Monday, March 2, 2009

Animal Collective Review

This review originally posted here.

Besides the moniker, there is little uniting the disparate and diverse groups that have come to reside under the umbrella label of “indie rock.” Once a term charged with a DIY ethos and armed with record deals from plucky independently-owned companies, indie rock has become a catch-all for all vaguely-rocking, non-major-label music produced by white twenty-somethings living in Brooklyn. Sound wise, only a few common elements put these indie groups together in the same category; indeed, the dissimilarities from group to group seem to define the genre more than the similarities. When we think big band swing, a sound-concept and its representative samples pop to mind: Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Duke Ellington. When indie rock is the style in question, a fragmented kaleidoscope of music appears: what exactly do The Decembrists, Of Montreal, Death Cab, Cansei de Ser Sexy, and Franz Ferdinand have in common again?

Listening to the recent album by Animal Collective, “Merriweather Post Pavilion,” I was struck by an indie rock universal: its sonic range. No indie fan would miss a beat hearing squealing guitars, acoustic quietude, analog synths, accordions and horn sections, kitschy and ironic gestures, and earnest beauty all on the same record. Another signature sound of this new movement is of a more concrete nature – much of indie rock today celebrates in the primacy of technology. Groups distribute their music online and have become masters of MySpace and Facebook; they also use technological tools extensively in the creation of their music. It seems that everyone today sings the body electric.

However, most groups do not use technology in the way Animal Collective does. Electronic touches in most groups (see the Brazilian Girls review) harken back to the 1980s with club beats, synthesizer leads, and rumbling basses. Animal Collective’s electronic forebears can be found more in German sound wizard Karlheinz Stockhausen and French sonic subversives Pierre Henri and Pierre Schaeffer than in 80s pop. Witness the atmospheric introduction, “In the Flowers,” a noisy and chimerical production that uses as much odd sampling as it does guitars and vocals. When the main groove and chorus hits us almost three minutes in, a rhythmic dissonance between bass drum pulse and synthesized arpeggios demonstrates that, even in their most accessible moments, Animal Collective maintains the cool detachment of authentic avant-gardeists. And “Merriweather Post..” is widely considered to be their most accessible album.

Of course, behind the group’s experimentation lies another, opposite sensibility. If Stockhausen is one major inspiration, then the radiant pop of the Beach Boys must be another. The intricate vocal harmonies and ringing melodies of “Guys Eyes” and “Taste,” for instance, could be B-sides from the Pet Sounds sessions. The ultimate synthesis of these two tendencies can be found in one track from the beginning (“My Girls”) and one from the end (“Lion in a Coma”). After a minimalistic wash of major chords, “My Girls” settles into an irresistible groove that culminates in a single line of lyrics repeated again and again until it turns incantatory. The other piece, in the odd time signature of 9/8, features a drone of mouth harp and fuzz bass that is overlaid with a melody that seems too elegant to work over such a scuttling accompaniment. The fact that it does work is testament to Animal Collective’s sui generis approach.

The sonic range of today’s indie rock, as exemplified by Animal Collective’s new album, is essentially an audacious risk. Groups perform delicate tight-rope acts to bring unlike elements into harmony with each other. When they fall, they fall; but when it works, the results of such high risk music-making can be luminous.