September 20, 2007

Record Review: Animal Collective

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In the Grimm fairy tale, The Town Musicians of Bremen, a gaggle of domesticated animals leave their masters in pursuit of freedom. Along the way, they are mistaken for monsters by strangers who cannot comprehend their music-playing ability. In the end, the pipers in the tale march confidently into the town of Bremen, triumphantly announcing their arrival.
Animal Collective has long been on the music scene, but we might as well treat their latest LP, Strawberry Jam, as their own ecstatic entrance. While their previous LPs (Feels and Sung Tongs) were inarguably impressive, they bear the mark of a band trying to define and understand its own sound.
Frankly, Sung Tongs plays like promising acoustic demos in comparison to Strawberry Jam.
Likewise, Feels capitalizes on the vocal looping pattern cornerstone to Sung Tongs in addition to adding a few extra electronic flourishes, but sometimes results in disjointed cacophony.
The third LP really is a charm for Animal Collective. It seems that Strawberry Jam utilizes all that is unique to their sound: syncopated beats, electronic distortions and Avey Tare’s distinctive sense of registry — resulting in a more polished, bombastic and cohesive record than ever before.
Strawberry Jam is more refined than their past records, both sonically and lyrically. Most interesting is their further developed treatment of mood this time around.
The opening track, “Peacebone,” reminds me a little of the boat ride in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: underneath the superficial sweetness, there waits a hallucinatory darkness ready to burst forth.
“Peacebone” begins innocently enough with the steady beat of a bass drum and major tonality, but the layering of Avey Tare’s nonsensical lyrics about “jugular veins in juggler girls supposedly leaking the most interesting colors” and the pseudo-carnival melody in the background — which becomes more chilling as it is punctuated by sporadic shouts — creates an unsettling mood for the rest of the record.
That said, this unsettledness is not altogether unpleasant — Animal Collective’s musicianship is so tight and dynamic that despite the sometime off-putting aura, the whole record plays as smoothly as a children’s fairy tale.
The second and third tracks — “Unsolved Mysteries” and “Chores” — meld nicely into one another, as they both maintain the tinny, major-key melodies of carnival rides throughout.
The true standout tracks of the album lay square in the middle: “For Reverend Green” followed by “Fireworks.” The churning beat of “Reverend Green” builds slowly and carries through to the end of the track, where Avey Tare repeatedly screams, “For Reverend Green!”
“Fireworks” gives the listener’s ears a break and begins again on a similar slow, churning ascent as its snare drum and human chorus (together sounding remarkably similar to exploding roman candles) crescendo to Avey Tare’s disillusioned refrain: “I’m only all I see sometimes.”
Despite strength in almost all of its tracks, the album loses a bit of its characteristic quixotic mood with the track “#1,” which is only creepy, not ironic-creepy, as is the rest of the record.
It uses a repetitive chant and electronic vocal distortion to lend an eerie feel to a mostly uninspiring result. Still, its arguable monotony allows the final triumvirate of tracks — “Winter Wonder Land,” “Cuckoo,” and “Derek” — to finish this remarkable album off soundly.
In Strawberry Jam’s ironic-creepy fashion, “Derek” ends the album on fitting note: the melody is buoyant and ebullient, although the lyrics relate a story about a mistreated dog, presumably named Derek.
So what does Animal Collective have to say about themselves on Strawberry Jam? Just as the jolly, music-playing animals of Bremen are mistaken for monsters, so too could Animal Collective, since they also remain unrecognizable. As Avey Tare sings on “For Reverend Green,” “From one moment to the next/ Reading in the papers to know what’s best/ Sometimes you don’t know yourself.”
Despite confused self-discovery, their latest treatments of the sonic and lyrical — specifically in their blurring of the whimsical and the eerie — signal a polished, assured maturity in their sound, resulting in their finest album to date.