Blessed are the Beasts

Animal Collective exposed! Panda Bear is not an actual member of the Ursidae family, just some guy
Courtesy of Animal Collective

I've been seeing the Animal Collective play for four years, and each time I'm struck by how they've grown and changed since the previous show. A clutch of four high school friends whose roots extend back to rural Maryland yet now run from Brooklyn to Lisbon, Portugal, Animal Collective reconvened in New York last November, playing to a packed Webster Hall for the release of their fifth, most fully realized album yet, Feels. It was a joyous occasion to see how they'd mutated. A colleague of mine, Nick Sylvester of the Village Voice, wrote disparagingly of this show, however: "I miss the grittier, uglier Animal Collective of manatee dansing, spirit-vanished yore--I miss the band's question marks, air of mystery, pretension even. I don't like feeling so damn comfortable and assured at these shows." I came away from that same Animal Collective concert dazed and confused, in the best possible sense.

As their show unfurled, a few truths became evident. One is that their audience expands exponentially with every show in New York. Barely filling out a small club years ago, they now sell out large venues well in advance. As they garner more gear and equipment (usually digital FX and mixers), they slowly slough off their old animal masks and face paint, as well as the freak-folk tag they got saddled with back in 2003. Yet even as their audience expands and grows more demanding, the band remains elusive and downright strange, playing by their rules, which may simply be that old adage of Heraclitus: "The only constant is change."

It's true that they played songs that the people paid to hear, singles like "Grass" and "Banshee Boat" from the new album, as well as "Winter's Love" and "We Tigers" from 2004's breakout Sung Tongs. And yet these familiar songs were but small islands in an El Niño of warm embryonic sound. Huge drifts comprised most of their live set, as the band eschewed their guitars entirely and instead moved toward their mics and mixers. Four heavily processed voices swirled in and out of phase with each other, less like noisy and exuberant indie-pop and more like some drifting minimalist work or Tibetan chant. Such sounds are not alien to their oeuvre, though: Here Comes the Indian and their Wastered single delve into such deep oceans of beatless bliss. But don't confuse it with mild ambient listening; boneless sure, but as disquieting as a blob. The physiological effect of such sustained abstract mouth sounds was not unlike a phrase Jimi Hendrix once used to dismiss the Beach Boys: "psychedelic barbershop."

Which isn't a reference far off the mark. If anything, Feels reveals the Animal Collective to be true beach boys. Yes, it's in how they layer harmonies and use their voices for melodic and rhythmic coloring, in how they have sunshine and lysergic oddness in their pop, sandbox sand in their swim trunks. The drums roil and pound like Big Kahuna tom-toms (or Hal Blaine on those Pet Sounds sessions) on "Grass"; the choruses of "Bees" and "Purple Bottle" coo and gurgle like the Wilson brothers once did. The open-tuned guitars and banged piano even have a metallic resonance that percolates like the steel drums you'd hear way down in Kokomo.

There is also the tactile sensation of the beach itself, a tidal pull within the music. Sounds ebb and flow, wash over ears like waves. Amid the pounding of "Did You See the Words" run little piano trickles as sheer as sea foam that pull like an undertow. "Banshee Boat" starts off as still as a moonlit pool, Avey Tare's boyish voice at a whisper. He sings of swimming holes, beach towels, and fish frys, as campfire crackle and an immense hum ever so slowly swells and flickers around him. The band takes its sweet, luxurious time building toward the climax; while Tare sings of returning to "the swimming pool," the band plunges us into the deep end of one.

The back half of Feels is as dreamy and diaphanous as any recorded moment of last year. Glissades of piano, autoharp, and wordless sounds intermingle on "Daffy Duck," while "Loch Raven" imagines what dub would sound like if made by slumbering giants and little pixies, all deep sighs of bass and sparkling tracers. It's a direction the band swims in now, adding more space and room to breathe as they grow bored with guitars. It's a place where being both comfortable and surrounded by mystery feels like just another day at the beach.

Also in this issue: The Animal Collection by Andy Beta

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