Animal Collective – Centipede Hz
“If you thought we went soft after Merriweather Post Pavilion, what do you think of us now?!” Animal Collective didn’t say. But they didn’t have to since Centipede Hz gets that message across clear enough on its own. Unlike that avant-pop masterpiece, Centipede Hz contains no obvious singles, no routes in for casual fans likely roped in by their last album. Yet, even with Avey Tare explaining in interviews how Centipede would have more of a rocking out, live-band feel—something he hadn’t said since the group’s last truly experimental release, Here Comes The Indian—the album isn’t as different or difficult as he makes it out to be. It certainly has a jammy feel to it—the songs rely on a lot of repeated lyrical and music passages, and at 56 minutes, it’s their longest album since their debut—but sonically, it’s closer to Merriweather and Strawberry Jam than any garage band this side of planet Earth. In fact, because of all this, Centipede Hz achieves something that no other Animal Collective album has—it’s boring. It may seem unthinkable, but because the band, which again includes Deakin, seems ambivalent about what direction they want to take with this record—avant-garde or pop, free-flowing or structured, analog or electronic—they end up standing still. The music is far from conventional, but Centipede is for all the world exactly what you’d expect from an Animal Collective album, sounding like a diluted blend of everything they’ve done since Feels.
To be fair, things start off well enough. “Moonjock” benefits from some of the ecstatic glee and jagged melodies that characterize the group’s best work, all leading to a fiery, cathartic chant (Avey is always at his most compelling as a vocalist when he sounds like he’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown). The same goes for “Today’s Supernatural,” whose satisfying, disjointed pop sensibility probably makes it the best thing on the record. But as the album winds through its songs, you begin to notice that each track follows roughly the same formula; it’s just that some are more successful at it than others. Sure, it sounds thrilling on paper: unidentifiable, rhythmic samples; arty guitar lines; Panda Bear’s pitter-patter percussion; some touches of Middle Eastern and Brazilian music. Yet each song mines the same moods and textures, and there’s often not enough hooks, melody or interesting Ben Allen production quirks to help distinguish many of the songs from each other, even upon repeated spins.
Unsurprisingly, when Animal Collective take a few chances, Centipede Hz comes to life. Deakin takes his first ever vocal turn on “Wide-Eyed,” and his trippy intonations are a welcome respite from Avey’s pained wails, ditto for the bubbling synth loop, which is one of the most memorable bits of music on the record. Elsewhere, the shuffling “Father Time” never allows the orgy of instruments to overwhelm the songwriting, while “Monkey Riches” has a trembling urgency lacking from the rest of the record. Whether or not your expectations were inflated after Merriweather Post Pavilion, Centipede Hz ends up a startling disappointment. Nothing here is aggressively awful—it just apparently finds one of the most creatively adventurous bands out there phoning it in.
Avey Tare – Down There
Animal Collective had dabbled in electronics throughout its career, but its music always remained based in organic instrumentation, even if the songs themselves warped these instruments beyond recognition. But after the success of Panda Bear’s sample-heavy solo effort Person Pitch, the group decided to take a different approach. The heavily acclaimed Merriweather Post Pavilion, released in 2009, used electronica as its foundation, creating a colorful, mesmerizing masterpiece that gave the illusion of pop music, tucking its unconventional structures and sound palette beneath the surface. So it does not really come as any surprise that band member Avey Tare’s 2010 solo album, Down There, is a strictly electronic affair. After all, the digital world is one he is fairly new to and has not explored thoroughly on his own.
What is surprising, however, is just how spacious and vast the album sounds. Animal Collective has made a living off of crafting music with dense arrangements and production—even the slower songs were often bursting at the seams in some form or another. Instead, Down There builds off of the murky, underwater motif that accented Merriweather and the Water Curses EP, but it remains atmospheric throughout, veering closer to ambient pop than any of the aforementioned records. Swirling keyboards, unidentifiable sound effects, and muffled backing vocals all dance above and around Avey’s trance-inducing melodies, giving the album a hazy, dream-like flow. Fortunately, the songs have just enough structure to keep the album from turning into a mass of shifting dynamics, but nothing on here resembles a pop song in the traditional sense, even when the four-on-the-floor pulse kicks in on “Oliver Twist” or the electronics squelch on “Lucky 1.” Avey revists some of Merriweather’s hypnotic pop on “Heather In The Hospital” and “3 Umbrellas,” both of which contain some of the most buoyant melodies on the entire album. As with almost any record released in the Animal Collective canon, lyrics here are not emphasized in favor of how the words sound within the context of the music. The lyrics that do surface through the murk, though, often display the themes of alienation and depression—most notably on opener “Laughing Hieroglyph” and “Heather In The Hospital”—the same tactic Avey has used to give weight to his previous work. If the vocals sometimes distract from the aquatic flow of the music, such as on “Ghost Of Books,” these moments are fleeting and never truly detract from the overall atmosphere. And given that this type of music has the tendency to wander, Avey is smart enough to keep everything tight, holding the album to just over a half hour. Straddling the line between the truly experimental and unabashed pop music is something that can easily slip into uninspired pretension, but after a decade working in this field, Avey Tare is without peer, pulling everything together effortlessly. It isn’t as innovative or as beautiful as his band mate’s work on Person Pitch, but Down There is its own small triumph, the moonlight to Panda Bear’s sunshine.
Animal Collective – Feels
After the Panda Bear/Avey Tare tribal campfire singalong Sung Tongs, Josh Dibb and Brian Weitz (better known by their respective aliases Deakin and Geologist) return for 2005’s Feels, and it definitely sounds like the work of a full band. The four musicians worked together on past records, but this is their most disciplined and most focused album yet. Of course, this being Animal Collective, discipline and focus only broaden their emotional and creative boundaries. Although the first half of the album, with the exception of perhaps “Flesh Canoe”, is more rock-oriented than their past work, this is the sort of messy, bombastic music that Mercury Rev made in their early career. “Grass” is three minutes of booming drums and cathartic screams, all of it, of course, driven home by a sweet-as-pie melody. Meanwhile, “The Purple Bottle” throws the ecstatic and embarrassing glee of falling in love into a shape-shifting song that incorporates multi-layered chants, crackling noise climaxes, and a vocal by an Avey Tare who can barely contain himself. The latter portion of the album mainly consists of more ambient pieces often accompanied by electronic drone and autoharp, the highlight being “Banshee Beat,” which builds to a couple climaxes throughout its eight-and-a-half minute sprawl. Feels is a focused and nuanced effort from a band that continues to surprise with both passion and creativity.
Animal Collective – Fall Be Kind [EP]
Consisting of both live favorites and new material recorded during the Merriweather Post Pavilion sessions, Animal Collective’s second release of 2009, Fall Be Kind, finds the band at their best. Much like Merriweather, then, what is offered on this EP is still drenched in electronics, naturally, but this isn’t an assemblage of sub-album tracks. Instead, this is merely an opportunity for Animal Collective to explore a more atmospheric sound that wouldn’t exactly fit with the often kinetic and bracing Merriweather. In other words, these songs take their time, but the results are no less fruitful. “Graze”, what with its tension building atmosphere that finally breaks into a pan flute sample and a chorus of “Comfort! Comfort!”, is an absolute joyous track that is as warm and inviting as anything the band has ever done. Meanwhile, “What Would I Want? Sky” is a rhythm-based track that begins with crashing percussion and murky vocal harmonies and then abruptly gives way to (because you have to mention it) the first licensed Grateful Dead sample and a surprisingly upfront vocal by Avey. It is one of AC’s finest songs, finding perfect balance between innovative instrumentation and pop familiarity. “Bleed” is a decent, if ultimately forgettable, interlude that segues from the brighter, fuller first half to the more pensive second half which has songs in company with Merriweather‘s “Guys Eyes” and “Taste”. “On A Highway” pits a restless Avey Tare’s thoughts against equally restless clattering pulses and vocal chants. The final track, “I Think I Can”, calls for trance-inducing hypnosis through several vocal rounds and insistent percussion before breaking into an immediately catchy chant of its title. If the latter half of the album does not exactly live up to the promise of the first few tracks, they still hold strong, showing once again that Animal Collective’s EPs can also be artistic triumphs.