FatCat – 2005
Animal Collective’s sixth record found the Baltimore-based group striking a perfect equilibrium between their feral early work and the pop instincts of 2009’s masterful Merriweather Post Pavilion; it stands as a remarkable document of one of the most fascinating bands of their time.
As an experiment for Strange Currencies‘ “Mid-Century Kitsch” Month, I asked some of my colleagues to consider more recent albums which have mined similar aesthetic and/or conceptual ground as the post-war era records that they have reviewed. This led to some interesting conversations, and a worthy expansion of the parameters of this month’s theme. For myself, it was at least partially motivated by a desire to write about Animal Collective’s 2005 album, Feels; recently reissued on vinyl by Domino Records.
By 2005, Animal Collective had achieved something of a breakthrough. 2003’s Here Comes the Indian (since renamed Ark) and its 2004 follow-up, Sung Tongs, had worked their way onto the year-end lists of several independent music blogs and websites. For many listeners, the Baltimore group – Dave Portner (aka Avey Tare), Noah Lennox (Panda Bear), and sometimes members Joshua Dibb (Deakin) and Brian Weitz (Geologist) – presented something of an avant-garde alternative to the brand of indie rock that was being brought to mainstream audiences by the likes of Modest Mouse, Spoon, and Arcade Fire in the mid-2000s. Even today, the rustic melodicism of Sung Tongs makes for a singular listening experience, despite its undeniable influence on a generation of experimental pop artists.
Animal Collective’s next album would represent a departure. Whereas Sung Tongs had been recorded by just Portner and Lennox – resulting in its dreamy, spacious ambience – Feels often sounds like the product of a genuine rock band; albeit one with little regard for convention. This new direction was tipped off by the album’s advance single. Announced by a series of cascading guitar lines, “Grass” quickly erupted into the most visceral and gripping track in the group’s catalog to date. While Portner’s vocal leaps and lyrical inscrutability hardly made for easy radio fodder, “Grass” was as hooky as anything being released by any of Animal Collective’s indie rock contemporaries.
A similar pattern holds true for the album’s bookend tracks and its centerpiece. “Did You See the Words” opens Feels on an alluring note; its twinkling piano notes dramatically juxtaposed with crashing cymbal punctuations, eventually giving way to a galloping drumbeat and cathartic crescendo. Thick, tribal drums introduce “The Purple Bottle”; a track whose shape-shifting nature connects it to Brian Wilson’s modular production techniques, and the so-called “feels” that may have provided the inspiration for the album’s title.
So here we are, already a few hundred words into this review, and I still haven’t explained how this record – which is not from the mid-twentieth century, nor would fit into any reasonable definition of kitsch – fits into the picture of “Mid-Century Kitsch Month.” One of the defining characteristics of the genres that Strange Currencies has discussed this month is that they promise a transportive adventure in music; whether in time and/or place. Feels may not advertise it in as explicit a manner as some of the records that we have covered recently, but it provides a listening experience that is every bit – if not significantly more – immersive as any of them.
It’s after “The Purple Bottle” where – depending on the listener – Feels either cements its reputation as a modern classic, or drifts too far into the ambient wilderness that largely defined Animal Collective’s preceding records. As if the opening four-song run represented a departure for a new world, the ensuing four-song stretch from “Bees” to “Loch Raven” is the arrival, and subsequent exploration, of a tranquil paradise. Deliberately sparse, and – at times – nearly void of form, these songs compose half of the album’s run-time, but none of its most immediate moments. It’s not until the buoyant closer, “Turn Into Something,” that the early-album exuberance returns.
Among those more subdued tracks, “Banshee Beat” is the album’s Rosetta Stone; the barometer of whether or not Animal Collective’s brand of experimental pop either: A) fails to register; B) hits at merely a surface level; or C) strikes a much deeper chord. To some, its eight minutes come off as meandering, while others describe it as the exact kind of song that one longs to “live within.” It’s this very dichotomy that arguably made Animal Collective the most divisive group in American indie music during their mid-to-late-2000s peak. If a band are going to strive to create an entirely new vocabulary for guitar-based music – and to those who think they failed in that regard, check out this live performance of Sung Tongs – they’re bound to inspire strong opinions. Personally, considering their stretch from Sung Tongs to 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion – a run that also included Panda Bear’s glorious 2007 solo LP, Person Pitch – I think it’s hard to argue that the decade produced a more vital band.
With 2007’s Strawberry Jam – and to an even greater extent on Merriweather Post Pavilion – Animal Collective would take a turn in a far more pop-oriented direction. The vocals that had largely been a textural element in the band’s earlier work gave way to a much more direct lyricism. While lyrics had never been the group’s main selling point – and even in some of their best work should be considered more for their sound than for their content – the songs were uniformly excellent enough to make both records triumphs. Over a decade after Feels – on a far less celebrated album – they would release a track called “Lying in the Grass.” The attempt to conjure up said setting in aural form came up a bit short, but, perhaps it could be forgiven. With Feels, Animal Collective had already captured that seemingly mundane scene in the most peculiar and arresting manner possible.