning them inside out with tribal beats and gurgling synths. Even better is “For Reverend Green,” a track that evolves through layers of tinkling keyboards, muted fuzz guitar bleats and crashing cymbals, the whole morass swirling around Tare’s trilling croon and hoarse-throated screams. All of that leads up to the album’s most compelling sound experiment, with the piano balladry of “Cuckoo Cuckoo” becoming overgrown with drum rolls and frantic bursts of noise, a perfect amalgam of their plaintively ethereal and viciously cathartic sides.

Panda Bear may have a smaller piece of the songwriting pie, largely using his innocent and vulnerable backing vocals to add layers of countermelodies, but he makes the most of fleeting moments. Most striking is the gorgeously shuffling “Derek,” a childlike narrative wrapped in clapping and stomping rhythms that sounds like a modern update of the Who’s “Happy Jack.” Similarly, the Caribbean-tinged “Chores” gallops along with screeching electronics and swirling background croons before wandering down a more meditative melodic side road. That said, Panda Bear’s ability to create austere sound sculptures and pristine drones is conspicuously absent, ultimately throwing off the balance of an album that would have been near-perfect with just a few more textural shifts.

All in all, the songs of Strawberry Jam aren’t likely to turn up on Top 40 radio any time soon, but it’s possible that there will be no more inventive pop songs written this year. Like Deerhoof, Menomena, and Of Montreal, Animal Collective are expanding the definitions of what can be considered viable pop music. Unlike those bands, however, they seem to have little obvious connection to the pop bands that came before them and little interest in jumping through the hoops necessary to move their music to a higher level of visibility. And while they’re far easier to comprehend than they were five years ago, they’re still led by the same innate sense of direction, and they’re not going to do anything to help you follow them.

With cheap and often distorted instruments presented with comparably bright textures, Strawberry Jam sound crisper and more visceral than any previous Animal Collective release. With guitars that sound like keyboards, keyboards that sound like drums, and drums that sound like garbage cans, fidelity isn’t a huge concern, but the mix is equally clear and cluttered. In fact, so many elements are bleating and creaking in the mix that high-end equipment helps differentiate exactly what is going on, though it’s certainly not necessary to appreciate the giddy sprawl.

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