Animal Collective's latest: selling out or getting better?

By Dan Castelli

I’ve always thought of Animal Collective as one of the more important musical groups of the past five or six years. Whether howling and shrieking their way to the textural masterpiece of Here Comes the Indian or guiding us along the lush mountain trail of effected guitar on Feels, these Animals always manage to make a profound musical statement.The release of Strawberry Jam has elicited hype as well as ambivalence in the hearts of serious Collective fans like myself. Their first release on the Domino label, Strawberry Jam marks a turning point in the career of the boys from Baltimore. This record is, in a word, accessible. For those familiar with past Animal Collective works, accessible is not exactly the first adjective that comes to mind in describing them. Having said this, I do not mean to imply that Animal Collective have “sold out” or watered themselves down. This album is the real deal.

The album’s opener, “Peacebone”, starts off with a misleadingly grimy synth loop that quickly turns into the base of a pleasant, upbeat album single. The base of the song stays the same, but that isn’t a problem. It remains engaging the whole way through. “Peacebone” does, however, reveal one very uncomfortable truth about the Animal Collective. Their lyrics have a penchant for sucking. Take, for example, “My Peace Bone got found in a dinosaur wing/The other side of takeout is mildew on rice.” Sorry Avey, that’s not wacky or cool, it’s just stupid. On past albums the lyrics were not much of a problem because they were generally indiscernible (look up the words to “The Purple Bottle” and you’ll see what I mean). Unfortunately on “Peacebone” the words are, at parts, clearly audible and this proves problematic for those of us who enjoy interesting sounds foremost.

As the album progresses, the meat and potatoes of the work becomes apparent. The one-two punch of “For Reverend Green” and “Fireworks” is strong enough to stand up to the Animal Collective archives. Starting with an effects-heavy guitar line reminiscent of Black Dice’s “Smiling Off”, “For Reverend Green” quickly establishes an interesting foundation upon which Avey Tare fully showcases his vocal prowess. By crooning, shrieking, and just singing, Avey covers all bases without sounding forced or self important, giving this track a real dimension. “Fireworks” begins with a subtly effected drum loop that is quickly coupled with an appealing guitar-ish chordal wave. Avey comes in with a redolent vocal melody that is truly captivating. His range on this tune is again immaculate, but what really drives the piece along are the clever rhythmic ideas that Animal Collective (and Panda Bear in particular) never seem to get any credit for. Cymbal crashes and snare flare-ups are thrown over the constant loop with such intelligence that it gives the piece the dynamic it needs to be fantastic. And that’s just what the song is.

The weak spot of the album is undoubtedly the song “#1”. Starting with a rather annoyingly wintry synth loop, the track meanders from the start. Panda Bear tries in vain with a rather decent vocal line to keep things engaging, but the colors used to paint this sonic picture just aren’t rich enough. The piece never develops into anything meaningful. My favorite thing about this song is that it brings the album closer to its b est song, “Cuckoo Cuckoo”.

“Cuckoo Cuckoo” sounds important from the first tone. Every member of the group shines here. Geologist lays an absolute feast of sonic manipulation over an evocative piano line. Avey’s voice has never sound more yearning on a track than here on “Cuckoo Cuckoo”, and the way Deakin and Panda Bear seem to mesh on the guitar and the drums is nothing short of perfect. The track is a sort of wave that alternates between soft and sublime to turbulent and raw. It shows us that Animal Collective isn’t entirely finished with going out there with their music. Here they’ve harnessed the feral qualities of some of their earlier work and presented it in a way that does nothing but showcase their maturity and superior sensibilities as musicians. This piece is truly something special.

It is impossible to call this album anything but fantastic, but for some reason my gut desire is to want to trash it. The reason for that is fear. I’m scared that Animal Collective will turn into a Modest Mouse. I’m scared that they will branch out so far that they will become overly appealing and subsequently boring. This record has generated more hype than anything they’ve ever done, and thanks to Domino is undoubtedly receiving more exposure. This doesn’t change the fact that this album sounds like a natural progression for Animal Collective and if any other band came out with this album I’d be raving about it to no end. The knee jerk reaction I have is unfair and selfish. I have no choice but to look past my fear and herald this album the way it deserves to be heralded: as a top-notch pop record.