Animal Collective


(Fat Cat; 2005)

By Scott Reid | 20 October 2005

What the fuck.

Just listen to this thing; a convoluted mess of psychedelic art- genres with underlying awkward sexual lyrics ("You'd be very happy if I touched her there / I was very nervous how I felt in there"), vocal chants, random screaming and lots of discordant bursts. Even its cover outweirds CocoRosie's three-unicorns-going-at-it art for Noah's Ark: a couple of kids spewing a dark purple substance out of their mouths, one severing the head of the group's hatted dunce, who just happens to be growing out of a basket. A small goat cowers in the corner, its eyes bleeding like the red-faced girl peaking in on the scene from behind.

It's... different. But it's hard to fault the band for being purposefully weird when it's all tied to their most accessible release yet. Feels, Animal Collective's grotesquely ambitious fifth record, marks the group's first recording as a four-piece --- now including full-time members Deakin and Geologist ---, which might have a lot to do with the album's decidedly "poppier" tangents; it's an easier listen than last year's Sung Tongs and a world apart from the tribal noise of its predecessor, Here Comes the Indian. With the role of percussion continuing to change, and noise becoming more a production tool than a constant defining part of their sound, the Collective spend the majority of Feels playing to the strengths of Tong's accessible, and best, material like "Leaf House," "Winter's Love" and "Mouth Wooed Her."

Well, mostly. But this isn't a clear-cut or a '50 word blurb' kind of record; focus on any one aspect, like the percussive role of almost everything, for too long and you're missing something else that holds the whole thing together. Focus on the lyrics and, well, good luck; it's not all abstract psych jibberish, but if you know what "Oh blissful bleed I came out peaking and leaked out like a wet clown" or "the jumping dust made catfish bust from corners now dripping with mud" means, you let me know.

There's just too much. The production alone needs at least a paragraph: the layered, rhythmic guitar picking that expands on what a lot of their older material was going for, the minimal but creatively varied arrangements, unconventional percussion and melody structure, the enormous attention to detail, even when the songs are too boring to really care about. It's the kind of dedication to how the album sounds that makes an otherwise tedious song like "Daffy Duck" worth the effort; listen to the way the production swells after each build, unraveling it, slowing it down, dismantling it before the guitar starts over, timidly, again. Instruments begin to slowly trickle in, building up more uniform, serene folk that's cut off before a (probably not in the cards to begin with) climax.

These kinds of unsettling shifts in atmosphere are all over the record. The unrelenting psych warble that smothers the official Chet Betz "It Sucks" snoozer "Flesh Canoe" is one of the excesses; like "Bees," the production becomes numbing after too much repetition, effectively wasting a series of individually good ideas. On the other hand, there's the unforgettable yelping chorus that pushes "Grass" over the top; again, they're balancing the accessible with the awkward --- underneath the nagging screams are soft, arching harmonies and subtle piano, given an incredible contrast by the atmospheric layering.

The more structured, "Leaf House"-like moments shift ideas like the Futureheads of whatever the hell genre this is; "Did You See the Words" alone has at least four good-to-great parts, some with a welcome Remain in Light vibe, others (!) older Mercury Rev and (!!) darker Jesus Hits Like the Atom Bomb-era Tripping Daisy. Whereas "Grass" gets new life out of the same payoff by playing with the build-up, "Words" pushes forward with each section until it implodes, leaving only washes of piano and vowel chanting by the song's end. Like the rest of the album's best songs, it's structured and thought out very similarly to the best of mid-'60s Brian Wilson (think Smiley Smile, the only era that really applies to AC), in segments of ideas and musical (his word) "feels." The Purple Bottle" is probably the most extreme example here; it peaks after a series of upbeat, percussion-heavy "verses," then keeps rambling for another three minutes --- full of more steady chorused guitar rhythms and glorified sound poetry.

I'd love to go on about how "Banshee Beat" is the album's centerpiece, but CMG's Peter Hepburn already hyped up the track around here, lovingly pointing out "the chord change at 2:25 that makes the song; where it goes from being another droning hippie cry to a full-fledged pop anthem." Again, it's one of those great shifts that relies as much on production technique as arrangement or vocal melody. "Loch Raven," another of the album's "do more of this, please" moments, puts it all to use. It's practically this year's "Winter's Love" --- melodic ambient-folk that chases its tail slowly, repeating a beautiful, understated vocal melody, this time with a whispered "lead," and Feel's usual atmospherics, like the sporadic, jarring screams and rewinding tape.

And though I should be wrapping this review up right about now, the record ends with something else that needs its own paragraph: "Turn Into Something." It's the kind of boisterous art-pop direction Minus Story should've gone in after "Joyless, Joyless," and it stands out here like Akron/Family's 'wacky art-rock' juggernaut "Running, Returning" did on their debut: there's the same off-kilter harmonizing, energy that's more than a dramatic spasm, at least three distinctly great parts and prominent, assuming vocals. Then there's the ending: the chorus quickly blends into ambient fuzz with a really echoed, haunting falsetto over more layered guitars and white noise. It's kind of like that final wash at the end of "Motion Picture Soundtrack" --- if I can go with the most popular parallel I can think of --- except extended and controlled, allowed to evolve as a gorgeous epilogue instead of immediately fading out.

The long overdue bottom line: only A/Fam (check out their half of the upcoming Angels of Light split, just incredible) are doing this capital ART psych-folk thing as well these days; Minus Story went too soft, Elevrum too abstract, Banhart too inconsistent, the Furnaces too gimmicky, Xiu Xiu too... Xiu Xiu. Even with "Flesh Canoe" and "Bees" weighing it down, Feels takes the Collective in an exciting new direction, creating the kind of record that expands on the group's less esoteric strengths while also pushing their sound forward. It's also an oddly listenable album, which might just nudge it over Sung Tongs (my 87% for that was a couple points too high, easy; blame it on the honeymoon), offering more with the amount of attention and forgiveness you're willing to invest.

There's also the obvious: for some, all the attention and forgiveness they can muster still won't make the record interesting or remotely worth their while. No question, some people are going to knee-jerk Feels back to wherever they got it --- I'm talking violent, vengeful, "90% of the non-Patton fanboys that ever heard Disco Volante" hate. And like those of us (CMG's Sean Ford, Peter Hepburn, Matt Stephens, etc.) that will stubbornly stand by this as one of the year's best, they'll have plenty of good reason. I mean, just listen to this thing.

What the fuck.