That’s as good a summation as any of Centipede Hz, the highly anticipated new release from the electronifolkers known as Animal Collective. A four-piece band again thanks to the return of Josh “Deakin” Dibb, Centipede Hz is Animal Collective through and through, though more focused and tightly wound than the band has ever been.
This assessment has nothing to do with conventionality. On the contrary, it is an album utterly bursting with sound, the sound of average, everyday instruments combined with the sorts of things ’60s movies imagined on alien spaceships. In the midst of all this sound are songs, songs that are as traditionally structured as any collection of songs Animal Collective has ever put together.
You can hear this trend right from the first song. “Moonjock” is an opener that bangs you over the head with huge full-band instrumental stabs in a jerky sort of rhythm, but it quickly falls into a pretty little groove. Avey Tare puts together the sort of high-speed major key melody he’s been doing so well since “Grass”, and when those awkward stabs return, you hear them as part of a song rather than as a test of listening endurance. It’s a neat trick: Animal Collective spends comparatively small stretches sounding like your average everyday indie band so that the rest of what they do actually sounds pretty palatable. They make the weird stuff sound good in context with the not-so-weird stuff, so that it turns into one great big interesting whole.
This works best on songs like the excellent, sneaky-propulsive “Monkey Riches” and the huge first single “Today’s Supernatural”. On the latter, crunchy distorted guitars punctuate a nearly a cappella singing of the chorus, while on the former, an odd set of noises is repeated so incessantly as to become the beat. “Rosie Oh” is practically a Paul McCartney-written Beatles song if all you listen to is the vocal; it’s when the ringtones and phasers and reverb start to enter your ears that you realize you’re in a strange place far away from home.
It does get to be a bit much after a while — “Applesauce” is a bit grade-school in its choice of melody, and deep cuts like “New Town Burnout” lose the hooks while maintaining the aesthetic, which is good in terms of cohesion but not so much in terms of hooking the listener. Deakin’s George Harrison-esque “Wide Eyed” is clear and confident, but its trajectory isn’t an arc so much as it’s a flatline, droning along while never quite getting anywhere. The sounds are interesting as ever, but they are past the point of surprising the listener.
It would be almost impossible, though, for Centipede Hz to match the critical acclaim offered to previous effort Merriweather Post Pavilion, and to its credit, the band doesn’t try too hard in an effort to do so. They’re making willfully odd music as they always have, and yet they’re slowly inviting more listeners to take a listen. Ten or fifteen years from now, their evolution is going to be one of the more interesting stories in indie rock music; for now, it’s enough just to watch every individual step.
*I always get the sense, when listening to Animal Collective, that lyrical excerpts should always be punctuated using exclamation points. Doesn’t matter if it’s a question, a trailing thought, or a transition. Animal Collective is the musical embodiment of an exclamation point.