Typically, when bands reach a certain age, their intent is to evoke a musical maturity rich with wisdom and distance from the folly of youth.
The four members of Animal Collective are quite content to be heading in the opposite direction. From their playful aliases – Avey Tare (David Porter), Panda Bear (Noah Lennox), Geologist (Brian Weitz) and Deakin (Conrad Deaken) – to the clip-art collage of children adorning the cover of their well-received ‘05 release, Feels, the Animal Collective revel with a child’s sense of wonder at a world of musical possibility.
Formed in 2000 by high school musical friends in Baltimore, Md., Animal Collective has recently found itself lumped into the freak-folk scene along with the likes of Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom, based primarily on their mostly acoustic break-through disc, 2004’s Sung Tongs. But over the course of seven full-lengths, Animal Collective has constructed their one-of-a-kind audio collages from a broad range of musical influences: electronica, ambient drone, ‘60s psychedelia, noise-rock, African tribal rhythms, dance pop and underground hip-hop is just a partial role call.
“Our music is as much electronica as it is rock as it is musique concrete,” says Porter, alluding to the electronic music pioneered in the ‘50s that edits fragments of natural and industrial sounds.
That potpourri of styles makes categorizing Animal Collective’s sound an effort in futility – sort of like playing charades with someone equipped with a limitless number of hands. Animal Collective share as much in common with current cut-and-splice artists like Fourtet and Fennesz as they do with Kylie Minogue, Mad Lib, Can, Brian Wilson and Syd Barrett. The one constant is that each record captures a child’s wide-eyed fascination with everything great and horrible – not some Dr. Phil-approved, hermetically sealed version of our inner kiddies, but something more akin to an updated, poppier version of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are opera.
Feels is an auditory funhouse mirror, managing to be both epic and intimate. Musical elements take on distorted proportions, much like the knee-high vantage point we looked at the adult world from as kids. The record combines dense, interwoven rhythms, multi-tracked vocals, oceanic synth washes and processed electric guitars, all congealed together in sunbursts of melodic bliss. “Kaleidoscopic” is an oft-used description for multi-textural music, but nowhere is its application more valid than with Animal Collective.
The opening cut from Feels, “Did You See the Words,” exhibits Animal Collective’s open-armed approach and multi-sensual attack. It begins with a field recording of children at play and a few tentative piano notes alluding to “Jingle Bells” (much as a jazz soloist will briefly quote from a nursery rhyme) before erupting in a colorful explosion of sound. “The Purple Bottle” juxtaposes click-track percussion with layers of vocal radiance, like some twisted, post-modern Gilbert O’Sullivan operetta; “The Bees” includes auto-harp arpeggios, cascading piano runs and distorted, cartoon-ish vocals; “Daffy Duck” is all shimmering guitar lines and quavering voices; “Loch Raven” contrasts rolling drums with gentle glockenspiel-like chimes, calming synth waves and whispered lyrics; and tribal rhythms propel disc closer “Turn Into Something” toward a heated crescendo before the song winds down in an echo-chamber of psychedelic, disembodied voices.
In the end, Feels winds up being the perfect disc title for music that is as much about sight and touch as it is hearing.
“We’re into making textures and making our songs a little bit more like an environment rather than just something you’re just bobbing your head to in your car,” says Porter.
But Animal Collective’s greatest accomplishment may be translating to a live setting music this dense with atmospheric and incidental sound. Using mini-disks and samplers to replicate most of the studio alchemy, Porter and Co. nevertheless make concessions to the live arena. But sold-out West Coast dates filled with dancing listeners suggest the transformation is a success.
“For us, a record and a live performance are two completely different things,” Porter says. “Live, it’s more about energy than it really is trying to recreate the record. We’re concerned about how it sounds but we’re a little bit more concerned with building off the live energy and what’s happening on stage, just getting something going and keep it going.”
Paradoxically, while the music on Feels evokes childhood wonder, lyrically the record deals with the adult theme of relationships – specifically Porter’s with Feels’ pianist Kristin Anna Valtysdottir (Múm, Mice Parade). On previous Animal Collective records, voices were treated primarily as additional instruments, but on Feels, Porter felt compelled to use his lyrics as a “guide to the songs’ meanings.” There’s still plenty of feral yowling and banshee cries of joyous abandon, but Porter’s words are more comprehensible and featured higher in the mix.
“I had a lot more to say personally about stuff that was happening in my life and our lives,” says Porter. “A lot of (Feels) has to do with words and writing and how words affect emotions.”
But the primary catalyst remains the vast pageant of music the band views as their auditory palette, and the obvious joy they derive from mixing familiar musical colors into never-before-experienced new ones.
“(Feels) also has as its base emotion just a lot of joy for playing music,” Porter says, “and all of us playing together because we’re not all in the same place at the same time anymore, so when we are it becomes really special.”
And as the old saw goes, if it feels good, do it – and Feels certainly does.
[John Schacht is a regular contributor to Paste, Harp, All Music Guide and several other music publications.]
Animal Collective plays the Orange Peel (101 Biltmore Ave.) Monday, March 20, at 9 p.m., with Nix Noltes. $15 ($13/advance). 225-5851.