I don’t think there is any better season than fall for a new Animal Collective record. There is something about their shamanistic chants, tribal conjuring and swirling melodies that is perfectly suited for campfires, brisk fall air, worn out sweaters and damp, cloudy, decaying days. Indeed, there is something strangely ancient about the band’s primitive approach that borders on being magical. Lazy journalists have often lumped Animal Collective in with the rest of the freak folk movement, but even a casual listen reveals their childlike whimsy as a launching point—rather than an aesthetic—that leads both the group and listeners into otherworldly places.
Last year’s widely received Sung Tongs was the work of group’s core members, Panda Bear and Avery Tare. Largely acoustic, though still filled with their trademark layered melodies and substance abused focus, the album’s organic feel was responsible for the “folk” tag that found itself stuck to the group. For Feels, the group expanded to include Geologist and Deakin, resulting in an amped-up, sumptuously layered and suprisingly more accessible album than its predecessor, that should shake off any remaining folk affinities, and put the band in a league of their own.
Feels front loads the disc with its three most rollicking and poppy numbers. “Did You See The Words” kicks off the album with Animal Collective’s most familiar elements. Softly strummed guitars, twinkling pianos and sampled voices float in a milky haze around the listener’s head. Slowly, the percussion picks up and as the song heads into swooping chorus the vocals are pitched to the front, and vocal harmonies dance beautifully. The song’s second half nicely finds the vocals switching from its ordinary verse-chorus delivery into a chanted call and response, with overdubbed oohs and aaahs flitting around, and as the instruments drop out, they close the song like some kind of ancient rite.
“Grass” will surprise longtime Animal Collective listeners, by how straight it plays out, while retaining the group’s always intriguing weirdness. Starting with what sounds like rain hitting tin in an echo chamber, chiming electric guitars lay the foundation as startlingly straightforward indie rock singing comes in. But any worry that the group are reaching for a more mainstream audience are dispelled by the banshee screaming of the chorus. But again, Animal Collective display an uncanny ability to warp even what appears to be the most ordinary façade. The song’s latter third introduces a carefully integrated stream of gabbering vocals, tweeting birds and backing harmonies with an unbelievable ease that would make Brian Wilson proud. But it’s “Purple Bottle” that perhaps best exemplifies the group’s embrace of unabashed pop fervor. With a simple percussive backing that changes very subtly throughout the song, it relies largely on the band’s rhythmic singing, and swooping layers of vocals, that balance childlike elation and religious style fervor with equal power.
The rest of the disc finds the band stretching and slowing their compositions to an equally potent effect. The songs become longer and the melodies a little more cluttered, while their vision continues to expand outward, probing and constantly reshaping the loosely structured songs. “Flesh Canoe” surrounds its central vocal theme, with heavily delayed guitar, piano plinks, and looped backing harmonies. More delayed and interwoven guitar, with what sounds like sudden electrical sparks, mesh themselves with spaced out singing on “Daffy Duck”. The track unfolds exquisitely, exploring all its corners, finding both the moments of silence and of constructed rapture.
But its “Banshee Beat”, the album’s best song, that finds Animal Collective using their patient, exploratory style to best effect. That it’s also the disc’s longest song is not surprising. It starts innocuously enough, with a subtle shimmering guitar, faint hints of a piano and casual, half spoken, half sung observations. At around the two minute mark, that guitar becomes looped, slightly sped up and now serves as the song’s rhythm. The key changes, the singing becomes more urgent and vulnerable, but remains at just above a whisper. Now building methodically, backing voices come in and out and after another two minutes they all come together in a triumphant, exultant tide, howling at the moon. And we’re only at the halfway point. I do a great disservice to the song by dissecting it so, as the pure joy derived from listening to this track—and the entire album really—is how natural, how easy Animal Collective make it seem. These are smartly composed songs that remarkably come off feeling like they’re being played for the first time. These are pop songs that carry with them an air of ritual and sacrament.
Feels really couldn’t be a better name for the album. Not many other words come close to describing the stick-your-toes-in-the-dirt-reach-up-to-the-sky aesthetic that Animal Collective don’t just cultivate, but embody completely. There is an essence of emotion palpable throughout the disc that is never precious, but genuinely felt. Feels is a highly rewarding journey into pop music’s most primal, earthy, esoteric and ultimately beautiful places. And it’s unlike anything else you will hear this year.
// Notes from the Road
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