Can Animal Collective Still Surprise Their Fans?
Photo by Tom Andrew
Some fifteen years after they spent a summer tinkering with vintage synths and household-detritus-turned-percussion-instruments in Dave Portner’s Prince Street apartment, Animal Collective dove into a similar process to create their tenth proper album. Lauded for investigating the intersection of experimental technique and pop by merging such disparate elements as dance music, horror movie soundtracks, noise, and Beach Boys harmonies, they’ve parlayed mainstream music’s fascination with them into successful solo careers, side projects, and an ever-expanding web of collaborations, live releases, and psychedelic visual projects with video artist Danny Perez. Never compromising their creative impulses, they've followed no playbook in their musical trajectory. As trailblazers who have influenced a decade’s worth of indie rock, they still have themselves — and their die-hard fans — to impress. But the impending release of Painting With (out via Domino on February 19) begs the question: How long can their sonic explorations go on with the same wild abandon that made them pioneers in the first place?
Portner and his bandmates, Noah Lennox and Brian Weitz (their sporadic fourth member, Josh Dibb, doesn’t appear on their latest effort), kept the writing (in Asheville, North Carolina) and recording (at L.A.’s famed EastWest Studios) of Painting With secretive, and while it would seem that a tenth album is a milestone worthy of resounding celebration, they remain low-key about it. "We’ve kind of lost track of [our albums]," Portner laughs. "This is something that we’re so used to now. There are other emotions that take over, because in the greater scheme of things, we’re a little bit the elder statesmen of modern music."
From the beginning, listeners zeroed in on the childlike fascination with sound that epitomizes Animal Collective’s work; indeed, its members shared the feral language that exists only between childhood playmates, as Portner, Lennox, and Weitz happened to be. This relationship is mythologized in the liner notes of their first collaboration, Spirit They’ve Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished, in which they adopted their monikers, Avey Tare (Portner) and Panda Bear (Lennox): "'Let's make the music of childhood,' Avey shouted one day as the two played. Panda thought this idea was a good one.… So the two began to create melodies.… Panda brought rythms [sic] from every direction while Avey sang. All of the songs were about wooden toys and invisible friends and filled with the light of the forest."
What's arisen in the years since has been a unique combination of song structure and noise, rife with whimsical, evocative flourishes, as Weitz became the group’s de facto electronics wizard. It’s that sense of whimsy that has allowed such deeply experimental and technically complex music to reach beyond niche audiences. While no one but Pitchfork seemed to notice Animal Collective’s early work (the blog rated the band's debut an 8.9; high marks from the site), each subsequent fraction of a point (2004’s Sung Tongs stayed at 8.9, but 2007’s Strawberry Jam earned a 9.3, and 2009 breakout Merriweather Post Pavilion an astronomical 9.6) coincided with an uptick in the band’s marketability. Merriweather topped year-end best-of lists from Spin, KEXP, UK magazine Clash, and even Entertainment Weekly, no doubt thanks to the same fever-pitch fandom that inspired FatCat Records to remaster and reissue the band’s pre-2005 recordings, many of which had been released in extremely limited runs.
Merriweather’s 2012 follow-up, Centipede Hz, was so steeped in abrasive material that it felt claustrophobic by comparison, and it effectively slowed the band’s dash toward accessibility. But Painting With is a solid antidote to that critique: Though Portner and Weitz turn 37 this year, and Lennox 38, the primitive joys that once flickered throughout Animal Collective’s albums are restored here. In the interim between the two albums, Lennox released Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper and Portner formed side project Avey Tare’s Slasher Flicks, but the tones of Painting With are more akin to bright-hued splashes of tempera than fake blood. This collection of intricate tunes is unflinchingly positive and comparatively minimal (at least on Animal Collective’s scale). Anyone who's watched PBS series The Joy of Painting knows its hippie host, Bob Ross, was likely dipping into psychedelics; Painting With hints at what the soundtrack to those lost episodes might’ve sounded like.
The twelve tracks each flare, pop, and fade within five minutes or less; gone are melodies folded within churning drone. "Hocus Pocus" gets some staticky undertones from Velvet Underground alum John Cale, but the inspiration for the songs’ overall brevity came from more unlikely New York musical icons. "When we had these initial conversations about the kind of songs that we wanted to write, they were these kind of short, no bullshit, melodic little pop songs," Portner explains of Painting With. "We talked about the Ramones or early Beatles, [songs] that hearken to the heart of pop music." The city further inspired them on its dance floors, as Weitz and Portner had been helming DJ residencies between records, including a stint at Brooklyn Bowl in Williamsburg. "Being in that environment and seeing how people react to music in a club [was] definitely a different experience," Portner adds.
"It’s not like we’re trying to sound like the Ramones," Weitz elaborates, "but [we wanted] those energetic, short bursts of rhythmic, powerful songs. [We weren’t] doing any extended ambient intro/outro stuff we like. There’s a place for that, but there’s very little room for it in DJ sets. Getting used to a musical experience being relentless in an exuberant way, not relentless in a punishing way — that’s where my head space was.”
Animal Collective’s soundscapes are often built from loops and samples of their own manipulated material, but Painting With takes another cue from DJ culture — pasting recognizable pop-culture sound bites throughout. "Golden Gal" opens with a shot of geriatric snark courtesy Bea Arthur’s Golden Girls character Dorothy Zbornak; in the midst of the freewheeling burble of "FloriDada," there’s a burst of surf rock’s most recognizable cackle. "I really like the ‘Wipe Out’ sample. It’s always been one of my favorite ways a song started out," Portner explains, laughing. "We like collage a lot and musique concrète. That was a big part in…how to put these songs together."
Weitz didn’t extend the same transparency to instrumentation on Painting With; the trombone sample used in "Lying in the Grass” is warped enough to retain only its brassy essence. The circular-breathing, virtuosic sax of Colin Stetson hums along the backbone of "FloriDada," but it’s certainly no "Careless Whisper."
"We like jazz, but brass in rock or pop is not something we respond well to — especially not sax skronkiness," explains Weitz. "Dave brought up the idea of taking something you really don’t like in music and challenging yourself to incorporate it…. [With] Colin Stetson, we were like, ‘There’s a person who’s doing something that is making us rethink this instrument.’”
Returning to the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink mentality explored on Prince Street years ago, Animal Collective approached beatmaking with found objects, but within a much bigger playground — a warehouse in Los Angeles storing the rare and handmade instruments of experimental percussionist Emil Richards, which included a floor-to-ceiling drumhead. "I picked out a bunch of different stuff, and we intermittently would have it in the studio," says Portner. "Most of it was only featured for a millisecond on the record, but —" Lennox adds. "It was fun to play!" Weitz interjects, finishing the sentence. "[There was] stuff from Hollywood soundtracks – Poltergeist or Planet of the Apes, for nerdy people like myself.… I was pretty psyched."
With sitcom-dialogue studs and punches pulled from soundtracks, Painting With feels recklessly heady at times; it’s hard to catch a breath, and the songs pass in a kaleidoscopic rush. While it’s a welcome respite from Centipede Hz, it sometimes seeks so much to be the indefatigable opposite that it suffers, its endorphin-tickling delicacies dissipating before building into anything substantial. Painting With could have benefited from some of the gravitas of Centipede Hz, but with Animal Collective’s members now living in such disparate parts of the globe as Lisbon (Lennox), Washington, D.C. (Weitz), and Los Angeles (Portner), the overlap between ideas and moods that colored their early output is no longer possible. The old habit of debuting new songs while on tour, well before recording or releasing them, has been broken now that they must work within a strictly regimented time frame to allow time for side projects and family pursuits at their respective coordinates. "We’re all open to finding the time, and then waiting for the windows to be open," Portner says. "Once the window is there and we’re all together, I think we’ve gotten used to it."
"Creatively speaking, it’s kind of like riding a bike," Lennox explains. Perhaps cramming creative bustle into these serendipitous moments is what gives Painting With its verve. And after fifteen years of blurring the lines between experimental noisemaking, indie rock, and pop, Animal Collective still have the capacity and desire to astonish.
"There was a time when…it felt like we were offering more of a surprise to people still getting to know what we were trying to do," Portner muses. "It doesn’t feel like that so much anymore, which is not bad or good. We feel pressure that we put on ourselves, and work really hard to do something that feels like it’s still experimental, whatever that might mean for us."
"There seems to be a theme [on this record] of us wanting to do [what] felt a little outside of our comfort zone," says Lennox. "Most of the fun of doing this stuff is the exploration. Trying to search for new things – that’s what makes it exciting."
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