Friday, April 22, 2011

(Paw Tracks)
director's cut, The Wire, April 2011

By Simon Reynolds

The dominant sound on Panda Bear records is Noah Lennox's voice. Or I should say, voices: his production hallmark is massing his vocal so that it sounds choral. Heavy reverb intensifies the churchy aura. As does Lennox's pure-hearted tone, an alloy of yearning, devotion, and rejoicing shaped by his high school participation in a chamber choir. This self-singalong effect reminds me of three things:

* The artist Anthony Goicolea, who uses trick photography to create tableaus of boarding school boys--anywhere from two to a dozen--who all have the same face: the adult Goicolea's. The effect ranges from quirkily surreal to grotesque and disturbing.

* "Sanctus", the choral song that recurs throughout if... (Lindsay Anderson's 1968 film about a boys-only boarding school) and which comes from Missa Luba, an Africanised version of the Latin mass performed by a choir of Congolese children. Evoking the clear-eyed idealism of youth, "Sanctus"'s effect in if.. is uplifting yet ominous: it prefigures the bloody insurrection against the teachers and parents that climaxes the film.

A peculiar tradition at my own all-boys public school, a ritual that wasn't formalized but seemingly spontaneously generated itself annually. During assembly on the last day of the school year, the boys sang the hymns with unusual vigour and volume (as opposed to the usual mouthing- the- words desultoriness). Every year, the masters on the podium looked stunned and cowed by this demonstration of insubordinate joy: school's out for summer.

At the heart of Panda Bear's music, and Animal Collective's too, is the cult of boyhood as the supreme state of being. The title Tomboy seems to shift from that slightly, but not really: the tomboy--that adorable tyke who likes rough-and-tumble-- is androgynous in the exact same way that prepubescent boys, with their high voices and sensitivity, often are. What PB/AC celebrate and hark back to is the clarity, purity, and simplicity of the world seen through the eyes of those yet to undergo the Fall into sexuality.

I'm a sucker for the whole psychedelic "younger than yesterday"/"he not busy being born"/"goin' back" mythos, despite being in my late forties and a parent with ample experience of actual childhood (oh they can be so sweet and innocent, but also, alas, totally innocent of basic human decency). Person Pitch--the previous Panda album, from 2007--drips with this kind of beatific naïvety and it's one of my absolute favorites from the last decade. And I'm not short of company: it would hard to over-state how feverishly anticipated Tomboy is in certain quarters. If there was any doubt that Lennox has emerged as the key figure in Animal Collective, the group's "soul" even, you need only the compare the response to Person Pitch and the underwhelmed reception of solo efforts by the group's ostensible lead singer/leader Avey Tare. In many ways Person Pitch was the flawless consummation of everything that Animal Collective have striven for and only fitfully achieved across their sprawling discography: an approachable avant-rock that marries euphony and experiment. Post-rock, with tunes.

Lennox has actually described Tomboy as more of a "guitar rock" record, based around "simplistic rhythms". But it doesn't really feel like a departure from Person Pitch's loops-and-samples. Some songs feature frantically strummed guitar parts, but they're fed through a Korg, and overall the way this music is organized and propels itself forward feels closer to German minimal tech-house than to rock'n'roll. As for the top line melodies and mood-textures, the Beach Boys are overwhelming present. It's a revealing influence, given their cult of boyish buoyancy of spirit and Brian Wilson's conception of Smile as a "teenage symphony to God". "Surfer's Hymn" is a blatant nod to the Boys and further oceanic allusions come with "Last Night At The Jetty" and the nautical-sounding "Slow Motion", whose swaying rhythm lies somewhere between sea shanty and Basic Channel. "Jetty" is like a gaseous and Gas-y postmillenial take on the Everly Bros, while "Alsation Darn" reminds me a teensy bit of, yuk, "Bridge Over Troubled Water". Panda's version of the latter's sentiment is the album-opening pledge "You Can Count On Me." Then there's "Friendship Bracelet", named after the American teenage custom of exchanging handmade tokens of undying amity.

As with the Wilsonian sonic universe, the presiding spirits of Panda Bear music are Agape and Apollo, brotherly love and the sun god. (The last song, "Benfica" is the Portuguese word for "light" and also Lisbon's soccer team). And like with the Beach Boys, there's not a hint of Eros or the Dionysian in this music, just shining eyes and open hearts. Listening, at times you might think of scouts gathered around a camp fire. There are only a couple of welcome breaks amid all this sweetness and light. Over an extended ache of organ, "Drone" unfurls long suspended canopies of voice that gradually twist in tone. Better still is "Scheherezade", a murky chamber where reverb for once on this album sounds eerie rather than idyllic. Tentative piano chords and sourceless groans of bass-frequency undergird Lennox's huge billowing voice; tinkling cascades of glass snowflakes spiral down intermittently. The song sounds pregnant with fathomless mystery.

It's an odd one, Tomboy: impressive on the first few listens, it grows irritating with repeat play. The analogy that springs to mind is chocolate gateau: lovely on the first day, sickening if you then have eat it every day for the rest of the week. Still, that doesn't quite explain why the exact same mood and techniques that worked sublimely for me on Person Pitch have come to seem oppressive and cloying. Perhaps it comes from my personal feeling that Brian Wilson is one of the most over-rated pop auteurs of the last half-century, his work the place where albino meets castrato. Perhaps it's because it's hard to get involved with these songs because the chorus-of-one vocals and reverb-blurriness render the lyrics virtually indecipherable. Perhaps, finally, it comes from the feeling that the whole "wordliness must keep apart from me", child-man thing has become a kind of spiritual cul-de-sac for Lennox, now in his early thirties (although he looks fourteen in his photos) and a parent with two young daughters. In the past decade nobody has sung "songs of innocence" better than Noah. Now we need to hear Lennox's "songs of experience".


via mark richardson's tumblr

according to Anonymous, Lennox,when talking about Tomboy a year or so before it came out, "described Bach as one of his influences for that album" and talked about how his "use of reverb" was " a reflection of high vaulted ceilings and that church-like atmosphere both from his own life and some of the architecture of Lisbon"