Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion Review

Faithful readers of JPP’s music reviews probably already know that I’m not an Animal Collective fan. It’s been impossible not to recognize the burgeoning and passionate following this group has cultivated over the last nine years, but witnessing their infatuation always left me confused, exasperated even. I can’t admit to playing fair—I’ve only heard two of their albums all the way through (and Panda Bear’s Person Pitch). But little in those two albums made me eager to seek out any more. Sung Tongs had its share of bright moments, but there were too many off-putting passages that dragged on and on to give cause to repeat the entire thing again and again. The other was Here Comes the Indian, one of the most painful full-lengths I’ve ever had to endure; if it wasn’t making me cringe, it was putting me to sleep. I wouldn’t even hesitate to compare it to Metal Machine Music—yes, that bad.

Assuming now that the AC followers have recovered from their apoplexy, I will continue. There was never a doubt in my mind that the four members of Animal Collective (even during the slog of Indian) had vast amounts of talent in each of their persons. Just because I despised it didn’t mean I wasn’t aware that someone would find it quite fascinating. Quite a few, in fact, as my first experience with them was spurred on by the growing acclaim they received from many critics and fans. But it perplexed me as to why anyone would prefer folk/pop scrambled into chaos when there was “normal” folk/pop out there to hear.

There’s certainly room for experimentation in the music community; hell, I encourage every artist out there to venture from the beaten path from time to time. But there has to be method to the madness, and too often I felt like AC was just screwing around. They know how to pen a good tune, but they also know how to spoil it all by throwing in ear-splitting noises, feverish yelping bleats and droning on and on until even the decent ones become tiresome before the final fade. Consider the result of a hastily organized Glenn Branca/Philip Glass fantasy collaboration. Or more specifically, they reminded me of Fiery Furnaces at their most rambling; it was almost as if they were bored with doing what everyone else wished they could do with half the ease, so they tried doing things that no one should ever attempt. Comparably, they made early Sonic Youth sound as pop-pro as the Raspberries.

But the hype surrounding Merriweather Post Pavilion could not be easily dismissed. The buildup to its release (out now on vinyl, available on CD on Jan. 20) has even surpassed Dear Science. And early word was about as enthusiastic as anyone could hope for. The blogophiles threw around “masterpiece” enough to dull its definition, and hearing that it was AC’s best effort to date made me snicker silently that such a feat wouldn’t be that newsworthy. But sooner or later, the hype can’t be resisted. And as I read multiple comparisons to the Beach Boys and that it would be a history-making record, I began to wear down. More than one even suggested that this album would be this generation’s Pet Sounds; a ludicrous thing to say (is there a movie out there that’ll be this generation’s Citizen Kane?), but one that nevertheless gave me pause. And as soon as I heard that this one would go down as AC’s “pop” album, my optimism grew. Maybe, at long last, they’d get out of their own avant-garde way and deliver something both accessible and adventurous. An end to their bad-trip psychedelia and a shift towards something more appropriately mind-altering and thoroughly incandescent.

For once, the Animal Collective fans are mostly right. No, this won’t “change” pop music the way some say OK Computer did a decade ago, but the hype is appropriately directed. Merriweather is indeed the crossroads of the norm and the alternative. They remain idiosyncratic, experimental and even freakish in their approach, but everything is leavened with dreamy psychedelia, droning electronic loops, rattling African beats and harmonious vocals. It’s the next logical step for a band growing under a widening spotlight—but they’re doing it backwards. Instead of escaping from the derivations of their inspirations like almost every other band does, they’re beginning to show their colors more clearly by paying careful homage to those they love. It’s still a form of maturation, but done in a way that would make Benjamin Button feel less lonely.

So who do they love? It doesn’t take Kreskin to figure out from Person Pitch that it’s Brian Wilson. I’m pretty shaky on the Pet Sounds comparison, but there’s no doubt that there’s some Beach Boys in this bunch, particularly the way they treat the vocals. Avey Tare’s previous deranged vocal spasms are a thing of the past; now he (Dave Portner) and Panda Bear (Noah Lennox) work together to create an ethereal echo that drifts along with the music. More recent similarities relate to Mercury Rev, early Björk and the Flaming Lips. Their demonstrative affection for their psychedelic and harmonic pop brethren shouldn’t be too surprising; the album title came from the name of a Maryland music venue they used to frequent in their youth.

The track that most will gravitate towards is no doubt “My Girls.” Starting with a chugging synth pattern that owes more than a little to Kraftwerk, it gradually builds steam with the addition of untold numbers of miscellaneous sounds (tying to figure out what was used on this album would be as harrying and worthless as trying to discern why). Portner and Lennox drift along a sunny California melody and evoke Wilson strongest on this one. The climax is expectedly subdued—they engage their hookiest moments the way shoegaze and drone do: minimal fanfare. Nevertheless, there’s a clear structure in place on “Girls,” and one that insists on order in exchange for their typically chaotic constructs. Reining in their eccentricities may disappoint some of the band’s faithful, but this song will win over everyone, whether devotee, detractor or anyone in between.

Among the other highlights is “Summertime Clothes,” one that succeeds in large part to the group’s typically odd, plain-faced and sometimes seemingly stream-of-consciousness lyrical creations. Deciphering the cryptic messages is next to impossible, but there’s something primitively suggestive about lines like, “Soak my head in the sink for a while/Chills on my neck and it makes me smile,” and, “Forehead is leaking, but hey, she squeaks.” And when they slow things down (making what they’re saying more vital to our enjoyment), they manage the curiously endearing statement, “I locked my bones and trapped my feet/I told them I found them a place to be/And stick like candy in your teeth/When you lose your faith in me,” during “No More Runnin’.”

The bookends are particularly strong. “In the Flowers” is a slowly unfolding opener, beginning with looping grunts that sound like a pig snorting through slop and culminating at the halfway point when the song takes an ecstatic right turn and soars like the anthem that so many others try and fail to craft. At the album's end, “Brothersport” is misleading. It opens with an Afro-Caribbean jangle and the cry, “Open up your, open up your, open up your throat,” is delivered with all the quirky, chattering enthusiasm of early They Might Be Giants. But the song reveals itself to be about the consolation and aide of a sibling over their shared father’s passing. In the middle, a peculiar siren sound loops over electronic beeping; that its presence doesn’t detract from the listener’s enjoyment of the more hook-friendly and bouncy passages proves that the band is firing on all cylinders.

If Merriweather just lands short of true greatness, an abundance of wealth can certainly be considered for blame. At almost 55 minutes, it’s an exhausting listen, especially since they keep things sonically busy for pretty much the entire length. And even though each selection attains its own singularity through some trick (the didgeridoo sound on “Lion in a Coma, the parasitic tempo of “No More Runnin’,” the unusual organ flares on “Daily Routine,” etc.), there’s an undeniable sameness to the percolating expressiveness sandwiched into the gaps of the repeating cyclical rhythms. And the Wilson-esque vocalizing never lets up; no doubt, it makes Merriweather more unified and album-y, but a change of pace would have breathed life into the mildly limp midsection. Of the lot, though, only the late-60s languid psychedelia pastiche of “Bluish” doesn’t meet the high water mark established early on.

Guitarist Deakin (Josh Dibb) reportedly didn’t contribute to Merriweather, though I doubt his absence had an effect on the band’s refreshing new aesthetic. Instead, I think it’s the exhaustion of their limitless ideals. Much like Sonic Youth eventually found ways to make their experimentalism sound both arty and catchy after a few years of tinkering, I suspect that AC have recently discovered there’s a way to make music that’s cluttered and clean, noisy and melodic. No matter the connotation (derision or affection), if this is their “pop” record, I hope they become eccentric pop darlings. In fact, the album impressed me enough to return to those older records and see if I could appreciate them better. And, yes, Sung Tongs and Person Pitch both rose a notch in my mind; rambling and dysfunctional they remain, but with enough slow-growth charm to warrant some greater fraction of their combined praise. Ten minutes of skipping around Indian, though, proved that some things never change. I’ll stick with Merriweather Post Pavilion, an unexpectedly terrific release that sets up this new year at unfairly high expectations.

"Merriweather Post Pavilion" is on sale January 20, 2009 from Domino.

Matt Medlock


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