September 5, 2012

Test Spins: Animal Collective, Centipede Hz

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In 2009, Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion changed the game for the Baltimore indie group in a lot of ways. Before its release, Animal Collective was a bunch of fringe-pop noisemakers known for its occasional flirtations with flawless songcraft (Feels’ “Purple Bottle,” Strawberry Jam’s “Fireworks” and Sung Tongs’ short-but-sweet “College” are just a few examples) amid more out-there psychedelic experimentation. It was obtuse and likely to challenge convention — a critics’ band through-and-through.

Merriweather changed all of that. Effectively combining the dense orchestrations and vocal harmonies of The Beach Boys’ masterpiece Pet Sounds with their more exploratory sonic production, Merriweather Post Pavilion was a capital-S Statement, loaded with modern anthems like “My Girls,” “Summertime Clothes” and “Brothersport.” It was a record that established the quartet as a genuine force in the music world, and Animal Collective’s post-Merriweather output — the gorgeous Fall Be Kind EP, impressive solo outings from Panda Bear and Avey Tare and even a well-received installation in the MOMA — bore well for them to inherit the mantle of “world’s most important band.” After years of merely being considered experimental, the band was one record away from establishing themselves, instead, as groundbreaking.

Centipede Hz is not that record. It’s undeniably messier; from opener “Moonjock” onward, one gets the feeling that too much is going on. The restraint that characterized Merriweather’s more plaintive moments (“Almost Frightened” and “Bluish,” in particular) is missed. Instead, we are treated to the familiar gurgling synths and Avey Tare vocal freakouts that marked earlier releases. While these stylistic regressions are not altogether unwelcome — after all, many felt that Merriweather’s pop sheen took away Animal Collective’s more captivating tendencies — it’s a mild letdown to be listening to what is merely an expansion of Strawberry Jam’s psych-folk soundscapes rather than a proper sequel to one of the most compelling releases of the 21st century.

All gripes aside, not being groundbreaking does not mean you can’t be good. And for those who tempered their expectations, Centipede Hz is, at points, pretty good. Songs like “Rosie Oh” have melodies that border on being downright goofy but provide the heavy-handed beats with a little much-needed buoyancy. While “Applesauce” and the Deakin-sung “Wide-Eyed” are stretched-out beyond their welcome, lead single “Today’s Supernatural” is a chaotic, joyful track that climbs to a satisfying climax during its syncopated chorus (complete with lilting vocals from the inimitable Avey Tare). It even admits that “sometimes you gotta get mad,” an altogether new message from the typically cheerful goofballs. There are other highlights: “Monkey Riches” expertly layers sound on until the point of implosion, before returning to its glitchy ostinato. “Pulleys” avoids the confrontational approach of the other songs by bubbling into existence rather than crashing. Unfortunately, it’s the rare moments that either stray from Centipede Hz’s beaten path or effectively utilize the jittery wall-of-sound approach that end up standing out from the rest of the record.

Lots of people who listen to Animal Collective for the first time joke that you must need to take drugs to get it. It’s experimental and expansive in a way that the Grateful Dead were, so it’s an expected and clichéd joke. But in a live setting, Animal Collective has definitely taken after the jam band legends, extending songs well into the tens of minutes and embarking on sonic adventures that, from time-to-time, are known to meander and appeal most to the crowd’s less, ahem, inhibited participants. Centipede Hz comes off as just that: extended jams drawn out far past their welcome. While Animal Collective gets by on its own compositional know-how enough to put out something that bears listening to, it all feels very haphazard and unedited. With no gooey pop crossover to get excited about and not very much new sonic ground being broken, Centipede Hz underwhelms.

Original Author: James Rainis