By all accounts, this discussion on Animal Collective should not have to exist. Understandably, the independent music community has opinions, and judging by the unencumbered plethora of music blogs that exist; these opinions will be far and away the most obnoxious and self-serving (ed. note: present company excluded, I hope). Why we like something is unequivocal to the purpose of understanding a sonic landscape in how it relates to our aural pleasure. Sometimes it just sounds good; a lot of the time, however, it sounds bad, or “challenging,” as some of the more pretentious blogs will phrase it. Bursts of noise, yelps and screams, and minor key patterns exist in some of the more “challenging” music, often to experiment as a mode of sound, but sometimes just for fuck’s sake.
Animal Collective, Baltimore’s home-grown cooperative whose members have silly monikers, is a first-mover in terms of experimentation of sound. The first official release, 2000s Spirit They’ve Gone, SpiritThey’ve Vanished, is, for the strict record of musical bookkeeping, the solo project of Dave Portner a.k.a. “Avey Tare,” whose sounds are augmented by now perennial member Noah Lennox a.k.a. “Panda Bear.” This record is challenging, but not in the way Radiohead’s Kid A is challenging and not in the
way The Strokes’ Is This It? revitalized rock music. Rather, Spirit is a hard listen, for the random bursts of spastic drumming (provided by Panda Bear), the absolute density of song length, and lyrical ambiguity. In 2011, in no way is this album an accessible introduction to the behemoth that has become Animal Collective’s legacy; in fact, Spirit along with subsequently denser releases in Danse Manatee, Hollinndagain, and Campfire Songs, whose complexities added an extra layer of production (provided by Brian Weitz a.k.a. “Geologist”) and a further a skimming of accessibility and a misanthrope to the musical community, whose opinions on this band had divided since the first release to form two important groups: those who can and those who can’t…
…stand this muddle, that is. The argument is that the sound gets in the way of the music and the lyrics stumble over the production and that the songs are just too damn long to justify commercial acceptance. On the other hand, many critics (read: assholes) continually lauded the band for its rich and fresh take on what constitutes a proper release, what challenges the listener to acquire a new level of acceptance of “sound for sound’s sake,” and what is the focal point of a good song or album. The divisiveness continued when the rather stale, argument of “poster band” started to circulate among the dissenters. Herein, the dispute opened into a new territory: an attack on the consumer rather than on the music itself. Were the listeners “faking” a liking of this band
for the sake of being accepted as “indie” or “alternative?”
In a musical epoch where releases from Nickelback and from Limp Bizkit mirrored Spirit or Hollinndagain, the consumer was given a (not too) tough choice to choose to listen and explore the soundscape or listen to what was handed out on top 40 radio across the country. Thus the argument became something along the lines of: “Hey man, you heard that new Trapt song?” /“Are you kidding? That’s waaaaaay too mainstream.” Unfortunately for fans, music suffered for this because people now argued over personal definition rather than over the actual acuity of themusic. And among those whose tastes strayed beyond the everyday listener (read: radio head, no pun intended) Animal Collective became an easy scapegoat: “You just like them because they’re ‘indie,’” is how a typical dissenter might respond to a claim that Animal Collective was a favorite.
How can the band respond to a claim like this? Most likely this argument is outside the realm of importance for Animal Collective, but the answer came with the album Sung Tongs, released in June 2004.
Unequivocally a ‘summer’ album , with light and rich sounds, quick sixteenth-note drumming, and harmonies recalling the brightest Brian Wilson tune, the album had an appeal that previous releases lacked: clear “singles,” or songs whose very nature are to be heard standalone from the album. Sung Tongs kicks off with two, quick acoustic-heavy tracks in “Leaf House” and “Who Could
Win a Rabbit?” These songs provided a clear direction of what this release was supposed to sound like; the overarching theme for this band is that they can create whatever sound they want (and they do) but still remain true to their sonically experimental nature. Following the first two songs are a trio of slightly longer material, and then a 12-minute epic “Visiting Friends,” whose core is two repeated chords in an interesting pattern, with intermittent drumming and spoken-word lyrics dispersed throughout. This
album for the first time provided an incentive to keep listening, with hopes that the following sounds might equate to the previous…
(stay tuned for Part Two…)