|Photo by Do Lee|
Animal Collective’s new Sung Tongs is a midcareer revelation, forging an entirely new sound so obvious, so natural, that it seems like what they should have been doing all along. In that way, it ranks with Radiohead’s O.K. Computer, the Notwist’s Neon Golden and My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless — it will make previous fans acknowledge the group has taken it up a step, while causing formerly indifferent listeners to drop what they’re doing, drop their jaws and wonder what else they’ve missed. The difference between Animal Collective and the abovementioned Big Rock Bands isn’t a question of quality so much as ambition: Animal Collective don’t have much of it.
Earlier this year, I got my most profound insight into the gestalt that supports the ever-mutating four-piece. They were playing a benefit for New York’s Anthology Film Archives, a temple to ’60s experimental filmmakers — Stan Brakhage, Harry Smith, Michael Snow — that calls itself “the first film museum exclusively devoted to the film as an art.”
Animal Collective were introduced by Jonas Mekas, the center’s octogenarian founder. “I like nervous people,” he declared. “I saw this guy at the Olympics, and the commentator said, ‘You seemed nervous before you ran the 1,000 meters.’ And the runner said, ‘When I feel nervous, I feel great!’”
The reminiscence was likely triggered by the skittish look shared by the capacity audience and the featured performers — thin, pale, longhaired and generally unkempt, but not in the highly styled, Strokes-ian fashion ubiquitous during the latest rock revival. Rather, I imagined the crowd as an analogue to those who attended a Sonic Youth show in 1985, a Velvet Underground Exploding Plastic Inevitable gig in 1966, or a Fugs jam at the Peace Eye Bookstore in 1964. Beatifically indifferent to standard ambition, these were people intent on perfecting their own idiosyncrasies.
Animal Collective is Avey Tare, Panda Bear, the Geologist and Deaken (a.k.a. David Portner, Noah Lennox, Brian Weitz and Josh Dibb), friends who met while attending various high schools in Baltimore County, Maryland. They perform and record in various configurations, depending on who’s interested.
“We had this understanding really early on that we never wanted music to be a controlling factor in our lives,” says Portner near his Brooklyn home, far deeper into the borough than most young bohemians tread. “There’s not a strict ‘You have to be here at this time’ rule, because we’re all the type that gets bogged down in that kind of situation.”
Animal Collective’s first four albums betrayed a similar diffidence. There were flashes of brilliance — the members’ musical connection borders on the psychic — but they fixated on painful feedback, semiconscious blurtings, and washes of unleashed electronics that sounded like a contact microphone attached to a band saw.
“Some of the records aren’t so crowd-pleasing,” admits Portner. “I thought audiences might be interested in experiencing sound and how it occupies space. But I’ve learned a lot of stuff — like that people aren’t into high frequencies.”
Sung Tongs takes some cues from the lessons learned. Released on Fat Cat — the label that brought us Sigur Ros — it marks a shift away from noisy confrontation and toward frenetic rhythms, singsong melodies and harplike acoustic guitars. The group now seem intent on getting us lost in the dreamy notions that inform their worldview.
Take, for example, the dropout anthem “Who Could Win a Rabbit,” the closest thing to a single that Animal Collective are likely to produce. Opening with pitch-shifted voices and a metronomically strummed acoustic guitar, it soon erupts into a lush mass of multitracked vocals, hard-played guitars and, in the background, a hollow percussive beat like knocks on a cardboard box. When densely arranged handclaps emerge, the line between melody and rhythm is magically erased. The sound experiments serve as backdrop to the real action — heedless melodies, a childlike mood and the band’s guileless convictions.
“Hungry-bread-and-butter-hustle,” goes the lyric. “You’ve-been-doing-it-awhile . . . Where’s-the-time-required-for-your-health?”
In 2004, when underground bands are again trying furiously to reconcile credibility with mainstream ambitions, it’s a curiously anachronistic posture, and a welcome one: Turn on, tune in and hang out — eventually your time will come.
Animal Collective play the Echo on Friday, August 27, and the Knitting Factory on Saturday, August 28. View a video for “Who Could Win a Rabbit” at www.paw-tracks.com.