When musical artists are creatively on fire, they tend to increase their output, much of which makes for essential listening. After all, passions and energies at such inspired times can react and combust, with each subsequent sampling promising to catch lightning in a bottle—a snapshot of the creative process that may otherwise be too breathtakingly frenetic to follow. Animal Collective’s new four-song EP then is a great disappointment, as it is far too restrained to be the monumental step forward that the band is primed to take. After the breakthrough of last year’s original and acclaimed Sung Tongs which refined and melodicized the Collective’s initial approach, Prospect Hummer insinuates that they may not actually have any new tricks to perform.
For many fans, this may not be a problem. Any band that has cultivated its own unique sound is going to be pigeonholed by the legacy of that sound. No matter what Animal Collective attempt to accomplish next, a large portion of their fans are going to be clamoring for Sung Tongs II. With Prospect Hummer, the band (knowingly?) sidesteps such expectations by taking a backseat on a recording for which they still receive top billing. The actual star here is Vashti Bunyan, a cult folk singer from the UK who hasn’t recorded in 35 years—one of the great “almost-was” artists of the ‘60s.
And Bunyan does sound like a folk singer, all wispy and unrefined, at times precious and occasionally lovely. Once hailed as “the next Marianne Faithfull”, her voice actually fits perfectly into the hippie Americana side of Animal Collective’s sound, if not the sonically exploratory side. But although the Collective have found a collaborator perfectly suited to one aspect of their sound, they may have placed a robin’s egg into a cardinal’s nest. Despite the appropriate environment for it and the right amount of nurturing, the egg will simply not hatch into a baby cardinal.
“It’s You” begins immediately with Bunyan’s airy quiver. She’s certainly of the chanteuse variety, and has a bit too much air in her voice. But air is not a problem for Animal Collective, and they respond with the telltale harp-like guitar strums and choral backing vocals that are so distinctive to their sound. The song is pretty, but slight. After two minutes, Bunyan ascends to her higher register, which she should have attempted more often. The band continues to complement her well, as they give her shaky voice plenty of space to fill.
As if to illustrate this more deliberately, the title track of the EP begins with all the exciting features that Animal Collective seem to have left behind (percussion, bouncy rhythm, and vocalizations of a somewhat tribal Native American descent, all bound by studio wizardry) and then abruptly cuts them out of the mix by the two-minute mark. Bunyan is then left floundering in too much space. Cute lyrics, mostly about a cat, and a chorus of “whoa whoa whoas”—oddly reminiscent of the aboriginal politicking of Midnight Oil channeling the denouement of “Bohemian Rhapsody”—do not save the song from falling apart. The Collective usually has a remarkable talent for arranging complicated and contradicting elements into the same piece, but here they seem afraid to tackle Bunyan’s voice. Though it may have ultimately been a wise decision—Bunyan drowns when crowded—the song sounds unfinished. If they had kept up the powerful flourishes throughout, the band may have created a memorable piece.
The Bunyan-less third track (“Baleen Sample”) is basically an Animal Collective B-side, similar to the more pastoral moments of Sung Tongs or the collection of unfinished backing tracks on Campfire Songs. It typically couples more harp-like strumming with geological ambience to approximate a new age thunderstorm. Some day a major label will get a hold of the band and turn them into the next generation’s Enya. All in all, the entire EP is not a far cry from such a fate.
Thirty seconds of lone ticking sounds open the final number, when Bunyan’s double-tracked voice descends from the heavens and makes its strongest impression. Her self-harmonies are beautiful, and her voice is especially striking again when it hits the high notes. Otherwise, “I Remember Learning How to Dive” fosters the simplest folk-song base at its core, oddly leaving the track with the least amount of aural thrill to make the most immediate impact.
For a band who has earned all sorts of acclaim within the fan bases of avant-pop and electronic music, Prospect Hummer is instead a disappointing concession to Animal Collective’s newfound status as indie hot kids. If anything, it’s an appropriate way to make a folk record in 2005, and a solid attempt at resuscitating a long dormant career. But Ms. Bunyan will require a team of edgy, accomplished artists to prop her up for the duration of her upcoming long-player. Fans of unassuming indie singer-songwriter music and semi-textured Americana like the Microphones or Devendra Banhart will find much to like on Prospect Hummer; fans of Animal Collective and their weird psychedelic cacophonous environmental campfire music may need to hold out for the next release to be wowed and dazzled, as there is no lightning in this particular bottle.