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.