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Saturday, 7 February 2009

Guest Review: Baban on Merriweather Post Pavilion

Alan Baban, Eyewear's in-house out-there music critic weighs in on the new Animal Collective work

Prosperity never made me want to listen. Neither does the thought that somewhere there exists this band that, given half a chance, might repurpose my outlook, fashion new gears, change the world, whatnot. Things used to be way simpler way back when— remember? We stood still at Modest Mouse shows and tried to look important with our cigarettes and stale cider, because in our ignorance those things made us thrifty cool (they did!); and the things we did we'd learned from music television; and the noise we made we made in silence; and the death we abandoned ourselves to got syndicated, like everything, the whole of us, mailed-in piercings, silly as fuck. Meanwhile the band played some song on stage and we clapped and it all pretty much blew very loudly. Which was interesting.

Indie carps in a different currency these days— that is to say, what we now think of as 'Indie' is of late a functionally commercial underground; something that sells, but does so in a way that assuages and enlivens that part of ourselves that feels, you know, 'Independent'. It's a hellaciously uncomfortable concept— very silly, obviously —and one that we needn't dwell on too long to pick apart. As if in inheriting self-consciousness as a rite, we also get the assurance through sound that, hey, it's ok, life is a four-letter word, SUCKS, now hear me play this bass solo, etc.

I can't think what my adolescence would have been like without all those cheerfully nodding people, at the cheerily demarcated shows. And as we all move as one into this wormhole of self-definition like an ass-end hero complex with impossible girth and little point, I find myself asking— well, y'know, was it all worth it? Did I actually have to see The Arcade Fire twice? Or in a church? Were The Boredoms worth it? And howsoever did a Zwan sticker become a big enough deal for it to land body-centre on my favourite red guitar, by my favourite picking place, in a spot previously scouted for Momus, and Weezer. (Weezer being exceedingly important to me back then.)

I think about these things. As we regress further into our screen-names and micro-memes, I think about them some more. I think about them like I think about wet floors; they're important to me. Clickable icons become a sort of second-grade rock trope—what we once pretended to enjoy in public, we're now free to bugbear in the privacy of our own homes. It takes some people a Herculean resolve to even admit listening to U2 these days. That strikes me as kind of sad. Some of the more interesting records of recent years have been made by those artists who don't necessarily take risks, but avoid the fuss involved in needing to take the risk; artists who respond in their own way so not a single line or phrase overlaps with the connotations others may bring to those lines were they to be sat down, parsed out and plain-written. Call it imagination with a minimum of fuss. Animal Collective, at this point, is calling it as it comes.

I want to say these guys' sound is 'preterperfect', because a) that seems like a very cool word, and b) I think it's apt. No two AC records sound alike: if one were to place with some authority where this group might go next, it would be an alien wildstab qualified by the assertion that the territory doesn't yet exist, but when it does (we hope it will), shit will be titanic. To quote my editor: Animal Collective keep getting better. Some acts spend their careers in a slow crawl towards imaginative refrigeration; since 2004's underground breakthrough Sung Tongs, the core duo of Panda Bear and Avey Tare have come unstuck in reverse, letting behind the shell of their freeform but none of its persuasion; each subsequent release has sounded like a more condensed, so unassailably different version of non-verbal themes and feelings that the band had begun to approach before. 2005's spectral Feels found the group in a rough ascension, throwing stones and falling in love. Strawberry Jam (2007) saw that love through the act of living largely— experimenting with loops whilst recontextualising sound collage as the new pop, gaudy but implicit; contrary, anyway, to the purity and exactness of any one genre.

By now you've probably heard Merriweather Post Pavilion. It is, by any account, a phenomenal achievement; and one that very much feels like it earns that tag, really deserves to be exhausted like this, praised, talked about, argued. It's a landmark. But also: an extraordinarily well-paced pop/dance set from a band at the height of their powers, free of tattle and whom, you feel, really love what they're doing. Here is the pure distillation of electro and dub and trance and tropicalia they've been hinting at. From opener "In The flowers" out, this is Animal Collective seizing their Big Pop Moment and coming up with roses, repeatedly. Going into details does seem pointless. But suffice to say that never before has the sweet/sour of Panda's oceanboy vibes and Avey's slightly more spazzed freefolker worked so well together, or seen so much glorious low-end. The bass throughout is ridiculous— talking the other day, a friend mentioned that he felt "My Girls" – Panda's paean to family, friendship, security – on a pair of expensive headphones is, like, a message from God. Its mix of coruscating keys and ethereal drones is littered with sonic beauty-spots: sound-aspects designed to direct us deep into the song's mainline so there's no confusion; no trifling; nothing but that which is brought into effect by some operation, or spring-loaded hook.

Animal Collective preach community, diversity, fun. And Merriweather is their high point to date: the psych-out album as domestic carpeting as concealed weaponry. That, by the way, is a really good thing.

Baban is a poet, writer, and and medical student based in London.
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