Music

Animal Collective: Merriweather Post Pavilion

Photo: Adriano Fegundes

Why do Animal Collective always end up being the band that critics seem to be raving about?


Animal Collective

Merriweather Post Pavilion

Label: Domino
US Release Date: 2009-01-20
UK Release Date: 2009-01-12
Amazon
iTunes

Did you think this was going to pan Merriweather Post Pavilion? Sorry, can't oblige -- I'm as guilty as the most effusive critic of Animal Collective-love. So here goes. Merriweather Post Pavilion is a masterstroke, a release so fun to listen to it makes you actually hopeful for the new year, not just for music but for life in general. It's musically sophisticated, of course, boiling up the band's characteristic components of techno, tribalism, drone and noise with gorgeous melody into an addictive optimism.

In the past, it has taken a bit of effort to relate to Animal Collective's music. I used to pretty much hate Animal Collective. They seemed somehow to embody this Brooklyn-centric elitism that proffered vague ideas about "music" as an excuse for screeching into the microphone or recording eight minutes of directionless ambience. If my reaction was knee-jerk against a critical community that occasionally seemed to revel in its own cooler-than-thou attitude, casually bequeathing Best Music on unapproachable bands, it was an overly impulsive one. It's not just that the band's come more towards the mainstream over the past three or four years. If you go back and listen to their older material through the prism of Sung Tongs-and-on, you're struck by the open-heartedness of their sonic creations. Over time, the ragged open ends have tightened, but the optimism and wonder remain the same.

This open-hearted delight is what, once won over, keeps us coming back and back. Put on an Animal Collective album and somehow things seem all right. Merriweather Post Pavillion says this through warm tones and less prominent noise/drone elements -- through the machinery of pop. Poppier, for this band, doesn't mean worse. Strawberry Jam might have been the best pop album of 2007; witness the off-kilter train-shuffle of "For Reverend Green" and its synth washes of "#1". And this continues without break throughout Merriweather Post Pavilion; instead of vague electronic atmospherics, down-time is marked by chiming, recognizable guitar arpeggios. You'll be surprised by the alt-rock melodic figure in the chorus of "In the Flowers" -- and love its juxtaposition with the two-chord stasis of the verse. You may have already heard the buzz about "My Girls" and "Brothersport" – the former, particularly, will go down as an Animal Collective classic -- sanguine, innocent, and enthralling.

But then again, "Taste" is as patient as "Swimming Pool", and "Lion in a Coma", perhaps Tare's best song on this album, shares something of "Chores" and "Who Could Win a Rabbit"'s unhinged celebration (instead of the yelp, though, we get ironic auto-tune and a climax of controlled, sublime falsetto). Since Strawberry Jam and through the Water Curses EP, Animal Collective have developed a mature band's confident deployment of engineered components. This is, after all, their ninth album together since 2000.

Moreover, Avey Tare and Panda Bear have never sounded more in sync. The two principal singer-songwriters' vocals have been (minimally) treated in similar ways, retaining the vocalists' essential character but smoothing them into an ear-pleasing blend. No more of Tare's characteristic shriek, which is a shame, though I doubt we've heard the last of it. And it's all so charming that whatever Tare/Bear are singing about hardly matters. There's a lot of paeans to children, walking around (as we've previously luxuriated in on "Street Flash"), and celebration of intimate moments: a lover's voice cooling our singer on a boiling hot night, watching her sleeping form "with delight", and playfully admitting he's charmed when she "claws him like a cat".

So Merriweather Post Pavilion finds Animal Collective tight and sharp, and it suits them. Animal Collective's music is for everyone's world. I've had it on repeat while riding the shinkansen between Tokyo and Kyoto, Kyoto and Hiroshima, Kyoto and Tokyo. While walking around unfamiliar streets. But it's music not just for this specific situation but for driving. For, yeah, doing household chores. For pretending to work on a slow day. For when you need some music to make you smile. For life in its infinite variety and endless delight.

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White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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