Monday, February 9, 2009

Animal Collective - Merriweather

Music / Review

Album: Merriweather Post Pavilion
Artist: Animal Collective
Year: 2009

The irony of Merriweather Post Pavilion, Animal Collective's eighth full-length, named after the ubiquitous outdoor stage in Columbia, Maryland, is that it's the band's least live-sounding album they've made thus far. It's this stylistically different approach to recording — there are more filters on the vocals here, the soundscapes much thicker and layered — that makes this collection of songs, most likely the best batch that the greatest contemporary band on the planet has yet put together, fall just short of classic status. Truthfully, though, only time will tell.

Big words, I know. But any modern rock critic worth his salt will cop to being in awe of this band, even if not everything they've done thrills them. Pretty much everything does it for me though, excepting some very early, particularly indulgent live recordings, and a few tracks off odd LPs over the years. Also, both critics and hardcore fans alike (and there are many) have probably heard most of the cuts on Merriweather (all but the bouncy pop of "Blueish," which debuts on this album) either performed live at concerts, or at concerts on Youtube. That, coupled with interviews with the band stating that this is their "best album yet," and a particularly enthusiastic review from one of the music world's most reputable publications (Uncut), created an almost unbearable strain of hype preceding its release, that which almost any album would buckle under, and couldn't possibly live up to. It's to the great credit of this extraordinary band that they come damn close.

The first sign of greatness reveals itself in the impeccable construction of Merriweather: The album kicks off with "In The Flowers," the most atmospheric track of the set and (next to later cut "No More Runnin'") the most subdued. At least until it suddenly erupts with buzzing synth stabs, before quieting down again for the lead-out, establishing a loud-quiet-loud aesthetic which will remain prevalent throughout. 'Flowers' finds one of the band's two principal vocalists, Avey Tare (real name Dave Portner), waxing euphorically in the name of love about "leaving [his] body for a night." It's a peculiar ballad, for sure, but one that displays a maturity (welcome or not) which contrasts Tare's gorgeously animalistic love song "Purple Bottle," off 2005's Feels.

This sense of gravity and responsibility, a theme that subtly weaves itself into every song on the album, seems appropriate, as a lot has changed since 2005. For instance, one member, Panda Bear (real name Noah Lennox), has become a father, which adds a certain credibility to the powerful lead single (though the band would never call it that) "My Girls." Here, Tare and Panda Bear simply and earnestly proclaim, in unison, "I don't mean / to seem like I care about material things / like a social status / I just want / four walls and adobe slabs / for my girls." The sentiments are felt not only on a human level, but relatable in this time of economic instability, where one can find the most gratifying aspects of life in the love and nurturing of others.

Not all the content here is heavy though; in fact much of it is abstract at best. Lazy, spell-binding Panda Bear cut "Daily Routine" drifts along on skittering break-beats and a vaguely hand-clap-sounding percussive rhythm. Then, halfway through, it slams on the breaks and endlessly repeats its dreamlike refrain, "just one sec more / in my bed," as if to savor that moment in the morning before starting the day. Or maybe coercing someone to stay with him for a while? The ambiguity only empowers the track, and even here we find traces of that nurturing paternal maturity in lyrics like "make sure my kid's got a jacket." Elsewhere, the most catchy track Tare has ever written, "Summertime Clothes," finds the band in a state of freewheeling bliss. "I want to walk around with you," Tare sings, later repeatedly chanting the track's makeshift bridge, "when the sun comes up we'll go out again." The act of being caught up in a moment, or a musical/lyrical stanza, is one of many binding thematic concerns here.

On the album's biggest and best moment, which further demonstrates the superior sense of structure Merriweather has been endowed with, album closer "Brother Sport"-- written by Panda Bear as means to encourage his younger brother Matt (the refrain of the track)-- demonstrates the strengths of the artist's superlative 2007 solo effort, Person Pitch, enhanced by the ingenuity and communal spirit of the band. If no moment in music this year matches the shear ecstatic urgency and rhythmic perfection of "Brother Sport's" midsection, I couldn't reasonably be disappointed. House synths snake around buzzing alarms as a thundering thump lumbers along in the background, giving way to joyful sighs which will be familiar to anyone who's spent time with Pitch.

Aside from being a singles collection (and most every song on here, as a stand-alone track, should thrill at the very least those indie rock fans with range, if not every human being with ears), Merriweather unifies itself in ways no other Animal Collective record has yet been able to (though Feels comes close). Gurgling electronics evoke the fluidity of water, a recurring theme in the band's music, but all the more relevant here. Especially when one considers the album's artwork, a hypnotic, aquamarine-colored illusion replete with interlocking leaves acting as a curtain (or a barrier?) obscuring an astral backdrop. Every aspect of the record, especially its runtime (nearly an hour), seems to purport vast and epic aspirations. And the band comes damn close to pulling it all off.

Save a few cursory criticisms ("Also Frightened" is a bit lacking, and not as tuneful as the rest of the set — it's also too long), and the unshakable sense that in the effort to be sonically cohesive the music has lost a bit of its fervor and humanistic qualities, Merriweather still sits comfortably in the band's overwhelmingly impressive canon, and will most likely tower above the vast majority of '09 releases. Merriweather Post Pavilion might not be quite the classic it's being hyped as (not to these ears at least), but so what? The good news: maybe the band's pinnacle, their defining release, is still yet to come. What could be more exciting than that?

Grade: 3.5/4

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