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Magical Mystery Allure 

In search of an ephemeral, glowing blue sphere in the music of Animal Collective

Wednesday, Nov 16 2005
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Animal Collective is superhip and superbusy these days, touring England and answering all kinds of silly questions from countless creatures like me, and this means the group's publicist can't even tell me prior to my long-distance call which Animal I will be speaking with: Dave "Avey Tare" Portner, Noah "Panda Bear" Lennox, Brian "Geologist" Weitz, or Josh "Deakin" Dibb.

So I gamble, crafting my questions in the hopes of talking with Portner, guitarist, vocalist, and lyricist. I really want to discuss with him the topic of mysticism and the occult, because I experienced (back in '03, shortly after the release of the Collective's exquisite Here Come the Indians) a quasi-mystical psychedelic episode while attending an Animal Collective performance in some dude's Brooklyn home. That night, the band created a sound that I've come to describe as a massive set of lungs slowly inhaling and exhaling like a yogi's when in a state of deep meditation. These lungs crackled and rippled with warm static and eventually enveloped the intimate living-room affair in a glowing blue sphere. Now, I didn't actually see this sphere, but I did, with the aid of a very mild hallucinogenic, feel it physically press up against my being. It was so intensely real that after the gig I was absolutely certain that the members of the group -- Portner in particular -- were more than familiar with the idea of making a music performance a kind of magic ritual.

But hopes are for suckers, because I'm not talking with Portner. I'm talking with Weitz, the drummer, and he politely tells me that he's not too keen on discussing psychedelia or mysticism.

"I don't even know how you define spirituality," Weitz explains. "Dave is very into esoteric mysticism, the Mayan calendar, and Pythagoras. But I don't have any views to put out there. I am still searching for a way."

Weitz, it turns out, is a total studio geek who possesses a sharp scientific mind. When discussing the production of Animal Collective's new disc, Feels, he displays a real nuts 'n' bolts sensibility, supplying me with all kinds of technical data. But this is very cool, because the psychedelic magic that Animal Collective is capable of creating (that blue sphere) is not cosmic-hippie hokum but the definite results of all this tech stuff, which we are now addressing. In other words, Avey Tare, Panda Bear, Geologist, and Deakin are magicians, and magicians are really nothing more than enigmatic scientists creating unique phenomena through the invocation of magic rituals or, in Animal Collective's situation, through a technological manipulation of sounds.

Of course, the power of Animal Collective's sonic rituals cannot be attributed exclusively to some pseudo-scientific studio and compositional wizardry. Having grown up together in Maryland, these four high school chums appear to possess a powerful shared talent for transcending the myriad styles of music they make and the breadth of odd instruments they employ. From the minimal techno-flavored tribal noise-pop of the aforementioned Here Come the Indians to the soft, folksy meditations of Campfire Songs ('03) to last year's brilliant fusion of '60s psych-pop and sweetly scented noise-abstractions titled Sung Tongs, Animal Collective is as naturally gifted as the Beach Boys were from '65 to '67, when they (also childhood friends and family) turned pop songs into gospel music on Summer Days (and Summer Nights!!), Pet Sounds, Wild Honey, and the "Good Vibrations" single.

And yes, Feels is further proof that Animal Collective is still, without a doubt, in possession of this ingrained, albeit unquantifiable, talent. But I do have several issues with the record's technical data, which is why I don't totally agree with Weitz when he says that this particular set of sonic rituals was made the "same way we've always worked," because it just doesn't sound that way.

Listening to the bouncy, Flaming Lips-inspired opener, "Did You See the Words," and the hip-hip-hooray, Sesame Street-on-'roids vibe of the following track, "Grass," it's plainly obvious that Animal Collective is writing the most conventional verse/chorus/verse pop tunes of its career (with that opener coming off a bit too twee and obvious). And in a move that always raises the question "Do they want their music to be radio-friendly?," the group has pushed Portner's voice to the foreground instead of weaving it into the fabric of the music as on previous releases.

"In the past we always mixed the vocals so they weren't what you were supposed to be focusing on," Weitz says. "We don't really see ourselves as a singer/songwriter kind of band. We think of the voice as pure sound. But Dave is a very lyrical person, and we all really like his lyrics. When we were mixing the record, Dave was like, 'I don't know. Do my vocals sound good out front?' And we all encouraged him."

Of course, certain groups can attain wonderful results by lowering their freak flags a bit and creating work that adheres a little more to the conventions of popular music. Weitz's personal fave, the Grateful Dead, produced two incredible and very radio-friendly records, Workingman's Dead and American Beauty, after spending years playing free-form folk rock and psychedelic noise.

However, the Dead, when recording these two classic pop records, utilized an astonishing sense of space, which the group developed during its psychedelic, acid-test days. Animal Collective, on the other hand, chose not to record Feels like previous, more "out there" releases such as my favorite, Here Come the Indians, which is a collage of experimental-pop fragments recorded like an electro-acoustic noise composition. This approach -- allowing the listener to hear simultaneously the many spaces wherein the music was recorded at various times -- gives the album and all its many layers a very textural and three-dimensional quality. Sounds magically grow into an actual piece of architecture surrounding the listener (again: blue sphere).

This technique would have worked out perfectly on "The Purple Bottle," the fourth track on Feels. It's a manic and complex composition containing several interwoven movements and gymnastic vocal arrangements. But the density of it all is just way too compressed, as numerous parts collapse into an indecipherable background hum.

"It is a very dense record," Weitz admits. "The guy who recorded the record [Scott Colburn] was like, 'Are you serious? You are adding more to the song? We're not going to be able to find a place for any of this when we mix it.' And we were like, 'Let's just keep adding.'"

To be fair, this new "just keep adding" strategy does work well on two standout pieces, "The Bees" and "Banshee Beat." The former, with its s-l-o-w-l-y cascading mantras -- "I ... take ... my ... time" and "The ... bees ... the ... bees ... the ... bees" -- is a sleepy, echo-drenched, psychedelic lullaby picking up and taking the lazy vibe heard on the Lovin' Spoonful's "Daydream" to wonderfully trippy extremes.

As for the eight-minute "Banshee Beat," well, it sure doesn't burst into sonic architecture, but the densely layered and compressed production does help accentuate the groove powering this fusion of hushed Beach Boys passion and minimal techno. In fact, "Banshee Beat" is just about the only cut on Feels that possesses even a hint of the tribal-dance thing heard on prior Animal Collective records, leading me to a bigger issue I have and that's the way Feels is broken up into discrete tracks.

"Y'know, none of us are great musicians," Weitz tells me. "We are not like the Grateful Dead. We can't jam and play musically from one song to the next. But we still want that effect of not stopping the music. So, one of the things we learned from minimal techno was, instead of jamming from one song to the next like the Dead, we do it like a DJ does it. We'll have one track playing and then we'll figure out a way of mixing another track with the one we're already playing. It's like the four of us are broken up into two turntables, and we have to figure out a way to cross-fade from one turntable to the next."

While Weitz is correct that Animal Collective continues to apply this evolutionary technique to the group's live performances, Here Come the Indians was the last release wholly based upon this application, which I think deserves further investigation by the group.

At this point some of you are probably scratching yer noggins and saying to yourselves, "For a writer claiming to dig Animal Collective, this dude sure is dissing its new jams." And that's true, but only to a certain extent. I am dearly in love with Animal Collective, but Feels, when all is said and done, is nothing more than a slightly eccentric pop record that is at times a bit flawed but at other times pretty damn sweet. And what artistic weight does the phrase "pretty damn sweet" really possess when Animal Collective -- a group whose magical music once trapped my being inside a blue bubble -- is capable of creating, in the words of Brian Wilson, "teenage symphonies to God," or, to quote Allen Ginsberg if God ain't your trip, "Buddhist bubblegum music"?

About The Author

Justin F. Farrar

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