Animal Collective – Strawberry Jam

Trotting out another stream of overwrought metaphorical comparisons seems almost disrespectful when trying to describe Animal Collective. This is after all, only the NYC foursome’s seventh full-length in as many years; the sound of an established group who are once again ready to stun the ever-fertile noise/folk scene with their maverick tunesmanship and genre defying vision. And yet despite all this, ‘Strawberry Jam’ still goads an overwhelming desire to coin expressions like ‘Wayne Coyne’s Special K safari’ or ‘Brian Wilson drinking electric Kool-Aid with the PG chimps’.

We hope you’ll forgive us our folly, but the trouble with Animal Collective is that they’re a tough bunch to pigeonhole. Yes there’s an obvious Beach Boys influence — but when did the Wilson brothers ever try to sound like wildcats going gaga in the mating season? You could also make comparisons with any of the band’s peers from the Brooklyn noise scene, but how canbe considered “noise”? As for freakfolk, get out – this is music for leopards, not pixies!

Strawberry Jam

Whatever they are, Animal Collective sure do put on a pretty good spread, skilfully hopping around jarring indie rock, sweet folk pop, tribal chants and electronic noise. Their studiedly freeform approach suggests, as their name implies, a band of musical ferals, untainted by the concepts of traditional Western songwriting. In these Tarzan-like guises, they are the sole purveyors of the mythical jungle from which they emerged; where the physics of pop music are skewed by a naïve stream of consciousness. And while this may seem alien to some, the music remains very much of this planet. More quaint nursery rhymes to the Serengeti plain, and less lullabies from outer space.

Song lyrics are babbled and cooed incomprehensibly; words jumping out to form vague Crayola impressions in the back of the mind while tom and conga drums rain down cats and dogs. And all the while there’s still a diamond of a song to be found nestling in the rough, but you’ll have to find it first and that’s half the fun.

2003’s ‘Campfire Songs’ was recorded entirely on minidisc on the band’s back porch, marrying gentle acoustic guitar drones to poignant vocal mantras about dead pets and car accidents. In the same year they put out another album, ‘Here Comes The Indian’, a visceral slice of processed noise, piercing feedback and primal yelps. The tribal folk of 2004’s ‘Sung Tongs’ followed with two band members in temporary absentia, but that didn’t stop it breaking through to lovers of leftfield pop as well as hardened noiseheads. Animal Collective’s last album, 2005’s ‘Feels’, saw the band collating their many styles to produce a modern psychedelic classic with a glossier sheen than before.

With such an eclectic back catalogue, the promise of a new record brings new curiosity. Would ‘Strawberry Jam’ be another stylistic leap, or would they continue in the way of ‘Feels’ by merging their influences?

Today, the group sound very much at peace with their oeuvre. No longer the fledgling experimenters, they’re now veterans of their game, seeming keen to blend their myriad styles into a succinct whole. While this was also the mission statement on ‘Feels’ they still sounded slightly uncomfortable when earnestly searching for a unified sound. Today they have grown into their clothes, effortlessly compounding their many inspirations into a thickly spread compote.

It’s fitting to learn that many of the band members are now rearing young families. The band is shown, in the video for standout track ‘Fireworks’ (released on 4th July, no less), grinning away defiantly on a superimposed night sky. Here we see four one-time indie chancers ready to embrace the future while still proud of their experimental past. This bold stance is reflected by singer Avey Tare whose vocals, though forever unintelligible, are placed further to the front of the mix rather than peeking out from behind the curtains as before. The track itself is six minutes of joyous psychedelic squalls and deceptively complicated call-and-response vocal acrobatics courtesy of co-vocalist Panda Bear.

Sometime band member and electronic soundsmith, Geologist, makes a welcome return with many songs appearing to be the outcome of extended improvisations over repetitive loops of noise. Opening track and first single, ‘Peacebone’ starts with an eruption of granular static that morphs skilfully into a big bouncy beast of a tune. As your ears try to adjust to the erratic drum patterns and abstract lyricism (something about a happy dinosaur, we reckon), an almighty middle-eighth of unexpected screaming bursts in and knocks you off your feet. It’s made clear from the outset that even if ‘Strawberry Jam’ is an attempt at a rounder sound, it’s still not going to soundtrack too many dinner parties.

Animal Collective

‘Unsolved Mysteries’, takes a one-song fag break from the crazed hardcore hoo-hah, for an acoustic led hurdy-gurdy song about parenthood. But of course, this being Animal Collective, it soon descends into a hubbub of underwater burbles and a lyric that references Jack the Ripper. Later we’re treated to a chugging epic on ‘For Reverend Green’, backed by a formidable vocal performance peppered with the now familiar screams and howls.

Sadly, and despite its overall aplomb, hardened fans may still find the melting pot of styles to be perhaps a little watered down compared to previous releases. It’s not that this is any less challenging to the listener than any of Animal Collective’s other excursions, but there’s still a fear of the band becoming maybe a little too comfortable with the sound they are pursuing. Could it be that they have finally hit their zenith? That if they continue in this way they might lose the spark that made them so unique in the first place? By recapping on previous styles, much as they did on ‘Feels’, they are in danger of bringing less and less to the table on future recordings. Still, this is all down to speculation and who can predict what twists and turns are to be expected next time round? Judging from the diversity of the various EPs, collaborations and solo projects released in the last two years, it’s clear that Animal Collective won’t be ready to settle into a fixed groove any time soon.

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1 Comment

  1. It’d seem that this album is getting good reviews across the board, may have to check it out – I loved ‘Feels’ and ‘Sung Tongs’, after all…


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