Animal Sounds: The Wild World of Animal Collective
In the middle of a Bel Air mansion’s living room stands a grand piano amidst a massive sandbox.
In another room, a great Arabian tent has been erected. Preparing to record a song about the elements, session musicians dutifully don firemen helmets at the express request of their eccentric maestro. The year is 1966, and pop wunderkind Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys is overseeing the recording of his only-recently released masterpiece, SMiLE.
Smash cut to 2016, where Animal Collective are on location at Los Angeles’ esteemed EastWest Studios, famed for recording such acts as Michael Jackson, Frank Sinatra and the Beach Boys.
Naturally, there’s a twist: over the course of recording Painting With, the indie mainstay’s highly-anticipated new album, Animal Collective did some interior redecorating of their own.
Dim lighting, countless candles, and a kiddy pool were involved as endless video projections of dinosaurs sauntered across the studio’s walls in the name of cultivating a “prehistoric” atmosphere essential to their upcoming record. Fifty years after the aforementioned SMiLE sessions, this strange scene feels uncannily like a sequel.
But then again, Animal Collective have long followed in the footsteps of giants, time and time again exhibiting their expert ability to not only recall the past but to innovate upon it with a genuine originality that continues to propel their work into the future. In a lot of ways, Animal Collective is the kind of band a young Brian Wilson would have flourished in.
Animal Collective was born out of Baltimore, Maryland in 1999, founded on childhood friendships that would ultimately evolve into the deep and fruitful working relationships listeners benefit from today.
“I feel very much like the space I’ve created with these guys as friends came out of high school,” said founding member Deakin in a 2005 interview with The Wire. Describing the band’s guiding mentality, he continues, “it’s also about trying to figure out a way to continue the total playful imagination you had when you were five years old. Comparing it to how you feel as an adult, I equate it to almost like being high all the time. Music is the most powerful means I have to find that again.”
But this sentiment should come as no surprise to longtime fans, or even to the casual listener. Consisting on the whole of Avey Tare (David Portner), Panda Bear (Noah Lennox), Deakin (Josh Dibb) and Geologist (Brian Weitz), Animal Collective’s joyful, even naïve, disposition proves aurally palpable much of the time.
That said, while their work often emotionally embodies the innocence associated with childhood, ripe with the natural purity of a high alpine stream, sonically speaking, their music conjures the fantastical impurities associated with the experimental and the psychedelic, like pouring gasoline into the very same stream and watching the colorful kaleidoscopic swirl before you.
This is all to say that while Animal Collective may be very much unpasteurized in approach, the way they express themselves on recordings is delightfully unrestrained and wildly experimental.
As is true of the amorphous oily rainbow yielded when water and gasoline interact, the two components of their music — the emotional sentiment and the aural expression of that emotion — do not exactly mix, but rather manage to shimmer brilliantly, yet separately, together.
In 2000, Avey Tare and Panda Bear gave the world its first taste of Animal Collective’s eclectic nature with their commanding debut, Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished.
This whirling, buzzing, electronic introduction summons whimsical pastoral scenes, a lá Willy Wonka’s candy greenhouse, while bubbling with sinister undertones and whispering reminders of what happens to boys and girls who misbehave en route to the great glass elevator. And it immediately put the neo-psychedelic breakouts on the map for critics, earning Animal Collective high praise and welcome comparisons to David Bowie and The Beatles.
It is important to note, for the benefit of those new to Animal Collective, that with the exception of Avey Tare and Panda Bear, not all four founding members participate on every release, opting to focus on other projects at times.
Following their debut, Animal Collective would put out a handful of strong albums, coming closer, with each subsequent release, to realizing the inherent, unbridled greatness ultimately achieved on 2007’s Strawberry Jam and 2009’s iconic Merriweather Post Pavilion.
But to be clear, passing over the five full-length records released between Spirit They’re Gone and Strawberry Jam would be a grave aesthetic error verging on catastrophe. These records remain essential for anyone intent on appreciating the spectrum of gifts this landmark band has to offer, as well as for those looking to gather just how far they’ve come.
Take, for instance, 2003’s Campfire Songs, a wistful, rural affair indebted to a mix of light psychedelia and good ol’ rocking-chair Americana.
Though the lyrics are for the most part incomprehensible, one instinctively knows that this is music made to catch fireflies to, or otherwise to enjoy in the midst of a torrential rainstorm from the safety of your creaking front porch.
Later, after experimenting with full-on freak-folk on 2004’s mad and hypnotic Sung Tongs, their following release, 2005’s Feels, marks the band’s most commercially palatable work to that point. Here, Animal Collective first began to reconcile their strong experimental inclinations with a free yet more accessible rock-based sound, making it a good place to start for Animal Collective newcomers.
While Feels has been called “conventional” in comparison to their earlier work, it proves far from it in comparison to the work of others; the first half of the record often sports a sort of floral, ornate and hyperactive take on pop with a largely languid and floating second half following. Looking back, Feels marks a telling precursor to what would come, representative of the major breakthroughs waiting just around the corner for the boys in the band.
There are few musicians in modern history drawing from as broad a spectrum of sounds and styles as Animal Collective, and there are fewer still that have done so with the same infallible mastery achieved by these Baltimore heroes.
From their teenage years and onward – whether it be freak-folk, garage rock, horror soundtracks, ambient, synthetic, electronic or psychedelic, not to mention 20th century classical, West-African polyrhythms and countless other genres – Animal Collective’s influences perpetually orbit around the band’s extensive and diverse music vocabulary.
They draw from the likes of Radiohead and The Orb, from the Louvin Brothers and the 13th Floor Elevators, and from almost conceivably anywhere up, down, to the side or in between, managing always to derive something uniquely their own from that which they’re inspired by.
Prior to 2007, Animal Collective had established such defining characteristics as extensive vocal harmonies, elaborately layered productions, electronic experimentation, and a McCartney- or Brian Wilson-esque penchant for the whimsical or childlike.
The release of Strawberry Jam, however, marks an even more radical transition than that seen on Feels – one that would bring their music to the attention of a much broader public. Debuting at #72 on the U.S. Billboard Top 200 charts, Strawberry Jam saw Animal Collective reach new commercial heights without any sacrifice of the core experimental qualities that had make them so interesting.
The cause for the wider appeal of their seventh studio album lies largely in its significantly more structured songwriting. Demonstrating what they had learned from their outlandish genre studies of yesterday could be effectively marshaled into recognizable pop songs, the record allows a greater hint of conventional indie practices as it simultaneously delves deeper into the spiraling surreal. Such footholds afford listeners the occasional familiar moment to get their bearings, allowing one better to more deeply consider the still terrifically strange sonic voyage.
Following that breakthrough success, 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion is a supremely acclaimed and tremendously influential record, hailed by Uncut as “one of the landmark American albums of the century so far,” marking the band’s commercial and critical peak to this date.
An arguably perfect showing of “experimental pop,” in the truest sense of the phrase, the record reached an astonishing #13 on the U.S. Billboard Top 200. Marking the culmination of the band’s disparate tools and stylings, this mind-bending, Beach Boysian and joyful psychedelic masterpiece eludes concrete description and must be heard to be truly understood.
However, like Pet Sounds or Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Merriweather Post Pavilion serves as definitive evidence of the greatness that might be achieved through the painstaking merging, rather than compromising, the desire to innovate and experiment with the desire to entertain and to write something people might sing along to. Moreover, no record in Animal Collective’s catalog proves more characteristic of their sonic inclinations than this unchecked offering, and the album is wonderfully void of artistic compromise.
And while 2012’s respectable follow-up, Centipede Hz, was unable to live up to the near impossible expectations help by fans and critics alike, Animal Collective’s upcoming record already has the music world excitably buzzing after promising early signs.
Set for release on February 19, it’s not hard to be eager for 2016’s Painting With, given singles like the whacky and infectious “FloriDada,” the oozing electronics and boom-clap beat of “Lying in the Grass,” and the bouncy and hypnotic sing-along “Golden Gal.”
That said, it’s hard to know exactly what to expect from Painting With, even given a taste of what’s to come. One of the things that consistently makes Animal Collective such a interesting and rewarding band to follow lies in the very inconsistency of their music.
The summation of the their catalog is the work of a thoughtful band unafraid of engaging with yet another new genre or style; a group of artists happier, it seems, to trek onward into the tall grasses of the unexpected, rather than surrender to the inherently narrowing path of what’s tried and true.
With Pet Sounds in 1966, and then again with SMiLE, Brian Wilson worked to push both the Beach Boys and music itself to new, unfamiliar realms, marrying the pop sensibilities of their early surf-rock hits with his broad musical fasciations and penchant for studio innovation.
Despite ultimately being shut down for a variety of ugly personal and professional reasons, his lonely mammoth efforts were not in vain, yielding some of the most enduring works of the last century, including “God Only Knows,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and that “teenage symphony to God” known as “Good Vibrations.”
A half-century later, and seventeen years into their career, Animal Collective continues to follow the same path, like Wilson making distinctly new music of old and dispersed ideas with the sort of genuine innocence one might hope to find among kids camping out in the backyard for the first time. Will Painting With be as good as Merriweather Post Pavilion? God only knows. Will it be worth hearing? Absolutely.
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