The eight LPs Animal Collective released in the past decade display a wider, wilder range of styles than most mainstream acts endeavor to explore. While the band’s hype magnet (magnate?) status has become excessive in recent years, the music remains amorphous and exciting as it expands in new directions. It is possible, however, to discern a design within these broad parameters. Folk, rock, noise and dance influences (among others) seem to rotate throughout the discography, and a comprehensive listen reveals interconnected phases.
2009 LP Merriweather Post Pavilion was a shiny, sample-heavy work that seemed to flow from Panda Bear’s Person Pitch approach. 2007 album Strawberry Jam offered an even more harsh, manic variation of the psychedelic guitar pop that appeared on Feels in 2005. Furthermore, the acoustic and electronic roots for all of these works can be heard (albeit in sometimes overwhelmingly rough form) on the band’s debut full-length, Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished (2000).
Looking beyond the stylistic big tent, what gives credibility to Animal Collective’s musical identity in a larger cultural context is the band’s ability to bridge seemingly dissimilar audiences from hippies to the hip. Nothing testifies to this more succinctly than the band obtaining the first ever officially-licensed sample of a Grateful Dead song (“Unbroken Chain”) for Fall Be Kind track “What Would I Want? Sky”. Yet the presently reissued album Campfire Songs is an even greater window into Animal Collective’s placid side. Originally released in 2003, Campfire Songs could be considered the brief, quiet moment preceding the Here Comes the Indian freak-out and the triumphant, tribal Sung Tongs, which ignited the trajectory that lead the band to mid- and late-decade ubiquity.
As its title suggests, Campfire Songs is a five-song singalong recorded to MiniDisc, outdoors, and in a single take. A listener might embrace or pass on the album based on that description alone. But it is important to keep in mind that other recordings, from bands as diverse as Raccoo-oo-oon, Liars, and the Beach Boys, have all used similar techniques to very different ends. Animal Collective’s version of sitting on the porch and strumming the day away is actually quite cohesive and pleasant.
Although the production techniques used on Campfire Songs might seem limiting, the five songs offer enough variety to make the album compelling throughout. A major strength of the material is the way it combines both raw and delicate elements of composition. For example, “Queen in My Pictures” opens the album vaguely, with insistent guitar strums and wordless singing. But halfway through the song (minute five), both coalesce into one solid form. The song subtly but effectively shape-shifts precisely between “But now it seems her acid visions have come and changed / that face” and “she says I’m hallucinating”. The strumming intensifies during the third section of the song, which replaces the lyrics with a variation of the chanting that appears on later Animal Collective songs such as “Leaf House”.
“Doggy” continues the brisk concluding tempo of “Queen in My Pictures”, but the lyrics stand at odds with the song’s buoyant elements. The titular dog is now dead and still, and the song acknowledges this whilst remembering happier times. Much more lyrically specific than A Silver Mt. Zion’s similarly dead-dog inspired He Has Left Us Alone But Shafts of Light Sometimes Grace the Corners of our Rooms, “Doggy” occasionally slows down to a mournful chorus before moving on with the upbeat melody and chanting/barking.
“Two Corvettes” could pass for the work of a subdued Beachwood Sparks, while “Moo Rah Rah Rain” weaves in and out of the natural sounds that permeate the field recording. The “noise” of the song might try some listeners’ patience, but there is a kind of comfort to the music and lyrics as they appear over the wind and rain like waves. The final track, nature ode “De Soto De Son” probably provides the most hummable material here. Although there is a rather formless breakdown at the center, the verse/chorus sections that frame the song would appeal to those with a taste for more traditional folk music.
Most lo-fi recordings are by definition not luxurious enough to necessitate headphones, and Campfire Songs could be appreciated as background music. But the interplay of guitar, voice, and ambient/nature sounds is best appreciated on headphones rather than remote speakers. In several ways, Campfire Songs is an album that invites the listener to sit as close as possible and to join the circle. The album gets more uniquely intimate with each listen.