Monday, March 9, 2009

Merriweather Post Pavilion - Animal Collective

Merriweather Post Pavilion

Animal Collective
Domino Records.

SCQ Rating: 91%

When discussing the discography of Animal Collective, I must admit that I’ve always held the Brooklyn band’s material at an arm’s distance. Despite being drawn to their breakout Sung Tongs for its more sensational details (those same hoots, hollers and bird squawks that came to represent “freak-folk”), I couldn’t treat their output as delicately or lovingly as other bands whose music truly spoke through me. When the majority of your favourite albums shed light on relationships and mortality, Animal Collective’s refusal to address common (or, for that matter, penetrable) subject matter may've bolstered their ranks among stoner circles but pigeonholed my records for strict weekend chill-outs. Feels challenged that disconnect, as did last spring’s Water Curses EP, yet none so stunningly as Merriweather Post Pavilion.

The greatest and most futile question at hand is its immediacy: what strikes first? Is it Avey, Panda and Geologist’s embrace of mainstream styles? Or their vocals, now front and center in the mix? How about Merriweather...’s unusually pristine production? Or the band’s undeniable growth as songwriters? Truth is, the countless examples of Merriweather Post Pavilion’s immediacy within the first two tracks are potent enough to seriously damage your brain, be it the eerie/explosive awakening of ‘In the Flowers’ or some two-step inspired electro-pop on ‘My Girls’. Whichever aspect to Animal Collective’s progression represents your particular first-listen epiphany isn’t really important; they’re each crucial to this record’s importance. In short, Merriweather… is easily the Brooklyn band’s most comprehensible album – the vocals are up-front, insightful lyrics, stellar production and the songs are indestructible – but none of these breakthroughs come at the expense of Animal Collective’s identity. Their oddity remains as potent as ever, and Merriweather Post Pavilion, despite its universal bravado, is likely their greatest mindfuck yet. Not because it’s unnerving… no, not anymore… but now because it’s awe-inspiring.

Genre-labels have never been of use when describing Animal Collective’s discography, partly because yes, they’re pioneers of their craft, but also because they’ve never stood by a particular sound for longer than one full-length. Critics are reduced to amateurish descriptors that the band must relish in; Sung Tongs was accessible in its “acoustic” approach, Feels was its “electric” counterpart, and Strawberry Jam incorporated “electronic” loops and textures. Pretty detailed stuff. Merriweather Post Pavilion’s sound takes liberally from past efforts – notably the raw energy of Feels matched to Strawberry Jam’s sonic experimentation – but filters the band’s use of intensity and adventurism into the most gloriously polished, lushly arranged album of their career. And because each AC album sports its own inarticulate sound, as difficult to pinpoint as a dream’s narrative, I’ll now join other critics with my take: Merriweather… is built on prog-rock songs tempered to the elements and rhythms of dance music. Each composition unfurls its verses like backhanded secrets before honing in on maximized choruses.

This immediacy in all categories combines to form an album so powerful it’s nearly negating. At eleven songs, fifty-four minutes and not a wasted moment, I almost wish Merriweather… was trimmed (by even one song) to alleviate the strain on my senses. Yet how can I complain when the results are this thrilling? Where the band used to throw five song ideas into a rapid-fire collage (think ‘Who Could Win a Rabbit’, ‘Grass’, ‘Water Curses’), Merriweather… finds Animal Collective exploring songwriting paths only coarsely mapped on previous outings. ‘Also Frightened’ could’ve been a stuttering bridge to an AC song of old, but here it’s established, layered upon and fully realized. Where ‘Summertime Clothes’ takes a dirty garage riff (like a distant cousin to Hot Chip’s ‘Over and Over’) and develops their most retro-sounding pop song to date, ‘No More Runnin’ is the band’s most structured slow song to date, all nostalgic keys and evening-still bass.

My copy of Merriweather Post Pavilion was first unwrapped in Montreal, where a friend and I had planned to meet and partake in first-listen ceremonies. As the disc spun, my friend lamented over how unexpectedly perfect it would’ve been had someone taken a picture of us, sitting attentively on the couch, when the first percussive tantrums of ‘In the Flowers’ pounded loose of his speakers. A photograph of that moment would’ve caught us inches over the couch-cushions, eyes wide and minds blown. Now the year is young, and I refuse to close any discussion of as-yet-unreleased albums that might challenge Merriweather…’s 2009-supremacy bid, yet I marvel at how this album extinguished my hesitant disconnect between AC tunes and my life. To paraphrase and modify one of its finest lyrics: is this album really all the things that are outside of me? I’m beginning to believe it is.

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