My first encounter with Animal Collective was not a happy one. They were supporting Múm at the Tramway in Glasgow a few years back as part of the Triptych festival. Their set was an awful, self-indulgent mess from start to finish. Ever since then our paths have never crossed. I was well aware of all the hype about Strawberry Jam and the solo projects, but had managed thus far to hear not a single note of their recorded ouevre. It wasn’t wilful avoidance on my part, but I certainly didn’t make any effort either. The buzz around Merriweather Post Pavilion has been such that it became hard to ignore. For once curiosity overcame the bad first impressions. I streamed “My Girls” from their MySpace page, and listened in slack-jawed wonder. So here we are.
With no knowledge of their prior work to place it into context, I’ve no idea if this album represents a progression or retrogression. It scarcely matters – I’ll leave that to others to sort out. In a nutshell, this is fifty-five minutes of lush but twisted pop. Alternatively, it’s fifty-five minutes of experimental laptop trickery with a frosted topping of rich and sweet melody. Either way, it’s pretty damned irresistable.
While these songs have hooks and choruses and an air of joyful abandon about them, it’s hard to imagine them being belted out down at your local’s karaoke night any time soon. The vocal harmonies spring from an American pop-rock tradition that includes the likes of the Four Seasons, the Rascals and the Mamas and Papas, but most obviously the Beach Boys. There’s something strikingly Wilson-esque about the singing on many of the tracks. But it’s not so much the harmonies, as the way the band use counterpoint – each freely singing contrasting but complementary vocal lines. It’s particularly apparent on “Guys Eyes”. The voices have obviously been fed through software to get the pitches just right – but far from being a simple cheat, they’ve used the process to create a strangely alien feel.
The music that underpins all this is a patchwork of loops. Sometimes, as on “No More Runnin’”, they are instantly recognisable (string bass and piano), sometimes they could be anything – speeded up, slowed down, tweaked, distorted and generally rendered unrecognisable. The synth arpeggio that leads into “My Girls” is a dead ringer for the Source and Candi Staton’s brilliant “You Got the Love”, and if by osmosis, it immediately lends the song an anthemic quality.
There isn’t a track on the album that doesn’t pull its weight, but perhaps the best are the aforementioned “My Girls” and the closing “Brother Sport”, which makes all that precedes it seem positively downbeat in comparison. With vocal harmonies straight out of eighties American FM radio, the middle eight goes all Altern8! It’s like Styx turned up at Tribal Gathering, and everyone was too loved up to care.
Merriweather Post Pavilion could turn out to be one of the biggest records of the year – not just one of the best-received critically. Like the Flaming Lips, Animal Collective successfully manage to be upbeat, optimistic and joyous without a hint of cheese – not an easy thing to achieve. And it could well plug into a growing need for some cheerful escapism. What it proves most of all is that pop and sonic adventure can still be compatible.
1. In The Flowers
2. My Girls
3. Also Frightened
4. Summertime Clothes
5. Daily Routine
7. Guys Eyes
9. Lion In A Coma
10. No More Runnin
11. Brother Sport