Sunday, October 21, 2012
Bees in the Trap
It’s hard to believe that three years have passed since Animal Collective dragged the freak/folk movement into the public sphere with their masterful Merriweather Post Pavillion. Yet, here we are all nervously twiddling with Centipede Hz, the band’s ninth studio release, trying hard not to compare it to its immediate predecessor.
So, let’s get the obvious out of the way: Centipede Hz isn’t as overwhelming or as great as Merriweather Post Pavillion but to dismiss it as some drug-induced experiment would be at one’s own peril. I suspect most indie critics would agree with me that in an ideal world the guys would have issued it as the opus before Strawberry Jam (2007) but the muse that moves Avey Tare and Panda Bear had other ideas. Fans can breathe easy though: for the fourth straight time, they’ve redefined musical possibilities and produced a genuine AOTY contender. Not that you could tell from the cool reception that has greeted it.
Which, when shown in contrast to the hysteria that greeted Merriweather Post Pavillion, misleads one to think that the band has cooled off. Nothing could be further from the truth but Animal Collective has already achieved that rarefied air only few musicians ever reach in their careers: that point where everything is sacrosanct and you’re making up the rules as you go along. The last bands to reach this level of irreverence were Radiohead and Outkast—both with immense stretches of genius—yet neither were pulling a new genre along its way.
Animal Collective is a freak/folk curiosity that, thanks to indie blogs, managed to spread and pupate into this pop/rock hybrid that their songs resemble today. If you go back as far as Here Comes the Indian (2003), the first LP they did to bear their name, you’d swear it’s a different band. They’ve done this gradually, not selling out their roots for a beach blonde sound, while adding a few condiments.
The trademark water-logged sounds and shake and bake rhythms are still present but Tare sounds positively on acid most of the time: both Moonjock and Today’s Supernatural explode with a lush pop of repetitive sound, reminiscent of Peacebone, the opening track on Strawberry Jam. Today’s Supernatural is the more ambitious track, with its belligerent mid-section and the primal howl only Tare can pull off (‘sometimes you gotta get mad!’) without being accused of trying too hard. Whereas Moonjock eventually entangles itself into sonic messiness, Supernatural remains compelling throughout, a testament to Tare’s craft. The Ariel Pink-ish Rosie Oh takes things in a different direction—a beehive of odd sounds verging upon each other into a sublime display of innovation.
The album slips into familiar skin thereafter; delivering major hooks (Applesauce, Father Time) or spiel that avoids hooks altogether (Wide Eyed, the return of band member Deakin). These are the first six tracks on the album, enough variation to polarize casual and die-hard fans but it is at that point that the economics of the band rises to the challenge. For, if it seemed Centipede Hz lacked the sonic depth of its predecessors, then that’s corrected immediately. New Town Burnout reaches out to the fan-base that goes gaga for Panda Bear’s solo releases. Monkey Riches drops guitars and a wailing Tare…a combination that always wins. No electronic odes to their families or teenage lives here, just sonic explorations of a current state of mind.
And who hasn’t wanted to peer inside the mind of Tare especially, the unofficial leader of the group. Who isn’t curious to ponder if he sometimes looks at Panda and thinks, “I should have the solo praise that you do.” If Merriweather Post Pavillion neatly answered so many questions the guys had asked themselves throughout the years, this LP leaves many more untouched. It has wonderful dialogue but it pulls up short at times before surrendering to its passage of time.
Maybe the real issue with Centipede Hz is the uncertainty of what it represents for the band and fans alike. The first half sounds like a real team effort while the latter half sounds like Avey and Panda constructed separate mini EPs without any consultation from the other. The sad thing is that those are the songs that hold the collective vision of the band best. You don’t need to be a critic to realize what this subtext means, or where it is, alas, most likely to lead to. You’ll be thinking on that while you hear the poignancy of the closing trio (Mercury Man, Pulley & the stunning Amanita). All three tracks stand among the very best Animal Collective has done in their long and great career. I can’t believe I’m saying this in print so soon after their apex but it’d be a real pity if they become the last three tracks of their immense journey.
Sunday, October 7, 2012
Choosing, not Running
Though it premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival to high praise, most film goers would have only heard about Pariah through an unlikely source much later on: Meryl Streep. In what is becoming a colorful tradition, the great actress continues to highlight exceptional performances and good films in her acceptance speeches. Sure enough then as she lectured to us from the Golden Globe podium trip this year, she let slip the name of Adepero Oduye and Pariah.
Released officially after Christmas last year, Pariah is the tale of Alike (Oduye), a seventeen year-old who must come to terms with her burgeoning lesbianism. Set in Brooklyn, the film tackles the multi-faceted issue with complex characters and a social standard that seems unbending and reserved. Skillfully directed by newcomer Dee Rees, Pariah is every black parent’s nightmare when the obvious becomes, well, more obvious.
That sense of obviousness greets us immediately as we witness Alike (pronounced ah-lee-kay) and her BFF Laura (Pernell Walker) in a strip club checking girls out. Laura is a popular butch (the lesbian term/equivalent for thug) but has a genuine friendship with Alike. She looks out for her because she knows the struggles to map out an identity. Alike, like most neophytes, thinks she is unique in her self-discovery and issues, so she juggles her fears and boldness in giant-sized and baby steps respectively. She has already realized though that to experience her gay self, she must have separate identities. So, after the club, she makes sure to make her attire more ‘girly’ by the time she sneaks home.
Rees’ film thus hits upon a notion that is seldom explored in black films: the multiple identities gay teenagers have to use to adapt to society. Even more stunning is how clueless parents, especially mothers, can be to these realities that are right before their eyes. Alike’s mom, Audrey (Kim Wayans in a revelatory role) suspects her daughter is coming under the influence of Laura, even if she can’t state totally what that’ll lead to. Audrey is typically religious and homophobic…which makes her one on hand wanting to say something to Alike but on the other hand, not wanting her fears to be true.
Which leads her to turn to her husband Arthur (Charles Parnell) for help but he’d rather play it down as if Alike is going through a phase. It’s a sexist view but one that crops up all over the film: women being fluidly sexual. As one of the popular girls at Alike’s school says in passing to drop a hint, “I like girls but I love boys.” Alike only escapes her mother’s clutches at school, where she plays out her alternative self by seeking approval from her favorite teacher or potential love interests. One of whom turns out to be Bina (Aasha Davis), ostensibly introduced by Audrey herself. The two get close, much to the chagrin of Laura but whereas Alike feels real attachment, Bina is merely interested in experimenting until she gets bored.
Alike gets even less from her family. When they sits down to dinner, Audrey alternates between tense and playful at varying speeds that it’s no wonder she’s exhausted all the time. She never expresses it outright but in Alike she sees a type of freedom that she no longer has, the same type her husband continues to enjoy simply as being the head of the home. What Audrey never comes to connect is the control of her life and her own religious upbringing. She’s trapped in a loveless marriage but must endure it just for pretense. It’s what’s expected.
Which pulls to what makes Pariah so powerful: it seamlessly translates into any different set of circumstances that teenagers and parents face in light of a rigid social standard in place to normalize them and their issues. It does a superb job in also, on the other hand, to show us the frailties that face parents of a gay kid. That’s still something very hard for a parent to accept even outside of their own prejudices. Some of these prejudices, handed down from one generation to another, are the reasons why the gulf between parent and child remains so wide. The final scene between Alike and Audrey—raw, emotional—brilliantly plays this sad reality out. Audrey, alas, cannot look past the sin to love the sinner, daughter or not.
The adult life gleaned in Pariah—as in real life—is one of a homogenized and heterosexual lifestyle in a constant state of unison. It may tolerate male philandering but it hasn’t caught up to homosexuality yet. Alike leaves home fully aware of this and neither parent is strong or brave enough to stop her. They have, with or without reason, based on your own judgment, their own struggles to deal with. You see, they too are caught up in a different time-warp which no one else seemingly can understand or reach out to help...it’s just that they have no alternative destination to escape to.