Animal Collective

Animal Collective

At the beginning there were two of them - Avey Tare and Panda Bear - banging drums and tweaking synths in their bedrooms, singing strange and sometimes heartbreaking songs about imaginary friends and childhood pets. Carried along by washes of squalling feedback, the music was noisy, and it was weird, but it was, at heart, pop music. This was the start of Animal Collective. For fifteen years Dave Porter (Tare), Noah Lennox (Bear), Brian “Geologist” Weitz and Josh “Deakin” Dibb have been rewriting the musical map, their line-up and aesthetic shifting with each astonishing release as they continue their pursuit of a new psychedelia. Their wild path has taken them from cramped concrete basement shows and forest floor singalongs to immersive installations at the Guggenheim and performances to millions on national television. So where now from here?

“Caveman circles”, says Lennox, discussing the vision for their eleventh full-length album, Painting With; “Caveman circles, the first Ramones record, early Beatles and electronically produced. I think that was kind of our starting point”. Dizzyingly upbeat and gloriously realised, their latest LP bounces and pops with an urgent, ecstatic energy, propelled by polyrhythmic beats and gurgling modular synth, with Lennox and Portner’s vocals gleefully falling in and out of syncopation and off-kilter harmony. The songs are as experimental and deeply textured as anything that has come before but sound as sharp and snappy as chart hits, finding the band at both their most minimal and most ambitious: “The idea with cavemen was about being more primitive - the way we sounded when we were first playing together in New York” says Portner. “I feel like what we were doing with the last record [2012’s Centipede Hz] was something a little more complicated. This time we wanted to strip it down and simplify it, like techno and punk… And then put the Animal Collective filter on it all.”

Working as a trio, Portner, Lennox and Weitz began trading demos in early 2015, pursuing a goal of what Portner calls “really short pop songs: no B.S, get in, get out material…” The three met up in Ashville during that Spring and began exploring the songs together. “I feel like lyrically there’s some really tough stuff” says Lennox, “but the intention was for the songs to have the spirit of trying to work things out. To make things better.” The group made a conscious decision not to tour the songs first in an attempt to keep them fresh, something Weitz found to be “a freeing process. That shift in perspective contributed to how much space is on the record.”

Recording took place in the legendary EastWest Studios in Hollywood, home to sessions by The Beach Boys and Marvin Gaye. Making the space feel like home was essential: they lit candles on lily pads and projected a two-hour reel of dinosaur movies - spliced together by Dave’s sister Abby - on a constant loop. A baby pool was set up to help add to the vibe of the room, but the group soon discovered it sounded amazing when thudded and treated with effects. “Everything sounded good in that room” says Weitz.

You can hear it. Everything about Painting With feels crisp and direct as though delivered in super high-definition Technicolor; the pitter-pattering handclaps of Lying In The Grass, the delirious arcade-hall rave of Burglars, the galloping bass and piano of the radiant On Delay - even Bea Arthur’s introduction to Golden Gal seems to shimmer. The interplay between Avey Tare and Panda Bear’s vocals (recorded while sat on high pedestals to lend the singing an “airy” quality) is brought front and centre with an uncharacteristic clarity: “With the vocals, it’s not like a typical call and response or harmony.” says Lennox, “It’s like two voices become one. Without one singer it doesn’t really work the same way. They dance with each other.” Portner interrupts: “Both vocals are meant to complete one thought”. The band put much of this down to their close collaboration with engineer Sonny Diperri: “He played a big part in how the vocals sounded. We didn’t put a lot of effects on the voices like in the past… We tried to be really careful about reverb, to not make everything washed out. When there is echo on the album almost everything is acoustic reverb. It attests to the greatness of those old studios - it’s cool you can record in your apartment, plenty of great music has been recorded that way, but there is something to say about the time that went into crafting these rooms. It feels like a lost art form.”

In their search for more organic sounds, the trio challenged themselves to incorporate elements they usually find off-putting, either structurally or sonically “I remember specifically we brought up saxophone and brass instruments” recalls Portner. They enlisted the services of multireedist Colin Stetson - whose resumé includes collaborations with Arcade Fire, Godspeed You Black Emperor, Bon Iver and Tom Waits - to appear on the album’s rapturous, swirling opener, FloriDaDa, an ode to breaking boundaries and not seeing any separation in people or places: “We were huge fans of Colin’s and the sound that he has is super unique. We don’t notate a score for somebody, so it was cool to have him come in and lay down a bunch of ideas while the song was playing”. After discovering John Cale was a fan of their music, the group invited him down to the studio to record drones for Hocus Pocus - a slow-burning collage of stroboscopic vocals and bleeping, squelching modular synth that gives way to delirious release. Discovering the song wasn’t in a key the viola could be tuned for came as “a happy surprise” as they found themselves working with Cale’s material in new and exciting ways, his bowed tones and electronic manipulations forming a hypnotic transition into the beautifully sun-warped Vertical.

It’s just that that kind openness to playing with expectation and experimenting with form that lies at the heart of this personal and human album. “When we were doing (2007’s) Strawberry Jam, I thought it would be cool to literally rename ourselves The Painters.” recalls Portner, “Everyone kind of rolled their eyes at that one. But Noah brought the idea back [this time]. We talked about painting - cubism, Dada, these distorted ways of looking at things…” It’s all there in Painting With: the sound of artists finding vivid new ways to shape their ideas and challenge their own conventions, creating music that is at once startlingly fresh and still recognisably, uniquely Animal Collective.

Dan Deacon

Dan Deacon is an outstanding composer. He is also a goddamned instigator. So while he made his Carnegie Hall debut this year, a few weeks later he was getting 10,000 people to do crazy dances at a massive Occupy Wall Street rally in Union Square. Deacon has always made trailblazing music that moves people to do things they wouldn’t normally do. But on his new album, America, he takes that idea a giant step further. “I hope the people who take the time to listen to these songs enjoy them,” says Deacon, “but I hope that anyone looking for anything beyond that can find inspiration to change the world for the better.”

There’s some alchemy going on here. Yes, the lyrics are full of bleak, even apocalyptic imagery, but the music is keenly hopeful, with beats that make you want to dance, teeming major keys that lift the spirit, and Deacon’s voice hollering defiantly from the depths of his own joyous cacophony. Eclipsing its own despair, the music simulates the rush of being involved in something bigger and better than yourself.

Dan Deacon shows are renowned for the spectacle of hundreds, even thousands, of jubilant people doing coordinated movement, whether it’s vast, swirling circles, long, snaking lines or just over-the-top dance contests. It’s a sight to behold, but it’s even more amazing to participate. And for Deacon, what is ostensibly just “fun” started to take on a profound dimension, of people uniting and claiming physical space in an ecstatic act of empowerment. He saw a metaphor in there, a connection with revolutionary movements like the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. America is the soundtrack of that realization — like James Brown once said, “Get up! Get into it! Get involved!”

After 2009’s Bromst, Deacon did a lot of touring, but he also worked a lot in the classical world. In 2011, he played his long-form piece Ghostbuster Cook: Origin of the Riddler with the acclaimed So Percussion as part of New York’s prestigious Ecstatic Music Festival, and New York magazine named it of one of the top 10 classical music performances of 2011. In 2012, Deacon returned to that same festival and premiered the evening-length An Opal Toad with Obsidian Eyes with the NOW Ensemble and the Calder String Quartet. Canada’s 50-piece Kitchener-Waterloo orchestra premiered Deacon’s first orchestral works, “Fiddlenist Rim” and “Song of the Winter Solstice,” in 2011, the same year of Deacon’s first film score, for Francis Ford Coppola’s Twixt. And then there was that Carnegie Hall debut, another So Percussion collaboration, in celebration of the music of John Cage. All of these became part of Deacon’s rich tapestry, woven in with countless sweaty, grimy DIY shows in basements and lofts, viral Youtube videos, and even two comedy tours.

Deacon started out as a solo electronic musician, but after doing tours with the Dan Deacon Ensemble, Deacon began to embrace making music with large groups of people. And so for America, he resolved to do something he’d never done before: try things out in the studio with different players on different instruments. Again: community and people power. America is a study in density, a thick but nuanced mix of acoustic and synthetic timbres, a mix of Deacon’s pop side (as in 2007’s Spiderman of the Rings) and his more composerly side (Bromst). There’s also dance music culture in the DNA of this music, but suffused with the top-to-bottom distortion and overdrive of noise music and the instrumentation and sweep of orchestral music. America has echoes of Steve Reich and Terry Riley for sure, but Deacon engages with minimalism in a maximalist way — dense and relentless, it’s crammed with sound and joy, an overwhelming experience to immerse and dance within.

The opening “Guilford Avenue Bridge” is a vivid instrumental memoir about the early days of the Wham City art collective, when Deacon would throw parties and nervously wait to see if anyone would show up. You can hear his heart pounding with anticipation via powerhouse drumming by Dan Deacon Ensemble member Denny Bowen, then a lull that seems to suggest the empty loft waiting to be filled, and finally a triumphal reprise as people come streaming in for an anarchic night of serious fun.

“True Thrush” is about conformism, apathy, alienation, and just plain losing your way. Pretty grim, right? But it’s a catchy, anthemic, fist-pumping summer jam, possibly the greatest pop song Deacon has ever created. Redemption and transcendence are baked right into the music. Rise above, people! “Lots” is another powerhouse, a rock song that harbors all the animating frictions of America: On the one hand, the narrator walks a dire, apocalyptic landscape, and on the other, he vows, “Now we stand upon a chance/ to break the chains and break the lance” — to break the cycle of oppression and war and build a new world.

The instrumental “Prettyboy” is an idyllic respite from the strife and clamor, just like the song’s namesake, Prettyboy Reservoir Park, about an hour north of Baltimore. But then comes “Crash Jam” — what Deacon calls “a drum-focused vocoder barnburner” — about the timeless, healing power of nature. The song was inspired by a Dan Deacon Ensemble tour that didn’t really gel until the band camped out in a state park in New Mexico and bonded over the campfire — another song about communion and the almost spiritual power a deeply united group of people can have.

The album’s finale, the 21-minute magnum opus “USA,” features 22 virtuosic players, many recruited from the prestigious Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore representing every section of the orchestra in bringing to life this epic cross-country sonic travelogue. As Deacon hurtled across the country on his many tours, he concluded that we’ve lost touch with the beauty of our own land, and spare few opportunities to despoil it. The words, as Deacon says, are “about the destruction of that land and the feeling of being disenfranchised, of having no connection to your home,” but the exultant music of “USA” celebrates that beauty in all its vast and varied glory.

And so what to do? America doesn’t pretend to supply the answers, but it does offer the energy to help us find them. As Deacon is fond of saying, “The future surrounds us. Let us begin.”

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