Animal Collective on 'Merriweather Post Pavilion'
With trademark chaos calmed with tribal beats and sweet lyrics, experimental popsters Animal Collective’s latest LP is their most accessible to date
Breadth isn’t always desirable. It’s not what you’d want to see in your post-surgery stitches, for example, nor a tracheotomy incision. Nor is it likely to be what you’d look for in the arse of a new squeeze, but generally breadth is an admirable quality. An expansive listening habit is a splendid thing, and pretty much mandatory if a band is likely to produce any music worthy of attention. Of course, there exist delusional chumps who claim to listen to Sun Ra, Scott Walker and Slint while their own records suggest a cut-price Fratellis, but fervent worship in a broad church is a pretty reliable way of judging not only a band’s interests, but also their ability and intent.
Cue Noah Lennox, drummer and vocalist with peerless US experi-popsters Animal Collective, who could hardly have more genuinely catholic taste if he worked in the Pope’s kitchen. Under the alias Panda Bear, he’s also recorded three solo albums of fabulously fractured avant-pop, the last of which, ‘Person Pitch’, was released in 2007. Smothering its inside sleeve are the names of hundreds of artists Lennox admires – ranging from Cat Stevens to Wu-Tang Clan via Kylie Minogue and Steve Reich – and, judging from the sounds that feed into Animal Collective’s latest (eighth) studio LP, his bandmates’ musical appreciation is just as rampantly wide-ranging.
'Merriweather Post Pavilion’ was recorded in Oxford, Mississippi, with Ben Allen – who’s worked as an in-house engineer for hip hop label Bad Boy and with Gnarls Barkley – and is an(other) exhilarating blast into the post-pop stratosphere. It throbs with tribal beats and rave-styled bass, ripples with woogly electronic noise and leaves vapour trials of lysergic acid-splashed melody and sweet lyricism (themes of family and separation from home dominate) in its wake. Looping, layering and repetition are key, but Animal Collective’s characteristic chaos has been considerably calmed, and it now sounds as if they’re charting a course through the dance-pop cosmos, rather than just revelling in the joyride.
Witness individuals suffer for the good of the Collective
‘With a lot of our albums we’ll have an idea of what we want to do and by the end of the whole process it will have become something quite different,’ the Lisbon-based Lennox admits. ‘With the new record, though, there were a couple of things we knew we wanted to do that did work out and they were to focus on bass frequencies and to try not to use so many strict vocal harmonies. Part of the bass idea came from listening to music that’s come out recently, like dubstep. I really like Burial – although his stuff is more dreamy than hard, I guess – pretty much everything on Skull Disco and this guy Zombie, whose tracks are a lot more playful. I don’t know if the other guys are into dubstep as much as I am, but it’s certainly a common interest. As music lovers, I like to think we’re all pretty open-minded.’
With encouragement from Allen, for ‘Merriweather…’ Animal Collective changed their recording method from previous album ‘Strawberry Jam’, whereby they took what they did live as a foundation and worked over the top of it. ‘Having an end result that sounds really live was something that we tried to do with both records,’ explains Lennox, ‘but we went about them in totally opposite ways. With “… Jam”, we tried to track as much of the song as we could live and didn’t do many overdubs, but with “Merriweather…”, we tracked pretty much every sound individually on its own channel, so that we’d have complete control over every sound in the mixing process. Ben had never worked on something like this before, so the first day in the studio he said he was unclear how it was going to work. He was a little baffled that none of our machines were locked to a tempo with computers or had a MIDI language, so he decided we’d have to do it piece by piece. We’d been doing it in this real caveman style,’ Lennox laughs.
Does his work as Panda Bear necessarily feed into Animal Collective? ‘Definitely. They’re part of the same creative trajectory for me and one informs the other. I always know going into something what it’s intended for and that tends to dictate the process. Making a song for myself, I can go crazy with it and produce it to infinity, but if I’m working on a song in which other people have to have a place, I can’t really do that. I think the freedom of doing your own thing for a while makes Animal Collective stronger as an entity. You never feel confined and being able to go from this thing to that thing keeps it interesting and exciting for me.’
Talk of ‘breakthrough’ records comes cheap, but with its ravey rapture, easily traceable melodies and reduction in the number of ideas competing for attention at the same time, ‘Merriweather…’ does present as Animal Collective’s most accessible album to date. Does Lennox reckon they might ‘do a Flaming Lips’ this time around?
‘I think the full frequency range of the record makes it very easy to swallow,’ he considers, ‘and even the jarring or intense sounds are put together in a way that’s really easy to absorb. I guess in that way, you could call it our most accessible album, but I don’t know that I really understand how accessibility works. I certainly woudn’t have any problem if the album got really big,’ laughs Lennox, ‘but it’s hardly like that’s the target.’
‘Merriweather Post Pavilion’ is out on Domino on Mon. Animal Collective’s Koko show on the same day is sold out, but tickets are now on sale for their Forum date on Mar 24.
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