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Animal Collective’s “Merriweather Post Pavilion”

April 17, 2009
(Domino; 2009)

(Domino; 2009)

The title of Animal Collective’s new album, Merriweather Post Pavilion, is an homage to a concert venue just off I-95 in Columbia, Maryland, a short drive from the band’s childhood home of Baltimore. This spacious outdoor amphitheater, which holds close to twenty-thousand, was built in 1967 as a summer home for the National Symphony Orchestra, though it later became famous for hosting big name rock acts. The Kinks and Jackson Brown both made seminal live recordings here; and it was here that, in 1969, Led Zeppelin and The Who shared their first, and last, bill.

It is somewhat ironic that Animal Collective would name an album after an expansive outdoor auditorium situated on forty acres of forest. Since their inception in the late nineties, the band has rarely performed at venues with a capacity of over a thousand. Most often, these have been urban night clubs, the kind where a few hundred fans stand shoulder-to-shoulder in a  small room with poor lighting and poorer air-circulation, where the atmosphere is dominated by stiflingly-close conversations and the resounding smells of beer, smoke, and sweat.

Animal Collective’s music, however, rarely sounds small, enclosed, or confined; in fact it lunges headlong in the opposite direction. Nor do their songs draw energy from the angular, metallic environs of urban life. While each new Animal Collective album seems to step out in a different direction, their studio recordings tend to share certain themes: sprawling, earthy harmonics; primitive rhythms and percussion; vocals that sound almost feral and range from long chants to chirps, squawks, and growls; dense thickets of hard-to-identify noises that could be branches breaking underfoot, or leaves colliding in heavy wind. In this sense, the amphitheater, surrounded as it is by grassy expanses in a park called Symphony Woods, is an apt title for an Animal Collective release.

Merriweather is Animal Collective’s eighth full length album, if you include their earliest recordings, which were released under various groupings of two names, Avey Tare and Panda Bear (the aliases of David Portner and Noah Lennox, the band’s two lead singers). It follows the band’s two most critically-acclaimed albums, Strawberry Jam (released in 2007) and Person Pitch (Panda Bear’s third solo album, also released in 2007). Though critical praise has attended Animal Collective since their earliest releases, a popular breakthrough didn’t come until their fifth album, Feels (2005). The enthusiasm they now elicit among both groups can be compared to a band like Radiohead, whose releases tend to generate tidal waves of buzz on fansites and music review outlets.

The band's members: Deakin, Avey Tare, Panda Bear, Geologist

The band's members: Deakin, Avey Tare, Panda Bear, Geologist

Animal Collective, like Radiohead, is considered by many to be at the forefront of contemporary rock music. Yet the two band’s couldn’t have more dissimilar beginnings. Radiohead, like Talk Talk and Brian Eno before them, started out making songs with figurative structures, then later pushed those conventions toward the abstract, deconstructing their earlier definitions of pop and reconfiguring the pieces in impressive shapes. This template, however, doesn’t fit Animal Collective, who began with fragmented songs often absent of distinct verses, choruses, or musical refrains. Their early albums hid stunning moments of melodic clarity inside dissonant bits of noise and warped singing that sometimes towed the line between interesting and ingratiating. On Here Comes the Indian (2003), for instance, weird yelps and heavily manipulated vocals collided with manic percussion and a host of creepy sounds, evidencing a band far more frightening than any of the “freak-folk” outfits with whom they were being associated (such as Devendra Banhardt).

The hype surrounding freak-folk soon dwindled like campfire ashes, and Animal Collective went on to forge their bizarre ideas into beautiful recordings (beginning with Sung Tongs in 2004) that featured warm, textured melodies, gleeful harmonies, wild hand-drumming, and gleaming West-African guitar swells. Merriweather joins these distinctive sounds to most of the band’s other sonic fascinations (many of which seem, at least on paper, like they shouldn’t share track space) to create deft, fully-realized songs. It is remarkable that a band with so many disparate, unwieldy ideas could focus them all into a record that feels as seamless, consummate, and listenable as this LP. From the intuitive vocal harmonies (which are now worthy of the frequent Beach Boys comparisons they receive) to the sure-footed rhythm section, Merriweather offers Animal Collective’s clearest rewards with a consistency unprecedented for this band.

It’s hard to imagine another album matching the sun-drenched, maritime panorama of Person Pitch, and Merriweather doesn’t try. It foregoes the elusive vistas in favor of close-up views that feel present and touchable. If Person Pitch’s “Comfy in Nautica” captured hazy pastel skies, blue-green seas and golden coasts with a meandering wide-angle lens, Merriweather’s “Bluish” wraps a similar seaside dream in right-there bass lines and tangible hooks. “Bros,” the centerpiece of Person Pitch, sounded like someone had grabbed recording equipment and snuck behind the curtain hiding Brian Wilson’s soul. “My Girls,” one of Merriweather’s best tracks, fits that soul to a muscular, quickly-paced rhythm that keeps it from floating off into an out-of-body state.

“My Girls” is one of Animal Collective’s finest moments to date. Expertly-paced and wisely-restrained, it begs to be played again and again with the windows down and the volume way up. The song kicks off with an overlapped mix of breezy guitar strums and what sound like hyper-paced harp plucks. The vocal harmonies enter in cascade-form, hinting at the delicious melody ahead. The bridge arrives at the three minute mark, just as the bass breaks into a stutter-step. Then comes the addictive chorus line: “I don’t mean to seem like I care about material things/ like social stats,” sings Panda Bear, “I  just want four walls and adobe slats/ for my girls.” Avey Tare follows this with an affectionate howl of approval. Like most of the songs on Merriweather, “My Girls” builds toward an indelible hook that binds all the shining pieces together into a single pill– bite-sized, yet all the more potent for going down so easily.

“Summertime Clothes” begins with the kind of glitchy beat that drove some of Strawberry Jam’s edgier tracks, such as “Peacebone” (imagine a dance party thrown by water-damaged circuit panels moving in techno time). On Strawberry Jam, such beats fueled the apocalyptic, “meet me after the whirlwind” catharsis of Avey Tare‘s shrill, rangy vocals. Here, those beats are tempered by comelier singing, steadier bass thumps, and that inviting, womb-return atmosphere last heard on Person Pitch.

“Also Frightened” and “Guys Eyes” revive the primal chanting and wild drum-circle beats that have long been a staple for this band. Yet, in each song, the vocals and percussion are soon swallowed up into a deep swath of low-pitched bleats, ambient drones, and various other buzzes and whirs. This strange but pleasing admixture is one example of how Animal Collective masterfully blends organic and inorganic sounds, creating music with sonic materials as seemingly incompatible as leaf storms and laser beams, seawater drops and drum machines.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Justin permalink
    April 19, 2009 7:45 pm

    This is a wonderful post, Vince. Thanks.

  2. February 25, 2010 2:06 pm

    Hey very nice blog!!….I’m an instant fan, I have bookmarked you and I’ll be checking back on a regular….See ya 🙂

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