Animal Collective acolytes make an album that's not much more than the sum of its influences' parts.
When a band reaches into the stratosphere of (all right, relative) indie success, it’s bound to create imitators interesting and grating, alike. Animal Collective has been the bloggiest, hype-iest, critics’ darling-est act of the recent decade, and their brand of psych-pop accordingly has increasing caché for acts rising in their wake. If we’re going to talk about Philadelphia’s Grandchildren, let’s just get it out of the way, then. These folks have listened to quite a lot of Panda Bear, Avey Tare, and company, particularly the poppier side of Merriweather Post Pavilion, and the band’s newer material. Bandleader Aleks Martray does his best Panda Bear/Noah Lennox impression throughout Grandchildren’s debut album, Everlasting, and -- depending on who you’re asking -- that could be a blessing or a curse.
The jig is up, right from the start. Everlasting’s opening track, “Cold Warrior”, begins with the clattering, repetitive percussion that marks older Animal Collective favorites like “Grass” and “Purple Bottle”, albeit done here through Merriweather-style drum machines. When what sounds like a steel drum kicks in, you couldn’t be blamed for thinking these guys might be taking the piss out of their progenitors, doing the Panda Bear thing but placing his LSD-soaked tongue firmly in cheek. Then that doo-wop bassline joins the mix. When Martray starts singing, his sunsoaked pipes cop a Brian Wilson-inspired melody, and the listener gets a sinking feeling that Grandchildren might not be up for subverting a formula, after all.
“Winterlude” breaks free from its predecessor’s Bear-baiting with some solid live percussion and a nice guitar hook. Unfortunately, it doesn’t go much of anywhere from there, becoming just the thing its title puns on. “Heartbreaker” meanders in a similar manner, starting off promisingly with some distorted vocals and a strong melody from Martray before losing itself amidst self-consciously strange chord progressions and a midsection that slows its momentum to a near standstill.
“Saturn Returns” is the album’s early standout, its quickfire acoustic guitar work propelling it forward into compelling territory, underscored by busy drumming and some solid bass and keyboard riffing. The song’s lightness proves to be its strength. It is, in short, fun. “Toss and Turn” sucks that energy away, though, as it takes too long to build to a stale climax while featuring a bright keyboard melody that's not enough to keep its weight from bottoming out.
The album’s b-side finds its highlight in “OK I’m Waiting”, which uses a gently picked acoustic guitar and some wah-laced keyboards to create a hazy, happily stoned vibe. When the beat starts, it marks Everlasting’s only moment of pop songcraft unencumbered by unnecessary instrumental crowding. It’s a fine bit of songwriting, the success of its simplicity made even more apparent by the album’s sequencing -- “Little Big Ones” follows up with aimless jamming. The same holds true for “Anthill”, which confuses call-and-response drumming for intriguing dynamism. By the time closer “When You’re Not Looking” finishes its run, one’s left wondering where the last 40 minutes went; it wasn’t a bad experience, but it wasn’t much of any experience at all, akin to the feeling one might have after watching Bravo for an hour or so.
None of this is to say that Martray and his crew aren’t talented or that their enthusiasm for the music they’re creating doesn’t shine through. Grandchildren’s live show is said to be something to behold, with members switching instruments and leading the crowd into sunny, sweaty bliss. That seems believable, even if the record itself doesn’t generate anywhere near that level of excitement. Here’s to hoping the band shrugs off their influences a bit more readily on the next album.