Thursday, January 29, 2009

One World
Melody Maker, 1990

by Simon Reynolds

John Martyn was a castaway on the same hazy archipelago of jazzy-folky-funky-blues as other burnt-out hippy visionaries of the Seventies (V. Morrison, J. Mitchell, etc). Released in 1977, this album takes the oceanic dub-funk of his masterpiece Solid Air's "I'd Rather Be The Devil" even further. The cover features a mermaid diving balletically out of the water and into the air, trailing behind her an iridescent wake of flying fish, and musically, One World is something like a Let's Get It On for the Great Barrier Reef.

Tracks like "Dealer", "Smiling Stranger", "Big Muff", see a bass/clavinet/moog funk-pulse entwined with echoplexed scintillas of guitar like sunlight glancing off wave-crests. Imagine something like U2's "Unforgettable Fire" meets Stevie Wonder's "Superstition". This sound doesn't just caress your skin, it seems to permeate your flesh. Martyn's almost ambient guitar shadings unfurl as beautifully as cigarette smoke shot through by a shaft of sunlight. And his drowsy, bluesy drawl is 50 percent honeyed devotional, 50 percent horny urgency.

In 1977, Martyn's langorous funk and love-is-the-drug, withdrawal-blues must have seemed supremely irrelevant next to the snotty, sexless insurgency of punk. But today One World sounds a helluva lot more modern than The Clash. John Martyn turned the dancefloor into an aquarium a dozen years ahead of A.R. Kane or The Grid. Take the plunge forthwith.

Friday, January 16, 2009

MOTHER NATURE’S SONS: Animal Collective and Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti
The Wire, 2005

By Simon Reynolds

Animals, anthropomorphism, and animism are common preoccupations in psychedelic music. Think of Syd Barrett with his Wind In The Willows obsession, his worship of trees and ditties about effervescing elephants and a mouse called Gerald; or Incredible String Band’s songs about hedgehogs, puppies, snakes and minotaurs. The four members of American group Animal Collective revere the natural world: their record label is named Paw Tracks, their song titles include “Penguin Penguin,” “Bat You’ll Fly”, “Who Could Win A Rabbit” and “We Tigers”. David Portner thinks the obsession relates to “the wild aspect of when we play live – it’s kinda animalistic”, while Josh Dibb reckons it relates to the kind of stripped-down, bullshit-free communion you can experience with cats and dogs. When Dibb talks about his mother, a holistic healer, her outlook sounds precisely how you’d imagine Animal Collective’s worldview: a pantheism in which the cosmic and the mundane intermingle. “She was very supportive of the idea that I could find beauty and wonder – or, if you wanna call it that, God – in everything,” he says. “She experiences God in anything from the deities that any given religion across the world has, to our pets. She totally worships our animals.”

If it’s a truism that bad experience – hardship, heartbreak, neurosis – makes for great music, Animal Collective is one of the rare exceptions that proves the rule. Their music is rooted in happiness. David Portner, Noah Lennox, Brian Weitz and Josh Dibb grew up together in an environment verging on paradise. For the bulk of their pre-college years they attended “progressive” schools that emphasised creativity, imagination and artistic self-expression as part of “a complete kind of education”, as Lennox puts it. The kernel of the group formed when the teenage Portner, Dibb and Weitz bonded at a small private school in Baltimore County, Maryland, near the US’s East Coast. Noah Lennox would join the gang at weekends, having already formed a close friendship with Dibb at an even more hippyish elementary school. Much of Baltimore County consists of woods and farmland, and Portner recalls idyllic times spent at his cousin’s 20 acre farm and nights listening to music under the stars on friends’ back porches. Even the high school was situated in fields, allowing the gang to go on nature walks during lunch breaks.

Far from rebelling against their upbringing, then, Animal Collective have essentially tried to live up to its values. You sense that they carry the blessed beatitude of their pretty unusual adolescence within them; it’s what nourishes their music and informs the whole sensibility of their label, Paw Tracks. Like a spinney full of rare wildflowers circumscribed on all sides by housing developments and road building, this inner resource is both precious and precarious. Because the way of the world will wear it away. “I feel very much like the space I’ve created with these guys as friends came out of high school,” confirms Dibb. “It’s also trying to figure out a way to continue the total playful imagination you had when you were five years old. Comparing it to how you feel as an adult, I equate it to almost like being high all the time. Music is the most powerful means I have to find that again.”

Music making began for the four friends during their high school idyll. Early attempts at forming a group ran in parallel with each of them making recordings individually on tape. Pavement introduced them to the buzz of esoterrorism – the encrypted song-titles, the opaquely evocative artwork. From lo-fi indie rock, the friends quickly progressed to the noise cassette micro-scene of the Pacific North West, centred on outfits like Climax Golden Twins and Noggin. Then, via their love of horror soundtracks such as Tobe Hooper and Wayne Bell’s incidental music for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, they discovered 20th century classical music. “Ligeti and Penderecki are on The Shining soundtrack,” recalls Portner. “We had never heard so-called experimental music at the time, we didn’t know that people made music with textures and pure sound. So we started doing that ourselves in high school, walls of drones with guitars and delay pedals and us screaming into mics.”

Real life gave this teenage cocoon a hard knock in the late 90s when the future members of Animal Collective dispersed to college. For Portner, especially, his three years at NYU felt like pure misery. But although the group was scattered between New York and Boston, they kept the music alive, discussing what they wanted to do sonically and investigating all kinds of arcana. In parallel with his environmental policy and marine biology studies, Brian Weitz hosted a noise show at WKCR, Columbia’s college radio station. “We’d borrow all the avant garde records and take them to Brian’s dorm room and listen to them all night,” recalls Portner. “It wasn’t academic stuff to us. In fact it was more lighthearted music than rock ’n’ roll, in a way, because you could imagine a sound as a weird animated character.” Adds Weitz, “it was never, ‘listen to those microtones’, it was, ‘that sounds like a bird!’. In Boston, meanwhile, Lennox was exploring electronic music, a passion ignited back at boarding school when he moved into a room whose previous occupant had left behind a bunch of records, including The Orb’s UFOrb.

The friends found each other again in the summer of 2000, convening at Portner’s apartment on Prince Street in downtown New York for several months of exploratory jamming using antiquated synths, acoustic guitars and household objects. “If you got tired of playing an instrument you could go and get a fork and a plate!” laughs Weitz. The nascent Animal Collective sought a sound that would organically mesh their diverse interests, from Portner’s and Weitz’s love of horror movie scores to Lennox’s Techno penchant, and their shared passion for vocal harmonies. “We’d try to approach playing an acoustic guitar like you were making Techno,” recalls Portner. “It wasn’t a very big apartment, but we’d work with space a lot, setting up this stereo microphone and an amp on the other side of the room. So it became less about delivering a song than occupying a space.”

Sadly, the copious tape documentation of this summer-long “drunken haze and hash haze” was stolen when Portner moved apartments. Unwisely, the friends packed up the car the night before to make it less stressful on the day, in the process learning a traumatic lesson about leaving belongings in a parked vehicle. Still, as Lennox puts it, “everything since then has been a variation of what we explored that summer. Dave and I had already made the Spirit They’re Gone record, but during the summer we really cracked the egg open. It seemed like we could go anywhere we wanted after that.”

Although it’s now regarded as the first Animal Collective release, Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished was originally credited to just Avey Tare & Panda Bear – the ‘character’ names taken by Portner and Lennox respectively. (Weitz goes by the moniker Geologist, and Dibb is known as Deaken.) As its title hints, Spirit is ethereal psych-folk that finds a gorgeous diagonal between transcendental and twee. Songs like “April And The Phantom” and “Everyone Whistling” bring to mind Tyrannosaurus Rex tweaking out on nitrous oxide. The album explores the disorientation potential of high frequencies, its sound palette largely consisting of acoustic guitar (“jangled to create this fluttering feeling”, says Portner), Lennox’s skittering drums, chirruping and twittering keyboards, and the duo’s high-pitched harmonies. “We started singing in this way where we’d end every phrase with clicks and it was like we were creating these almost-electronic sounds with our voices,” says Portner. “And we could record it in a way where you wouldn’t know what were the voices and what were the other instruments. We like sounds to come into the room and play with your ears. Confusion is always a good thing in music!” Spirit certainly confused the first distributor they sent it to. “Southern Records called us back immediately and said ‘Is there something wrong with this? This music makes our dogs run out of the room’!”

The next emanantion from the Collective camp – Avey Tare, Panda Bear & Geologist’s 2001 album Danse Manatee – was the first swerve in an aesthetic journey that typically involves the group reacting against its previous release. “This Heat meets Incredible String Band” is the description one record shop assistant gave me of this record. Amazingly, Danse Manatee fully lives up to this intrigue-piquing sales pitch, melding these seeming incompatibles into a delicious delirium of songfulness and abstraction. In 2001, the group also made (but didn’t release until later) the stripped-down Campfire Songs. Recorded on a back porch in the open air, the album’s strumming troubadour vibe is the only time Animal Collective have truly intersected with the neo-folk scene.

Animal Collective’s real aesthetic kinsmen at this point were New York based abstract sound outfits Black Dice and Gang Gang Dance. “We started to find a bit of a community,” says Portner. The three groups still share a Brooklyn rehearsal space and play gigs together regularly. Although they are very different entities, all have a commitment to – and reputation for – turning gigs into events, with a vibe that’s electric, verging on shamanistic. “Our way of doing that was wearing masks, to portray the names we had,” explains Portner. According to Dibb, the masks and make-up weren’t theatrical (à la Caroliner Rainbow, an outfit AC are often compared to), but something they did for themselves more than the audience, a way of signalling they were crossing into a “special space”. More recently, though, AC have dropped the dressing-up, except for Geologist, who still sports a headlamp of the type worn by miners and spelunkers. Usually decorated, the lamp has a practical as well as ritual function. When it comes to stage lighting, AC prefer their shows to be as dark possible, and Geologist needs the headlamp so he can see the minidiscs and mixer controls he uses to warp and addle the other members’ playing.

The unique vibration between the four friends was only seriously tested for the first time when Black Dice invited Animal Collective to accompany them on tour in early 2002. “It was our first big tour, going through the South of the US, and pretty brutal,” recalls Portner. “Lots of sleeping on floors. We all lost our minds on that tour.” Lennox, the most sensitive of the foursome, suffered particularly. “Noah’s always had this love/hate thing about playing music with us. He’s the most tour-shy and homebodied. After every tour, he always has this breakdown period, where he’s like, ‘I don’t wanna play any more, guys, I need to do my own thing’.”

Fortuitously, this fraught period resulted in what many regard as the group’s masterpiece, Here Comes The Indian. Returning exhausted from the deep South tour, Animal Collective immediately started writing the material in their cramped and cluttered Brooklyn practice space. “The darkness of that period, it all related to space, in a literal and a metaphorical way,” explains Weitz. “We were in this cramped room, equipment everywhere, not soundproofed, so noise from other bands came through the walls.” It was also the first time all four members had worked on a record together, Weitz elaborates, “so there were issues of trying to find your space in the music”. Poverty and the fact that Lennox and Portner shared an apartment and had the same day job (working at the hip Manhattan record store Other Music) exacerbated the sensation of claustrophobia. Then the group embarked on another cabin-fever tour before returning to record HCTI in the summer of 2002, “the absolute heart of that darkness”, as Weitz puts it. “That’s why the album’s so hectic and chaotic. It was trying to shove all this weird energy into one recording.”
Vocal extremism is an Animal Collective hallmark, and Here Comes The Indian teems with unhinged incantations, animalistic throat noise, heavily processed voices, and grotesque lattices of harmony. The standout track “Panic”, made almost entirely out of vocal sounds, seems like an attempt to capture the vertigo and paralysis of an anxiety attack. But it also transmits something of the original Ancient Greek meaning of ‘panic’: a transport of ecstasy-through-terror. It’s a bit like Tim Buckley’s blissed voicescape “Starsailor” turned inside out. ““Panic” is based off a vocal thing Dave and I did in my old bedroom in Brooklyn,” says Lennox. “I’m following Dave’s voice in a kind of Indian style.” Portner stumbled across the eerie ululation on a minidisc and persuaded the group to take it to the next level, adding a swarm of vocal overdubs and feeding them through effects.

During this troubled time for the four friends, the collective pressure cooker was further stoked by Lennox’s having to deal with his father’s terminal illness. He began working on what would become the 2004 Panda Bear album Young Prayer, a tribute and elegy to his dad. “It was a gift for him. And he did get to hear the roughs of the album’s songs, if not the finished version. That was recorded in the room he actually died in, so it was especially intense. With Young Prayer, I wanted to tell him that he had taught me really well. I wanted to be like, ‘It’s been really good hanging out and learning from you, you’ve been a really good man and set a good example’.” Apart from fitting the record’s sentiment, the liturgical title suits the psalm-like purity of Lennox’s singing, influenced by his high school stint in a chamber choir. “It was an extracurricular thing, but I would stay after school to do it because I loved it so much.”

After finishing Here Comes The Indian, the frayed Collective dispersed for a while (Geologist even moved to Arizona for a whole year). Their next record, Sung Tongs, was another Avey Tare & Panda Bear project (although it was credited to Animal Collective, the group having reluctantly submitted to the market logic of having a consistent brand identity). Tongs veered away from the studio-laboured intensity of HCTI to a more song-focused and lighter-hearted approach. Portner’s and Lennox’s acoustic guitars occupied the centre of the sound. “Every song or group of songs we did has its own tuning, and they’re usually open tunings,” says Portner. “With acoustic guitars especially, the strings resonate really well, and when the tones are similar, you almost get more tones than are actually there. It makes it really warm.” Yet the inspiration for this approach wasn’t the new acoustica of minstrels like Devendra Banhart, but electronic music. Standout track “Visting Friends”, says Portner, was influenced by Kompakt’s Pop Ambient compilations and Mike Ink’s project Gas. “Just like a wall of hums. We wanted that feeling, but with acoustic guitars.”
Sung Tongs received flak in certain quarters for being a bit blithe and fey. Yet the essence of Animal Collective, what makes them so remarkable, is the way they collapse polarities: they can be sacred and whimsical, cosmic and cute, noisy and pretty, all at the same time. In this sense, they are true inheritors of psychedelia’s imperative towards con-fusion: the bringing together of things usually kept separate.

At the heart of psychedelia lies the ideal of being ‘lost’ – lost in sound, lost for words. Portner claims that the group don’t assign words like ‘sacred’, ‘pagan’ and ‘mystical’ to their music. “People often say to us, ‘You guys have a shamanistic, ritualistic thing going on at your shows’, as if we had all got together one time and said, ‘let’s all be shamans!’.” Yet Animal Collective have talked candidly and eloquently about their spiritual leanings in the past. When I press them on the subject, it turns out that it’s another facet of their beatific Baltimore County upbringing. As previously stated, Josh Dibb’s mother Jessica is a syncretist of many forms of spiritual practice and alternative medicine. She has influenced not just her son’s worldview, but the whole Collective’s vision. “In college, Noah and I went through really tough times,” recalls Portner. “So Josh said, ‘My mom might be to help you clear your mind and get back on track’. And she was, like, ‘Well, you know, what you need to do, you need to just breathe. Most people on earth don’t take in enough of the oxygen that their mind and body needs.’ I started doing these breathing exercises with her, and it makes your body feel crazy, it just goes through your whole body. She started doing it with Noah, too. It totally cleared everything up, gave everything this calm.”

Perhaps Animal Collective should consider putting Dibbs’ mom on a retainer and have her accompany them on tour and into the recording studio, judging by the way the stresses of success seem to affect them. Time compression has interfered with their free ’n’ easy approach to creativity, a problem exacerbated by the fact that Lennox has married a Portuguese girl and now lives in that country. But they’ve set aside a whole month to do nothing but record the much anticipated follow-up to Sung Tongs, relocating to Seattle and working with producer Scott Colburn of Climax Golden Twins.

It’s a bitter irony for musicians: the thing you chose as an alternative to having a career prospers to the point where it turns into a career, bringing with it all kinds of sapping ancillary obligations (like doing press). “College”, a seemingly throwaway ditty on Tongs, has assumed unexpected resonance as an anthem for slackers looking to step off the career track. “You don’t have to go to college,” the lyric counsels, which translates as “message to you, bourgie: don’t worry about your future, be here now”. Says Weitz, “The response to that song has been amazing. People at gigs scream for us to play it, and we get emails from kids asking for advice.” Mind you, there was one guy who got pissed off with AC for playing college gigs where only students get entrance, acidly quipping, “So now I can’t see you unless I go to college?”

The members of Animal Collective are too hard-working to be considered dropouts, but there is something hippy-like about the foursome, from their love of Mother Nature to the way they’ll talk about a song as “a sweet jam”. Their increasingly devout following has something of this quality (lots of early-twenties men with beards), which may be why some unkind folks diss them as a Deadhead-style jam band, a hipster Phish. Portner, in particular, was a huge fan of The Grateful Dead as a youth, and talks about aspiring to create the same sense of electric communion between group and audience. At the same time, AC are at pains to distance themselves from the new beardy folk, stressing the role of electronics and effects in their music. Odd, then, that their latest release, the Prospect Hummer EP, sees them hooking up with the nu-folk icon nonpareil, Vashti Bunyan, who’s become a touchstone icon for your Devendra Banharts and Joanna Newsomes – as much for her free-spirited life as for her music.

A huge fan of The Incredible String Band, Portner checked out Bunyan’s 1970 LP Just Another Diamond Day after learning that Robin Williamson played on it. “Immediately I was like, ‘Wow, I can listen to this record when I have a hangover, or when I want to go to bed’. It’s such a soothing, pretty record.” Through the auspices of Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden, who has also been working with Bunyan, Animal Collective met her in Edinburgh. Soon the idea of a collaboration was mooted. Bunyan says she fell in love with the group’s music “instantly”, captivated by its “inventiveness and humour”. Hummer isn’t a fully-fledged collaboration, though: it’s billed as an Animal Collective release and Bunyan is singing songs written by Portner and Lennox. Nonetheless, it feels like the EP’s beatific radiance emanates from the singer as much as the songs.

“My daughter says she can hear me smiling on the title track,” says the singer, “and I was. I loved having the freedom to sing as I wanted. I was still finding my voice after burying it for years.” The experience has encouraged Bunyan to embark on her first album in more than 30 years, due on Fat Cat before the end of 2005.
The other current AC release is situated at the further end of the group’s sound spectrum. Jane is Lennox’s Techno project with his DJ friend Scott Mou, and Berserker, a four track album, features his gaseous vocals wafting over warmly pulsating electronica. There’s a twist, though: most of the music is Mou spinning records made by other people. “It’s like a mix CD with toasting over the top,” says Lennox, who is confident that despite the music consisting mostly of “other people’s backing tracks and rhythms, we make the songs our own because the way we move from track to track is unique.” When I tell him his cloud-drift vocals remind me of Robert Wyatt’s scattier excursions such as Matching Mole’s “Instant Pussy”, Lennox says he’s honoured by the comparison, then pre-empts the next flattering reference point I had lined up. “Do you know Arthur Russell? I first heard that guy’s records a year or so ago, after we did the Jane stuff, but I was like, ‘wooah, I sound like this dude.’ I felt sort of bad!”


One of Animal Collective’s many tours took them to the West Coast, and in the aftermath of a show, a young man approached Portner and handed him a tape. “It sat on the floor of the van for a week or so,” recalls Dibb. “Finally we played it and we were just like ‘Woah!’. Brian was, like, ‘I’m making it my goal in life to put this kid’s record out on our label’”. Most band-based labels go wrong immediately by signing groups that sound just like them (but aren’t as good). Ariel Pink doesn’t sound anything like Animal Collective, but by tapping into a similar magical, transcendental feeling he totally fits the Paw Tracks “vibe.” “Ariel’s created his own world for himself,” says Portner. “That was the first thing we picked up on.”

Ariel Rosenberg, the one-man band that is Ariel Pink, echoes this idea when he talks of his desire to “make new worlds”. The Doldrums/Vital Pink, his first release for Paw Tracks, certainly sounded like a transmission from another realm. Upsettingly, if you scan the uniformly adulatory reviews for Doldrums, you’ll notice that the same metaphor has occurred to virtually every writer: the Ariel Pink sound as some variation on a broken or badly tuned radio. Listening to the album on its release last year, an almost identical image entered my brain: a wireless heard from the bottom of a swimming pool, diffracted and reverb-shimmery.

The unanimity of this response suggests that maybe this is what Rosenberg was actually trying to do. But he insists it’s just a side-effect of his technical limitations, the antiquated eight-track tape recorder he uses. “If you chop off the frequencies at the top and bottom that’s what you get – a compressed signal like from a cheap radio.” He claims he’s “just trying to shine through” the lo-fi smog. “Shining through” certainly captures the way his gorgeous melodies peek like watercolour sun-shafts through the mist of hiss.

‘Radio’ probably recurs as a description because Ariel Pink’s sound conjures the bygone wondrousness of pop music when you first encounter it as a child – most likely through a tinny transistor. The term that springs to mind is ‘indiscriminate listening’. As I recall it, there’s a threshold beyond which you learn to listen ‘properly’. Prior to this, the young ear doesn’t really differentiate between strands of sounds. I can distinctly recall acquiring the perceptual acuity to isolate the bassline in songs. On one level, this is obviously an enrichment; on another, you lose that rapturous swirliness of pop hitting the virgin ear as a blur of exciting sound. Perhaps psychedelia, with its effects and saturated timbres, is partly an attempt to recover that blissed indistinction.

Ariel Pink’s music suggests a different kind of indiscriminate hearing, too: the child’s capacity to listen without prejudice, before it has any inkling of ‘cool’ and ‘uncool’. Rosenberg’s melodies, keyboard lines and guitar riffs hark back to long-lost styles of music made primarily for the radio – soft rock, blue-eyed soul, and pop-rock; performers like Steve Miller Band, ELO, the latterday Blue Öyster Cult. In other songs, he’ll have you flashing on forgotten new wave one-hit wonders like It’s Immaterial or Men Without Hats. But rather than AM radio (in America, poppier in content and poorer in signal than FM), Rosenberg says it’s MTV that shaped his pop sensibility. An addict from the age of five, he watched the channel almost from its inception. “MTV was my babysitter!”

Like his tape music hero R Stevie Moore, Rosenberg has made so much music, he could keep an entire classic rock radio station (or oldies-oriented video channel) going for at least a month. Recorded from the late 90s onwards, some of the backlog has seen limited release via tiny labels. Rosenberg would like to put all of it out, but the sequence is already jumbled: there are five whole albums between Doldrums (number two in the original sequence) and his glorious ‘new’ album on Paw Tracks, Worn Copy (number eight). Beneath the glittering fog of Echoplex and corroded wooziness caused by dumping tracks and overdubbing, Rosenberg’s playing seems disconcertingly high calibre. He insists it’s all “smoke and mirrors, an illusion I create through editing. I do edits with my toe while playing the instruments, and can build up impressive musical lines in tiny increments.” His most remarkable trompe l’oreille feat is the drum sounds, which are all created using his mouth. “It’s like tongue-clicking; I’ve got certain places I hit in my mouth,” he explains, before demonstrating his kick drum, snare, hi-hat and tom-tom sounds. “The vocals and the drums are actually the easiest part of the recording process. But I’m probably flexing muscles I was never meant to use!”

If gorgeous tunes like “Among Dreams”, “For Kate I Wait” (a love song to Kate Bush) and “The Ballad Of Bobby Pyn” had been recorded ‘correctly’, with proper drums, you can easily imagine them as huge Billboard hits – perhaps not in the pop market of 2005, but in whichever radio era each song’s stylisation refers to. Rosenberg’s versatility is astonishing, and especially noticeable with his vocals, which run the gamut from Roy Orbison-like falsetto to Hall & Oates-style rock ’n’ soul. “I’ll do different vocal affectations to see what kind of song I’ll get. It’s all pretend, it’s all trying to find something. The style is almost unintentional. Because nothing is ‘dry’, because the instruments all go through crappy effects boxes, I’ll put a chorus sound on the guitar and suddenly it begs to be played like Christopher Cross!” Pink can occasionally come over like a pop formalist, a pasticheur à la Chris Isaak or Marshall Crenshaw. But most of the time, the stylisation of any given song is flooded by a passion that feels not just real, but ecstatic and transcendent.

Take “Trepanated Earth,” the 11 minute song-suite that starts Worn Copy. It’s simply one of this decade’s most shatteringly emotional pieces of music. Veering from melodic Rick Springfield-like passages to noisy blowouts (including a middle eight that features a half-buried “Eight Miles High” citation), the song is dramatic too, in the classic rock radio tradition of “Don’t Fear The Reaper”: the kind of drama that doesn’t wear out with reiteration. Great pop songs have a mysterious capacity for repetition unequalled by any other artform. They’re closer to drugs than culture, Rosenberg reckons. “You can ‘take’ them every time and experience that high.”

This neo-psychedelic notion of music is the point of convergence between Ariel Pink’s “radio mysticism” and Animal Collective’s pantheistic awe. Seeing with the enchanted eyes of a child (or hearing with the bliss-delirious ears of a child, in Ariel’s case) is one aspect of the psychedelic quest. (Disorientation, ego-death and eclipse of reason being the darker side: Syd Barrett, Roky Erikson, et al). “As you get older, you start to lose the child’s ability to create visions and have hallucinations and imagine you’re somewhere else than you really are,” argues Portner. Music, for Animal Collective and Ariel Pink alike, isn’t “this dry, ‘sound’ thing,” he says. It’s all about dreams and flight. “Maybe our music is escapist – a different world that people can go into.”

director's cut, Spin, 2005

by Simon Reynolds

From song titles like “Daffy Duck” to the Henry Darger-esque cover art, Animal Collective are still working with children and animals. But the New York group's vision isn't really a rose-tinted regression to a lost idyll. It’s more like their music is a child--angelic one moment, monstrous and uncontrollable the next. Dulcet passages give away to tantrums of flailed drums and shrieks. Kids think magically, but that means their world is populated with spooks as much as marvels. On Feels, their seventh album, Animal Collective's sinister side is more of a subliminal undertow than on 2003’s Here Comes The Indian, their previous peak. Outwardly a love song, "Flesh Canoe" is actually a weirdly creepy thing (check that grotesque title). This grumbling lope of sound seems to shed lumps of itself along the way, as if the song's afflicted by musical leprosy. “Bees,” all hammered dulcimer and piano trickles, sounds halycon, but the lyrics could be a recovered memory of infant trauma: “so sudden, the bees, they came flying/so violent, the bees/they came sly”. The same open-hearted, wide-eyed lack of defences that makes children intimate with rapture also means they’re vulnerable to trauma.

The core of Animal Collective’s music is the dragonfly wing-shimmer of frenetically strummed acoustic guitars, which creates a peculiar mixed sensation of dynamism and delicacy. As ferocious as the playing can get, it feels like there’s no hard center to the sound, something exacerbated by the unmoored drift of the song structures, which rarely follow standard verse/chorus patterns. All this floaty fuzziness can come over as sugar-spun insubstantiality when AC are too melodically cloying (see parts of Sung Tongs), but Feels achieves a perfect balance between cute and chaotic, cuddly and cosmic. AC are all about the intermingling--sometimes blissful, often uncanny--of song and space. Tunes typically take shape gradually, like a figure approaching through mist. They’re equally likely to dissolve toward the end into long codas of eerie incantations. This back-and-forth between form and amorphousness embodies Animal Collective’s spirit of mystical awe. The contrast between Avey Tare’s winsome vocals and the music’s vastness creates a sound-picture of an ego engulfed by immensity.

Feels really enchants when space gets the upper hand over song. The tremulous tinglings of acoustic texture that make up “Daffy Duck”, “Loch Raven” and most of “Banshee Beat” recall the glints and vapors of Eno’s ambient albums far more than the freak-folk outfits AC usually get placed alongside. The closing “Turn Into Something” starts as a jaunty ditty, then crumbles into a slow-fade of ripples and reverberancesm as if Animal Collective, are laying back and blending with the scenery. Mother Nature’s sons in the psychedelic tradition of Syd Barrett and Incredible String Band, the group finally relax their minds and surrender unconditionally to the void.

PANDA BEAR, Person Pitch
Observer Music Monthly, March 18th 2007

by Simon Reynolds

The artwork of Panda Bear’s third solo album is full of clues. The front sleeve is a paddling pool fantastically packed with children and animals (tiger, seal, gorilla, leopard, koala, and yes, panda). Inside the booklet, there’s further brightly colored photographs: kids on stilts facing a sky mad with fruit bats and flying foxes, a boy in a kilt and a crocodile head-dress dancing a jig, a pigtailed girl riding a gondola through a sky swirling with feathers. These images set you up for music that’s tribal, ecstatic-yet-eerie, brimming with child-like wonder. And that’s exactly what Person Pitch delivers.

In Animal Collective, Panda Bear--real name, Noah Lennox-- plays drums and sings. Here, he builds a unique and refreshing sound almost entirely out of percussion and his own multitracked voice, influenced by teenage years singing in a high school choir. Opener “Comfy in Nautica” sounds like the Beach Boys if they’d joined Hari Krishna. A billowing vocal roundelay interwoven with looped bell-chimes, “Bros” starts as a mellow canter, then plunges into a spangled surge of acoustic guitars. The song sustains its rhapsodic pitch for twelve and half minutes that leave the listener drained and dizzy. “Good Girl/Carrots,” another 12 minute tour de force, kicks off with bubbling tablas and baby-talk, moves into a section where Lennox gently upbraids some uptight, know-it-all adversary, then skanks out under cascades of glistening sonic confetti. “I’m Not”, a skyscape of sighs and shivers, and “Search For Delicious”, braided from wobbled vocals and found sounds, both merge experimentalism and euphony. Like Animal Collective, Lennox pulls off the difficult trick of being simultaneously poppy and abstract, winsome and deranging.

Lennox’s previous album Young Prayer was a eulogy to his father,
a literally glowing tribute recorded in the room where Lennox Snr passed away. It doesn’t take much of a leap of insight to twig that Person Pitch is inspired by love and (re)birth: Lennox married a Portuguese woman, moved to that country (“a European California,” he says, laidback and sun-kissed) and had a daughter. It’s actually quite hard to imagine Lennox as a dad, though, because he looks and sounds so young. There’s a boyish buoyancy to the sound of Person Pitch, a pure-hearted nobility. The album’s core emotions--awe, curiosity, rejoicing, tenderness--are precisely the things that age and experience tends to erode. At once Sixties-redolent (specifically Dylan’s “I was so much older then/I’m younger than that now” and “he not busy being born is busy dying”) yet timeless and perennially applicable, the album’s open-hearted spirit is crystallized in the chorus to “Ponytail”. Lennox sings: “when my soul starts growing, it gets so hungry/I wish it never would, never would, never would stop growing.”

Sweet's Ballroom Blitz
(Castle Hendring Video)
Melody Maker, 1990?

by Simon Reynolds

"SWEET'S BALLROOM BLITZ" attempts to rescue The Sweet from their longstanding reputation as mere 'pretty boy' puppets of Chinn and Chapman (the hit factory who wrote and produced their biggest chart singles). A noble aim, as The Sweet's role in the Glam Rock explosion is sorely under-rated, but one which this rather scrappy compilation only goes some of the way to achieving. There's too much of Sweet's lightest-weight material: the calypso crud of "Co Co", some deeply unfortunate, acoustic balladry, plus the moony "Love Is Like Oxygen", which has twilight-era Sweet
coming on like understudies for Smokie. And the interview segments with 'the band today' tell us little, except that the guitarist has put on much weight and singer Brian Connolly seems to have been left with permanent delirum tremens from the years of alcohol abuse that eventually caused the groups' break-up.

Happily, "Ballroom Blitz" does include almost all Sweet's biggest and best hits (bar the unforgiveable absence of "Ballroom Blitz" itself). The Sweet were supreme exponents of a kind of vacant outrage: their sporting of make-up and Nazi chic was "unsubstantiated" by the dubious art-house trappings of Bowie and Roxy. Everything in a classic Sweet smash was there for effect alone, was purely and emptily sensationalist: the torrid, Four Seasons/Beach Boys multi-tracked harmonies, the streamlined pop-metal riffs, the ludicrous scenarios devised solely as a pretext for hysteria. "Blockbuster", with its sirens and "Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle" kettledrums, is a tour de force of fabricated mayhem, even though this particular performance sadly doesn't feature Steve Priest camping it up as Hitler in drag. "Fox
On The Run" and "Lies In Your Eyes" are typically torrid, plastic-punk put-downs of discarded girlfriends. "Hellraiser", by contrast, has The Sweet running scared of a
voracious libertine whose "ultra-sonic eyes flash like hysterical danger signs/say, beware where you tread/or you'll go out of your head". "The Six Teens" is flamenco-flavoured, bubblegum psychedelia that asks cryptically: "where were you in '68?". But The Sweet's greatest moments are "Action" (self-written after the break with Chinnichap) and "Teenage Rampage". The latter is Chinnichap's finest slice of mock-
apocalypse, boasting one the most ominous intro/outro's of all time, and lyrics like "at thirteen they were learning, but at fourteen they'll be burning". "Action" is The Sweet's "EMI", a massive V-sign to all the corporate parasites wanting their
piece, and a blast of sonic insurgency that anticipates punk by two whole years.