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"


Spencer said...

So the fact that you think Brian Wilson is one of the most overrated pop auteurs of the past 50 years didn't detract from your love of Person Pitch, yet it's possibly the reason you don't like Tomboy as much? Is it really the Wilson influence, or just the perception that Lennox is repeating himself here?

I'm curious to hear your argument as to why Wilson is not just overrated, but in fact the most overrated pop auteur of the last five decades. I completely disagree, but if you have the time I'm willing to hear you out.

Nice references to Axelrod. I'm not sure how they relate at all to Panda Bear, but you'll be happy to know I enjoyed them.

Simon said...

"albino meets castrato" is my micro-argument re. Beach Boys, don't have much more to say than that!

"overrated" doesn't mean bad or worthless, it means people overrate them/him, in the same way that Dylan is over-rated

so "Good Vibrations" = godhead, and a few other bits and bobs = very nice, but the rest... i guess i never quite got over the sheer surprise of discovering circa late 80s that that the group who did all the songs about surfing were supposed to be hip/groundbreaking. i associated them with the 20 Golden Greats LP my granny had. that idee fixe has never quite been shaken, even by "Wind Chimes"

References to Axelrod? I don't know what you're referring to


oh you mean songs of experience, songs of innocence...

david axelrod got his titles from william blake

Spencer said...

Yeah, that's what I was referring to. For some reason, my mind went straight to Axelrod rather than Blake.

Your phrase "albino meets castrato" makes me uncomfortable. Yeah, Brian Wilson's white. Not much he can do about that. He can also sing in a high register. That doesn't mean his music has no soul.

I hear what you're saying: people "over-rate" BW. I agree that the Beach Boys were never "hip," but in terms of sophisticated chord progressions, unpredictable song structures and harmonics in pop music, BW has never be equaled. To me, that's groundbreaking.

Thanks for your responses.


"albino meets castrato" is also a kind of micro-argument about the Sixties

like, three of the driving forces of the Sixties are
i/ the white-on-black syndrome, the influence of black music on white pop
ii/ rhythm
iii/ sexuality

which in some ways are different facets of the same thing

but those are three things that the beach boys are least about

so the sophistications in arrangement, melody/harmony etc that BW introduces seem to me to be at best tangents from the most vital currents of the decade... putting them nearer to Burt Bacharch (who's great , don't get me wrong) than the Doors (who had a perfect blend of the bluesy/driving/dionysian with a more cinematic/sound-pictorialism/arrangement/apollonian type thing going on)

the fourth driving force of sixties music is drugs, but again i prefer the more dionysian versions of psychedelia to the beach boys

mind you curiously i really love certain beach boys influenced later groups, like kraftwerk, spacemen 3...

Manuela said...

"At the heart of Panda Bear's music, and Animal Collective's too, is the cult of boyhood as the supreme state of being."

Simon you have put into words why I have always had an odd dislike for all Animal Collective and its spin-offs. An insistence on creating a sonic structure that delays "powerful" classicism. I grew up on punk, post-punk and although from the same generation as Animal Collective, I have an instinctive "dislike" of the asexual nature of the music.

Also interesting how this generation "foregoes" the encounter with a more structural landscape. aka inward-looking syndrome.

James said...

I agree with you that they (Animal Collective and Panda Bear) are sweet and cloying and in PB's case repetitive but I think you're simplifying their ouvre a bit. A lot of it is angsty musically and lyrically, and I think that sort of justifies some of the more upbeat songs.

One of their main positive attributes is that they're well rounded (that their soul isn't defined by sweet innocence and asexuality even though that's what people have chosen to like about them), they're optimistic and upbeat and euphoric at some points with a melancholy sort of undertone bleeding out at others, some of their songs are just miserly. I personally much prefer Over There to Tomboy because it has a lot more of those qualities, plus I think it's much better musically too.

As for Brian Wilson I think the idea he was outside the main current of the 60s is true but I don't think that's implicitly a bad thing, especially in retrospect when a lot of it seems so tragic if you relate it to alienation and loneliness.

I think what he did sonically and musically was pretty revolutionary in a pop sense yet I don't think had the legacy that fans would have hoped, so he exists as a satellite and auteur figure, which of course makes him a genius to a lot of people including myself. Convicing you of his worth may be a bit of a catch-22 as his music tends to be better the further away from the main stream of 60s music it goes and more singular it becomes.

Andrew said...

Brian Wilson & Beach Boys for me always had something inherent within them that I found insurmountable, and I suppose it's broadly that cloying sweetness. In a certain sense it's commendable but Wilson's dominant urge to expunge from his art all but the ideal ends in a kind of castrated art - to run with that wor-in-use. Compare to the Beatles great moments like Strawberry Fields & A Day in the Life, where the Ideal or Absolute is somehow co-existent with the flawed ordinary reality. Thus is their art whole compared to the false 'perfection' of Wilson's world.

Syd Barrett, even when writing of apparent whisy, gnomes & the like, also has an engagement with the fullness of psychological/spiritual reality that Wilson doesn't allow himself, or retreats from. Thus the fearlessness of something like Interstellar Overdrive.

I think something like all this relates to AC & Panda Bear also.

spiderandlamb said...

A couple of points:

I too have found Tomboy not as fulfilling a listen as Person Pitch. Aside from the lack of variety of sound on Tomboy, and the fact that that sound is now so well known through previous work, I think the clincher is that the epic tracks on PP enable the listener to inhabit a meditative space, or give a sense of development and momentum, not as easily found in the pop song length tracks on TB. I enjoy TB but think it needed to be either shorter or more varied.

I don't think it is useful to vote for Lennox as the 'key figure' in AC over Portner. To me, it is the collaboration and synthesis of their approaches (and let's not forget the other members) that makes AC one of the best groups of recent years.

I agree with other writers here that although the trope of innocence and wonder is extremely important to AC, it can be an unfairly limiting prism through which to view their work.

And . . . I do think that the Beach Boys work of roughly 1965-69 is extraordinary - particularly (Smiley) Smile and Friends. Caroline No is simply one of the most exquisite pop recordings and compositions one can hear . . .

Thanks for the words and the conversations, Simon.