(Paw Tracks; 2011)
By Alan Baban | 26 April 2011
Concentrate. Which is literally what’s disarming about the skin-off-the-knuckles style here on Tomboy, Noah Lennox’s fourth solo LP—not to mention his best—as Panda Bear. From its odd, mascara-leaking cover art, to some honestly terrifying production tricks courtesy of ex-Spaceman Sonic Boom, to the songs themselves, this record is not easy listening—not the cute quilt-work we might have been expecting after 2007’s mammoth (i.e., generous, fantastical, but maybe a bit overrated) exercise in skin graftings, Person Pitch. Tomboy is way different: it forces us to concentrate because it is concentrated, often demandingly so. Like its long, harried gestation and opaque simplicity suggest, herein churns the sediment of something bigger and more unruly and, I guess, with more narrative slime. …Who am I kidding? This shit is slimy enough.
There’s real and painful life in Tomboy. The tremolo’d, mudskipping rhythms of “Friendship Bracelet” conceal the terror of slowly drifting apart from old friends. On album standout “Alsatian Darn,” a song conceivably discharged from the stubbly gut of an old rock monster (like “Monkeywrench,” but in a good way), Lennox is shockingly coherent, singing again and again, “Can I do a bad thing?” It’s confrontational, embarrassing, and even spasmodic as it bobs in and out of the simple drum pattern, catchy as all hell. “Surfer’s Hymn” is built on a smear of electronics and clicks that brings to mind—not the beach, not a big, glooping sun—a group of paralyzed eye muscles twitching back to life in some sorta concert. Lennox tops it by announcing, “When there are hard times / I step it up.” Which is Tomboy in a nutshell: pieces that are individually arresting, frozen as they are in whatever emotionally storm-tossed fuck-up they’re turning into art and an NPR DJ slot.
This is without a doubt the best material we’ve heard from him, at least as far as inventiveness is concerned, on the making-others-feel-jealous meter: the material here is so clearly his own to handle and meld and play with. Authoritatively. The first side is one of singles, culminating in the spectral, awesome “Last Night at the Jetty,” the skipping beat of “Slow Motion,” and, fuck, the go-on storm noise segment that closes out “Afterburner.” And all of this sounds, somewhat, maybe, like grunge in a submarine. (Consider the way he deals with writing “rock” material without ever really rocking out—this is going to ding the green-eyed bell at the top of many people’s meters particularly hard. Mad skills.) Lennox makes guitar sound like the aftermath of a sulphurous volcanic event. “Tomboy” and “Darn” have chord progressions, sure, but none of Nirvana’s wicked crunch or the exacting viperlines of some of the other bands he’s been copping to in recent interviews. For a record so stacked with layers upon layers of manipulated sound (even “Drone,” the couple-notes hymnal that splits the sides of the album, is gross, thick, has been put through however-so-many processes to make it sound fished-up and brackish), there’s still the sense that one may be missing something. Everything is so treated that Tomboy is persistently sounding just a bit off. It is reconstituted Panda Bear, which, believe it or not, is actually better than old Panda Bear and all the bands and artists who sound like old Panda Bear.
He knows this is concentrated; that this degree of compaction with no let-up over fifty minutes is going to put certain strains on the listener. Then throw in Sonic Boom’s production—one imagines him feeding Lennox’s original mixes into a record player, the needle of which has been replaced by a spiked heel—and what do you have: something that’s just extremely noisy? Obviously not.
But sometimes, in the wrong mood, Tomboy can come across as eleven great songs chipping away at each other. Like Panda Bear’s dropped a single fat grenade on an unsuspecting crowd and the aftermath is a lot of (generous, fantastical, probably going to be a bit underrated) dust. What’s better: maybe that was the point all along.