After consuming a number of year-end lists, I revisited Animal Collective’s Sung Tongs recently to see if I made a mistake from excluding it from my personal top 10. It wasn’t that I disliked the album, but with my more straightforward tastes (The Ponys, A.C. Newman and Camera Obscura were among my 2004 faves) it was just a bit too “out there” for me. By the time album opener “Leaf House” was coming to a close with it’s “Meow meow meow” refrain, it was all coming back to me that while this album was as original as anything else from 2004, for people who were sticklers for more conventional songwriting, it left a little something to be desired. But the gentle acoustic melody that began the next song made me rethink my stance.
Now, those of you that are familiar with Sung Tongs are likely scratching your heads right now. There’s certainly no gentle acoustic melody to kick off the warped campfire singalong “Who Could Win a Rabbit?” No, it turns out I unknowingly had iTunes on shuffle, and it had jumped to “Love and Some Verses” from Iron & Wine’s Our Endless Numbered Days. While that album was one of my favorites of last year, there was still something slightly unfulfilling about it. As wonderful as the songs are, the album almost serves as a sedative.
The Skygreen Leopards might not be an exact middle ground between those two bands, but the group’s latest should appeal to fans of both, and beyond. A hushed elegance similar to the one Sam Beam conjures is present here, as is the adventurous spirit of Avey Tare and Panda Bear. On their Jagjaguwar debut Donovan Quinn and Glenn Donaldson—the duo that is The Skygreen Leopards and that also heads up San Francisco’s Jewelled Antler collective—create a simple yet mysterious ramshackle beauty that transcends the free-folk genre (or whatever it’s called this week) that stands on its own as a minor pop masterpiece.
That this could be said about a Jewelled Antler-affiliated band is somewhat of a miracle. As far as collectives go, Jewelled Antler makes the Elephant 6 look like the PTA… or at least the Rotary Club. Almost all Jewelled Antler releases are CD-R-only affairs filled with completely improvised songs or maybe field recordings. The Skygreen Leopards have always been the most pop-oriented group among their peers, but that’s all relative. Donaldson has described the band’s creative process as involving lots of coffee, discussing the poetry of Kenneth Patchen, strumming away on guitar and maybe jotting down a few lyrics. “We leave no time to think about it,” he says.
The album immediately draws you into its strange but inviting little world with the opener “Mother the Sun Makes Me Cry”. Acoustic guitars are supplemented by a random “springy” noise (as in “boing”, not the season), which seems a bit odd at first, but that quickly fades as you realize that it fits perfectly within the song’s structure. This is a common theme throughout the album, as instruments such as dulcimer, mandolin, ocarina and flute show up in various places, but nothing ever feels superfluous. Each sound makes perfect sense within the context of the songs; they are there to complement the melodies, not overshadow them.
Donaldson and Quinn share singing duties throughout, both sporting slightly high-pitched voices that work especially well in tandem. When they strain to hit notes that they can’t quite get to, it doesn’t take away from the song but rather just adds another layer of authenticity to the proceedings. Because their project such raw honesty, it makes vaguely poetic lyrics such as “If I could dance in a ballroom of glitter and shimmering tambourines,” seem somehow poignant.
The album has a gentle, easy flow, with the back porch, banjo-driven folk of the percussionless “Tents Along the Water” leading into the loping shuffle of “Careless Gardeners (Of Eden)”, the first section of a three-part suite at the center of the album. It’s here that we get the only taste of the chirping and other outdoor sounds that Jewelled Antler is most associated with. But there’s less than a minute of it and it serves as a perfect bridge to the final part of the suite, the bird noises subtly giving way to chimes. The blueprints of these songs may be heavily improvised, but there is great attention to detail with each sound on the record. Quinn and Donaldson are masters of layering, knowing just when to add each element to the mix.
Sparrow’s Meadow isn’t an album that has stand-out tracks, per se, but “Minotaur (Burn a Candle For Love)” is certainly one of the highlights. What begins as a shapeless acoustic drone with the usual steam-of-consciousness lyrics morphs into a hypnotic, flute-driven pop tune. The dreamy quality, along with the shrill vocals, recalls a more organic Galaxie 500. The album closer, “A Child Adrift” is another high point, which also shifts in mid-song. It begins as a simple, reverb-heavy acoustic ditty, but the addition of pedal steel guitar and tambourine halfway through give it an almost spiritual feeling.
Faults are hard to find on this album. There’s nothing indulgent on here; at just 11 songs in 34 minutes it certainly never wears out its welcome. Not only have Quinn and Donaldson have created a sound all their within the confines of rather basic folk-pop, but they’ve created their own little world, and we’re lucky that they’ve given us a glimpse into it.