Icon: Animal Collective

Andrew Parks

By Andrew Parks

on 09.04.12 in Icons

Not to pull an I-was-there or anything, but the first time I saw an Animal Collective show – eight years ago at a decrepit art space in Philadelphia – I thought the whole thing was an elaborate joke, an Andy Kaufman-esque piece of performance art for Pitchfork readers. Not because their music was laughable; because everything about their slapdash set seemed too strange. It was as if the very idea of “arty” indie rock was being sacrificed at the altar of two screeching, instrument-swapping mad men – Baltimore bros who went by the names Panda Bear and Avey Tare, and looked as if they were dressed for a Lord of the Flies audition.

What I didn’t realize is that Animal Collective shows are supposed to be mind-fucking affairs. They’re that way by design, thanks to the quartet’s unorthodox mindset and methods, which have barely budged over the past decade. Namely their insistence on calling any release with at least two marquee members an Animal Collective record – they’re a “Collective,” not a band…get it? – and their expectation-warping set lists, which often draw more selections from in-progress material than any of their crowd-pleasers.

In other words, Animal Collective is one of the iPod generation’s most pivotal acts, an ever-evolving mass of record collector references and DJ culture nods – everything from the severely stoned jam sessions of the Grateful Dead and the psychedelic folk of the Incredible String Band to the clean minimal lines of German techno and the note-mashing noise of Black Dice – that doesn’t sound like anything but Animal Collective.

For better or for worse, post-everything pop music doesn’t much ballsier, or more infinitely rewarding, than the following records…

In Reverse Chronological Order

The word on the street is that Animal Collective's ninth studio album – yes, ninth – is a red-blooded response to the sunshine and puppy dogs of Merriweather Post Pavilion. Which is true in regards to its approach (bashed instruments rather than stacked samples) and overall vibe (wild and wooly), but it's not like the group's core quartet is back to baking batches of incoherent noise rock. To understand where they're coming from this time around, it helps to first cue up the podcasts that Animal Collective leaked in the weeks leading up to Centipede Hz's release; namely Geologist's set, which is based on an elaborate mix he made for producer Ben Allen before Animal Collective hit the studio.

"We put together a list of songs that either encompassed the overall sound and vibe, or just had specific things we liked, such as drums sounds, or vocal effects," Geologist wrote in his Mixcloud notes. "For the final show of AC Radio we thought it'd be cool to play this inspirational mix and the album back to back."
Sure enough, Animal Collective's leading loop surgeon offers more than a few clues about the background of what's initially a very bewildering listen, from Barrett-era Pink Floyd and latter day Portishead to slivers of psych, rarified garage rock and manic world music. None of which are immediately apparent on the first or 50th spin. Instead, Centipede Hz unfolds like a series of scrambled radio transmissions, right down to the tortured transitions between each track. It's as if the band's tapping into a broadcast from the great beyond, with little regard for the amphitheater-ready hooks that made Merriweather Post Pavilion such a joy. Where that album's leadoff single ("My Girls") flooded the endorphin levels of anyone within earshot, this one is prefaced by the stuttering rhythms and ravenous "let, let, let, let, let, let GO!" choruses of "Today's Supernatural." Listen to any of these songs loud enough and you'll be forced to step back a few feet; it's that harsh and heavy, from the trash compactor intro of "Moonjock" to the skittish synths of "Wide Eyed," the first song to feature lead vocals from the group's guitarist, Deakin.

In conclusion, do not take the brown acid at your next Animal Collective show. Your synapses will thank you.

It's probably best to approach this limited Record Store Day LP as a parting gift for anyone who witnessed Animal Collective's Guggenheim Museum "performance" on March 4, 2010. A co-production with longtime A/V partner Danny Perez (see also: such deliciously demented music videos as "Who Could Win a Rabbit" and "Today's Supernatural"), Transverse Temporal Gyrus presented abstract sound collages in a "kinetic, psychedelic environment" of "video projections, costumes and props, rendering the band members and performers into intense, visual abstractions." That's convoluted art school speak for what was basically a living, breathing art installation – frustrating for some, and further evidence of Animal Collective's multi-medium brilliance for others. Stripped of its visual spectacle outside of a special websiteit's not the group's most rewarding half-hour musically, but hey, it's better than a bloated gift shop book about postmodern aesthetics and abstract expressionism, right?

When Animal Collective's guitarist (Josh "Deakin" Dibb) decided to skip the sessions for Merriweather Post Pavilion, the group treated his hiatus as an excuse to embrace the loop-led sounds of their favorite electronic artists (people like Pantha Du Prince and Wolfgang Voigt) and Panda Bear's own mesmerizing solo album, Person Pitch. Tapping Ben H. Allen as their co-producer – a hip-hop head who's worked with everyone from Gnarls Barkley to artists on Bad Boy Records – the trio applied their trademark Beach Boys harmonies to bass-heavy arrangements caught somewhere between a K-hole-addled dance floor and one hell of a lucid dream. Meanwhile, Panda Bear shared his thoughts on (indie) rock stardom throughout "My Girls," a tribute to his wife, daughter and the "proper house" that awaits him across the Atlantic in Lisbon. What could have been a completely corny nod to fatherhood instead became one of Animal Collective's most undeniable anthems, a heat-seeking single that threatened to melt the snow that surrounded the record's January release.

The protracted leak – clusters of cuts, rather than the whole record – of Animal Collective's seventh LP led Panda Bear to beg the then-nascent blogosphere to "put up those other three songs, man, pronto." An understandable request given that Strawberry Jam is one of their most cohesive albums, a tightly wound ball of nervous energy and hooks that are as sticky and bittersweet as the extreme Smucker's closeup on its Avey Tare-conceptualized sleeve. (The singer/multi-instrumentalist was apparently inspired by a surreal pat of airline jelly.) In a testament to the group's growing popularity and the narrowing gap between the underground and mainstream, Strawberry Jam was also the first Animal Collective release to put a dent in Billboard's Top 200 chart, landing at No. 72 despite such challenging – yet oh-so-satisfying – temper tantrums as "Peacebone," "For Reverend Green" and "Fireworks." And so begins one of the strangest success stories of the Y2K era…


The Animal Collective

Getting off to a gate-crashing start with the steady build of "Did You See the Words" and the blood-thirsty choruses of "Grass," Feels rallies against the psych-steeped folk of Animal Collective's previous record (Sung Tongs) and presents one of the group's most powerful and mournful visions of love and loss. At least that's what we think Avey Tare is talking about, as he shifts between soft-spoken tales of swimming pools, study halls, and girls who reek of "fruity nuts and good grains," and restless, free-associative fits that capture growing pains and crippling bouts of nostalgia better than the many 'chill-wave' acts that'd form in Animal Collective's wake – memories of Feels dancing in their head – five years later.

Prospect Hummer

Animal Collective (feat. Vashti Bunyan)

Aside from having a similar fashion sense – lots of paisley prints and loose fits – one of the only uniting forces in the freak-folk hype machine was a shared love of Vashti Bunyan's long-lost Just Another Diamond Day LP. The 30-year-old recording was a benchmark and/or bible for many singer-songwriters in the mid '00s, which makes Prospect Hummer a crucial, cross-generational meeting of the minds. "I loved having the freedom to sing as I wanted," Bunyan said of the three-day sessions that went into the one-off EP. "I was still finding my voice after burying it for years." Now confident for the first time in decades, Bunyan finally released her second full-length in the same month as Feels, making this the sedate puzzle piece between Sung Tongs and Animal Collective's comparatively aggro follow-up.

Sung Tongs

The Animal Collective

Defiantly weird but wildly tuneful, Animal Collective's first major critical breakthrough was filed alongside Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom in the country's emerging "freak-folk movement." And, like the early releases of those two unfairly tagged artists, Sung Tongs is more than just an excuse to move to Laurel Canyon with flowers in your hair and acid tabs in the back of your bellbottoms. It's arguably the most beautiful album Animal Collective ever released, bringing an actual focus to the back-porch folk bent of Campfire Songs and delivering some immediate fan favorites in the process ("Who Could Win a Rabbit," "Kids on Holiday," and "Winters Love," which was featured in a Simpsons episode and the soundtrack of Shortbus, John Cameron Mitchell's porny follow-up to Hedwig and the Angry Inch). Nothing against the rest of the guys in the group, but we can only hope that Panda Bear and Avey Tare cut another record like this all by their lonesome before the band goes their separate ways for good.

Here Comes The Indian

The Animal Collective

In a 2005 interview with Wire magazine, the group's headlamp-wearing sound sculptor (Brian "Geologist" Weitz) admitted that the first album to feature all four members and the Animal Collective name – their previous three LPs were credited to whoever played on them – was one of their darkest periods, creatively and personally. "We were in this cramped room, equipment everywhere, not soundproofed, so noise from other bands came through the walls," he told writer Simon Reynolds. "So there were issues of trying to find your space in the music. That's why the album's so hectic and chaotic. It was trying to shove all this weird energy into one recording." No kidding. Claustrophobic and creepy, Here Comes the Indian is as close as Animal Collective ever came to a nervous breakdown. It's a necessary part of their story nonetheless.

Campfire Songs

The Animal Collective

While it's now filed alongside all of Animal Collective's other albums, Campfire Songs was actually credited to that very name in its original Catsup Plate pressing. A truth-in-advertising title, considering all five songs were tracked live in one take on a Maryland back porch in the middle of November. Some ambient noise was added later, but most of this drone-on disc sounds like exactly what it is: three close friends (presumably) stoned out of their gourd, stepping into the light with spellbound harmonies and crystallized guitar chords. When Animal Collective reunites for family gatherings 20 years from now, this will most likely referred to as the "that magical night before everything changed" – as pure as it gets, really.


The Animal Collective

As mentioned in our eMusic Icon intro, Animal Collective's early shows were downright mad and willfully off-putting. The proof is in the reissue of this rare live record. Originally released in a limited run of just 300 handmade copies, it's full of time capsule tracks that capture some of their strangest transmissions. For serious fans only, or anyone who wants to understand the sonic potential of effects pedals and chain-linked MiniDisc players.

Danse Manatee

The Animal Collective

When FatCat Records reissued Danse Manatee alongside Animal Collective's debut album (2000's Spirit They're Gone, Spirit They've Vanished), the group's early fans were left scratching their heads. Unlike its predecessor's glimpses of locked grooves and magic mushroom melodies, this record is completely off the rails, a fetishistic exploration of high and low frequencies that's absolutely aimless in certain areas. We blame the band's burgeoning friendship with Black Dice, a group that understands the innate power of macerated noise music a little better.

Spirit They\'re Gone, Spirit They\'ve Vanished

The Animal Collective

Largely a solo album – written entirely by Avey Tare and rounded out by Panda Bear's jittery drum lines – Spirit They're Gone, Spirit They've Vanished is what happens when a sensitive boy from Baltimore moves to the Big City. Shit's dark, in other words, showing hints of the hooks to come in such career standouts as "Chocolate Girl," a meandering trip through the enchanted forest that only exists in Avey Tare's troubled mind.