Farm animals, cows in particular, are a pervasive presence in the new David Portner (better known by his stage name and alter ego, Avey Tare) album, “Cows On Hourglass Pond.” If the title wasn’t a dead giveaway, the marketing material will let you know that Avey Tare is fascinated by bovines. Clickable cattle prance about the record’s website, and the music videos accompanying the two singles, “Saturdays (Again)” and “HORS_,” both feature psychedelic canvases of superimposed heifers and horses respectively and a surreal short story by Avey Tare published on his website in conjunction with the album references roadside cows.
So when Avey Tare took the stage last Sunday at Amsterdam Bar & Hall, a cozy downtown St. Paul food, drink and concert establishment, it was no surprise to see him hefting his acoustic guitar and taking point at a microphone which was sporting a plastic cow mask.
Before even hearing the music, these idiosyncrasies should give you a good idea of Avey Tare’s strange sound, a somewhat indescribable experimental take on indie folk. The intricately-crafted, chaotic and playful soundscapes that weave pop melodies into dissonant cacophonies make it hard to pin down a genre without feeling reductive. The group’s unique and exciting style and love for animals are traits inherited from the similarly-experimental pop outfit Animal Collective, of which Avey Tare is a founding member (and yes, before you ask, all of the other members have equally silly and esoteric alter egos: Panda Bear, Geologist and Deakin). Under the Animal Collective banner, Avey Tare has been dropping singular and unconventional pop albums since the early 2000s, building a massive and loyal fanbase.
Following in step with his Animal Collective colleague Noah Lennox (a.k.a. Panda Bear), Avey Tare started a parallel solo career with the unsettling and dense “Down There” in 2010. “Cows On Hourglass Pond” has paired with new releases from Panda Bear and Animal Collective to provide fans with a heap of new music.
The night was opened by Washington state-based Lipticism, a dreamy electronic group with soaring synths and a heady drum machine. The crowd chowed down on the Amsterdam’s signature miniature dutch sandwiches and onion covered fries until just after 8p.m., when Avey and his band took to the stage.
A wash of noise flowed onto the crowd, a sound collage made of splashing water, distorted voice and a crooning guitar. Then Avey Tare started to sing about bubbles through the thick wall of distortion, “Feeding the bubble/Extending out in human space/Always touching everyone/Find it and pop a bubble.” Most of the sounds made by the band were mediated through a spaghetti of wires, pedals and modulators, which turned the acoustic guitar into a scorching buzz, made the synth sound like something out of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and turned the drum into a versatile machine of percussive power. Sometimes Avey’s voice was even given a kick of hilarious and well-placed autotune. The tone was diverse, with long lazy periods of time dedicated to meditative examinations of just two chords with a surrounding swirl of sonic texture. But then suddenly you were hit with something like “Eyes on Eyes,” a song that feels like it has an honest-to-God funk rhythm.
All the while, the audience was treated to Avey Tare’s abstract warbling on strange topics. “Nostalgia in Lemonade” is about exactly what its title suggests, while “Remember Mayan” explores lost civilizations hidden in the subconscious mind. “K.C. Yours” returns to Avey Tare’s interest in the inevitable robot takeover, which he mused on when discussing the song in an interview with music publication “Consequence of Sound:” “The robots are coming and I guess at this point there isn’t anything we can do about it. As the integration of robots into our life becomes more present each day, I wonder when someone crazy enough will come around and attempt to create a savior robot. Or maybe a savior robot will create itself and is doing so right now.”
But the lyrics only partly function to convey Avey’s perplexing thoughts — they are also partially to make way for his dynamic voice in the sonic landscape. Floating “oohs” and “ahhs” made their way through the crowd moment after moment, sometimes punctuated by yelps and shouts. This was supported by the surprisingly natural mix of electronic drums, bringing the concert out of its trance-like moments and into a manic and strange dance party that got the crowd hopping and sweating. Moving at a constant pace, Avey and his band eventually reached a final number that, although consisting mostly of Avey switching between two chords again, built into a massive climax. The big and screaming kick drums, background noises that tore about sounding like a jet engine and Avey Tare’s weirdly entrancing dances in his slip-on shoes made for a hypnotizing finale. By the end of the journey you would be forgiven for being surprised that it was only 9:30 p.m., and that you hadn’t been teleported to some alternate universe of barns filled with robot cows and loads of synthesizers, because I certainly was. Whether or not you mesh with his music, there certainly isn’t a whole lot out there that sounds quite like Avey Tare’s solo work, except for maybe Animal Collective. His visit to St. Paul was akin to a brief U.F.O. touchdown and he probably abducted a few cows for his trip home.