Animal Collective f/ Vashti Bunyan

Prospect Hummer

(Fat Cat; 2005)

By Peter Hepburn | 14 September 2007

Around the time Animal Collective’s fantastic 2004 release, Sung Tongs, came out, I went on a small campaign to convince my friends that the boundaries of pop music were expanding. No longer was the genre to be merely a tool of the well-kempt and light drug-abusing. Sung Tongs, along with the Devendra Banhart, Vetiver, and Joanna Newsom records, showed a new generation of musicians who were, while indebted to the music and legend of Brian Wilson, also willing to move the music forward. The Banhart made my friends smile, the Vetiver elicited little response, the Newsom was met with a mix of repulsion and laughter, and no one seemed to know what to make of Sung Tongs. Needless to say all parties involved lost interest before I could whip out that Panda Bear solo album.

Compared to the earlier material, Sung Tongs really is Animal Collective playing pop music, and with even a cursory listen you really can hear that organic beauty pushing through. The perfect opening quartet of that album, ending with the absolutely gorgeous “Winters Love,” is a flawless piece of pop. Sure, it’s not revivalist in the way that the music of The Apples in Stereo, The Brian Jonestown Massacre or The Olivia Tremor Control reinvented the music of the late ‘60s, but it nonetheless draws inspiration from many of the same psychedelic folk and rock artists. It’s druggy, it’s crazed, it’s incomprehensible most of the time, and it’s also often deeply beautiful.

Both Animal Collective and Banhart had always made a fuss about the inspiration offered by Vashti Bunyan, a little-known British folk musician turned recluse. They sparked enough interest to lead to a reissue of Bunyan’s only record, the lovely Just Another Diamond Day. As a dutiful music critic/freak-folk fan, I picked it up. While Bunyan certainly has a lovely voice and some of her imagery is fantastic, the album feels dated and never really clicked in the way that much of the music of the newer generation has.

Of course, with her rising popularity, Bunyan has reemerged, and for her first project she gets Animal Collective as a backing band, complete with yelps, screams, and gently floating wails. Maybe I’m growing overly cynical, but even after a few dozen listens through, Prospect Hummer sounds more like slapped together noise than the pop music of which Bunyan and Animal Collective are more than capable. It’s not always bad, it just seems disappointingly mismatched.

Opener “It’s You” has most of the faults on easy display. The song is reminiscent of the ethereal strumming and faded vocals of Panda Bear’s wonderful Young Prayer, a sound to which Bunyan would seem well-suited. The song simply falls flat—Bunyan never manages the emotion to make the huge guitar waves seem anything more than melodramatic, and as the song goes nowhere lyrically we’re left listening to Bunyan drown in a sea of reverb.

“Propsect Hummer” itself introduces a more clearly Animal Collective sound, based around a chanted beat and still with percussion and vocals flitting in and out from the strangest places. The latter half is more Bunyan, and it benefits from her still-vibrant voice and typically strange images. “Baleen Sample” is one giant crescendo (with steel drums) in search of a raison d’Ítre. The EP closes on it’s strongest note, with the relatively straight-forward “I Remember Learning How to Dive,” which is clearly more Bunyan than Animal Collective. It’s a lovely song, and it’s performed well, but I can’t help thinking that it’s not benefiting at all from having Animal Collective involved.

That’s really the main problem with the whole thing. “It’s You” would be a good Panda Bear song, “Baleen Sample” is just Animal Collective, and “I Remember” would be better as just Bunyan without the random Animal Collective squawks. “Prospect Hummer” is the only song that truly seems to benefit from the collaboration, and even that feels somewhat hollow. It’s a shame, but Prospect Hummer is just one of those ideas that, pop music or not, sounds better on paper than coming through your speakers.