What we really need is music that pushes boundaries, music that takes the predetermined and pre-drawn lines and steps right over them, making sure to drag a whole lot of crap with them. Thankfully, we do have that. Deep in open formats like Soundcloud or Bandcamp you can find entirely free, avant-garde pieces that may serve to inspire you for months to come. True, 90 percent of this is likely trash, which is why finding that one band is all the more special. The experimental scene today is almost like a personally exclusive collection of bands rather than a community. Those that find “their” bands hold onto them, usually keeping them secret.
There are, of course, bands that have obtained a slightly more mainstream success through experimentation. Bands like Black Dice or Swans, for example. Today’s topic is one such group: Animal Collective. Animal Collective is probably best-known for their 2009 smash hit of an album, “Merriweather Post Pavilion.” Boasting a prestigious 9.6/10 and “album of the year” from Pitchfork Media, it was an instant success with weed-smoking twenty-somethings. Jest aside, “Merriweather Post Pavilion” is one of the most recent and shining examples of experimental music. It wasn’t crazy avant-garde or musique concrète or anything, but it pushed some boundaries and was an album of sounds that many people had just never heard.
“Merriweather Post Pavilion,” however, is not Animal Collective’s first dip in the water. They’ve been releasing crazy albums since their conception in 2000, from the nostalgically childish “Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished,” and the disgustingly abrasive “Danse Manatee,” to the downright cozy “Campfire Songs.” Their music takes time to grow on the listener. My favorite album of all time, for example, is Animal Collective’s “Strawberry Jam,” an album that I distinctly remember hating when I heard it for the first time.
The boys of Animal Collective are no longer boys, though. They’re men, most with wives and children. This doesn’t stop them from ever returning to their old, “experimental” sounds of the past, but it’s clear that post-2009 they began drifting in a more accessible direction. 2012’s “Centipede Hz” was chock-full of crazy, overblown pop tracks that I still haven’t completely comprehended. That’s the beauty of this new style for them, however. It’s definitely easier to listen to, but that doesn’t make it any less complex.
2016’s “Painting With” may be the band’s most divisive album yet (if we ignore “Danse Manatee”). It was fun, dancey, electronic and energetic — not qualities that are usually associated with the chilled, sometimes-poppy but usually rather ambient and thoughtful Animal Collective. This is, again, a direction that they began floating post-2009.
I’ll say it. I enjoyed “Painting With.” It wasn’t experimental, however. “Painting With” was a pop album through-and-through (the true experimentation came out in their live performances supporting the album, but that topic is an article all its own). Animal Collective has usually been in the business of releasing “companion EPs” consisting of B-sides or unused tracks from the album sessions of whatever album the EP serves as a companion for. That’s why the announcement of “The Painters EP” roughly two weeks ago was an expected surprise.
The first thing to be said about “The Painters” is that it’s very, very short. It’s only four tracks that clock in at about 13 minutes. The tracks, in order, are “Kinda Bonkers,” “Peacemaker,” “Goalkeeper,” and “Jimmy Mack.” The best way to examine the album is probably through an independent observation of each track.
“Kinda Bonkers” is a fun, poppy song. It has experimental elements and could definitely be a favorite of mine. It’s not particularly groundbreaking, but its carefree vocals and powerful percussion make for an easy song to shake your body to. It harkens to the same summer-vibe styles that we got from “Painting With’s” “Floridada.” As much as I like this song, however, I can’t help but feel slightly disappointed. Like I said, Animal Collective has long been moving from their abrasive roots, but “Kinda Bonkers” feels unbelievably tame compared to the things they released on the comparatively out-there “Painting With.”
The next two tracks tend to blend together, regretfully. I’m hoping after repeated listens they’ll stand out more, but for the most time they fade into the background. “Peacemaker” brings back one of the most hated aspects of “Painting With:” hocketing. Essentially, each word of the song is said by a different member each time. It alternates between vocalists Avey Tare and Panda Bear on every word. This effect is entertaining when used well, and grating when overused, as it was in “Painting With.” The song itself is some sort of downtempo hybrid, with simple, clacking percussion and long sweeps of synthesized noise. It carries along fairly well, with a rather strong cadence, but it doesn’t do much else. Even when the band reaches the chorus, not much is changed except the climbing and falling that the vocalists do together. If anything, the instruments are actually pulled a bit further back on the chorus, creating a rather underwhelming effect.
“Goalkeeper” is far more entertaining, with the vocalists singing alongside each other instead of in-between each other. The percussion feels even sparser here, but the beat is much faster and the song boasts a bassline that sounds eerily close to the Seinfeld theme’s slap bass. Down to its roots, however, it’s a very similar song to “Peacemaker.” There’s just a few unchanging and rather uninteresting elements to it. It’s an entertaining listen, but nothing groundbreaking or particularly unique, as we are used to hearing from every iteration of Animal Collective.
The previous two tracks end up feeling like filler for the absolute smasher of a final track, “Jimmy Mack.” This song is unique in two qualities: the first being that I heard it live before it ever had a studio release (what do you mean “that’s irrelevant?”) and the second being that it’s actually a cover song. The original is from a 1960’s Motown R&B/Soul group known as Martha & The Vandellas. That all being said, the boys cover “Jimmy Mack” with such fierceness and energy that I can’t help but move my body to this one. This isn’t an empty movement that could be applied to “Kinda Bonkers,” though. No, this one comes from the track’s completely energetic identity. Avey Tare sings alone in this one, and his investment in the song reaches critical levels as he resorts to screaming by the end of the song. The fast-paced and cymbal-heavy percussion carries the song along extremely well beside its rather simple keyboard-structured melody. For a song like this, however, it’s not entirely about the composition. The beauty of it comes solely from the performance that is given. The song is inventive, it changes, it’s genuinely interesting, and it catches you by surprise. For these reasons alone, it’s the best song on the EP.
To summarize, Animal Collective are not “losing their edge,” as some may suggest. True, they’ve moved away from their experimental touch they used to have and are now heading in a far more accessible direction, but their beauty is still present. “The Painters” may feel a little sloppy and underpadded, but it’s still a quick, fun listen in its own right. I’m glad they released it; I bought it and I listened to it and I enjoy it. It’s a good EP. It’s not amazing, it’s not world-changing, it’s not groundbreaking and it’s not experimental — and that’s okay.