Animal Collective: A Missed Opportunity?


“Animal Collective fucking blows.”
-Status Ain’t Hood, September 20

First things first: I don’t get Animal Collective. That doesn’t make this band unique in any way. There’s a whole school of blurrily drifting soft-noise bands that I don’t get. I don’t get Black Dice. I don’t get Excepter. I don’t get Gang Gang Dance, even though I sort of like them. I don’t get any of these bands that take the Boredoms’ towering symphonies of free-floating bliss as a starting point, shrink them down to microscopic levels, toss in a couple of Indonesian hand-cymbals, gurgle out some wordless vocals, hold down one vintage-synth key for a few minutes, and call it a day. This might, of course, just be my problem. Everyone else seems to love this stuff. Maybe I’ll wake up one morning and it’ll be all I want to hear. Maybe I just haven’t lived in New York long enough to crave the soft-focus pastoral escape that these bands offer. Maybe one day I’ll liberate myself from my infantile need for hooks and structure. It’s hard for a critic to say that there’s no accounting for taste, since our jobs are based around the idea that there is such a thing as accounting for taste, that there are people better-qualified than others to say what’s good and what’s not. But it’s true; I have certain things that I look for in music, qualities I might vaguely name as force and clarity and, um, like, bigness. These bands don’t typically offer any of these things, and so I don’t get them.

I’ve found a few things to like in Animal Collective. I like the deranged sunny tunefulness of the first couple of jams on Sung Tongs just fine, the only times I’ve heard focus in their aimless jangley scrawl. I like the triumphant autumnal ecstasy of the first couple of tracks on Feels, their new album. But every time I listen to the band for more than ten minutes, their music begins to turn into impenetrably bubbling streaked emptiness, pleasant enough but not something I could ever imagine spending money to own. So I should probably just cut my losses with this band and go back to jamming Back for the First Time on repeat, right? I’ve barely heard a note that Black Dice recorded after Beaches and Canyons unless someone from DFA was remixing it, and my life hasn’t been any poorer. So why do I keep trying to like Animal Collective?

The simple answer: they’re Baltimore dudes like me, guys who grew up in the same place at the same time as I did. Jess Harvell‘s Baltimore City Paper cover story about the band’s local roots says that they’re dudes from northern Baltimore County who graduated high school in 1997, a year before me. Group members Deakin and Panda Bear stayed in Baltimore after high school while the other two went to New York, though all four are scattered right now in New York and DC and Portugal. Track 8 on Feels is titled “Loch Raven,” named after Baltimore’s reservoir. Countless musicians came from Baltimore or spent formative years there but only found fame after leaving: Frank Zappa, David Byrne, Tupac, Mama Cass, Tori Amos, Phillip Glass, John Doe from X. None of them really addresses their hometown in any way I recognize, but then none of them share my age and suburban upbringing the way Animal Collective does. And still, I don’t feel anything much in common with this band when I’m listening to them.

In the mid-90s, when the Animal Collective dudes were in high school and discovering their musical identities, Baltimore had the most amazing indie-rock scene I’ve ever experienced, directly or indirectly. A high-school kid named Ben Valis had borrowed enough money from his parents to rent a Hamilton storefront, which he turned into a makeshift club called the Small Intestine. Valis, at the age of 16, was booking bands like Rainer Maria and Songs: Ohia and Les Savy Fav, putting on shows four nights a week sometimes. He was also booking a ton of local bands, kids who would do anything to upstage each other: slamming mics through walls, smashing each other in the face with guitars, lighting themselves on fire. For a while, there was a band called Invert who would pull up outside other bands’ shows in a van, jump out of the back, play five-minute sets outside, and then drive off. And even after the Small Intestine closed, a ton of short-lived illegal venues kept things going for years. The music was almost never particularly good, but exciting things were always happening; there was a freewheeling energy in the air that I’ve never experienced anywhere else. When I came back to Baltimore after four years of college in Syracuse, a few guys who had come up in this scene had gone on to get national press and do national tours: Cex, Oxes, the Convocation Of. But the scene had splintered as scenes like that always do. People had grown older and moved away or stopped being friends, and cocaine became a big thing for some of these guys. There are still great things happening in the city, dudes booking Baltimore club DJs for warehouse parties or starting semi-regular psyche-folk nights at restaurants. But in the last couple of years, I never felt the sense of anarchic possibility that had been raging in the city and its environs when I was younger.

The dudes in Animal Collective were certainly aware of all this stuff, and the influence of that scene’s rampant pranksterism may manifest in their masks and goofy names. But they only address what was happening once in the City Paper article:

“Baltimore had a really strong DIY teenage punk and indie community, a warehouse and house-party thing, in the ’90s,” Weitz acknowledges. “But we were kind of on the outside of it.”

“We just didn’t know about it,” Portner says. “The city didn’t really have any influence on us. It was more about the back porch.”

And I guess that’s my problem with the band. One band that came into existence during this ridiculously fertile period in my hometown has broken through to the national indie consciousness, but it’s a band that seems to have stayed willfully insular and ignored the things that were happening at the time. I can’t really articulate this in any clear way, but I’m disappointed in the band. They could’ve learned more from what was happening. If they had, maybe indie-rock would be better for it today, or maybe I’d at least get Animal Collective. From where I’m sitting, it’s a huge missed opportunity.

Stream: “Grass” video