A solid IDM EP, Panda Bear’s “A Day With the Homies” is perhaps more interesting because of its limited-run, vinyl-only release, a confounding distributive decision.
CD copies of Panda Bear’s (a.k.a. Noah Lennox’s) 1999 self-titled debut are difficult to track down, and even the copy on which I may or may not have spent around $200 is of dubious origin. I choose not to believe I purchased a bootleg. In any case, it’s surreal to stare at that album, that oddly pubescent and distant piece of work, in conjunction with Daft Punk’s “Random Access Memories,” on which Panda Bear was a featured artist.
It is indeed surreal, but there is also something humorous in holding in your hands both the work of a timid, twenty-year-old kid and the work of a collaboration fifteen years later on from which that same kid would win a Grammy. Panda Bear went from hard-to-find obscurity to Grammy-award-winning in a decade-and-a-half. Now in 2018, he’s somewhat scaled back to hard-to-find obscurity.
In somewhat of a daring decision, Panda Bear’s most recent EP, “A Day With the Homies,” enjoyed a limited-run, vinyl-only release on January 12. It sold out quickly online, and I was lucky to find a record store in LA that had an online store and a few copies left unclaimed. This review may be a couple weeks late, but frankly it was a difficult release to get my hands on. There is no official digital rip, no CD, and the only way I could have heard the EP would have been through one of the many low-quality vinyl rips that surfaced on fansites. I figured that if Panda Bear only released it on vinyl, it should only be listened to on vinyl.
Nevertheless, I can’t quite see the rationale behind Panda Bear’s decision. The five-track EP clocks in at just under half-an-hour and is extremely sample-heavy, with the record insert even bearing YouTube URLs to the sources of many of the samples. Such packaging is fun, and Panda Bear has always been forthcoming with where he gets his samples, but for a vinyl-only release, one would expect more fanfare. There is the record sleeve, the record insert and the record itself. The limited-run, vinyl-only EP could barely have blander packaging.
Normally I wouldn’t criticize a release on its packaging, but when the whole idea of the release is that it is of a physical format only, one expects something a bit more. To expound on this, I’m not an audiophile. I couldn’t tell you the sound difference between MP3s, FLACs or WAVs, and I’m not a vinyl purist. I understand that, in terms of fidelity and sound quality, digital supersedes analog in every sense. That said, I enjoy collecting vinyl. I don’t understand why “A Day With the Homies” had to be vinyl-only, however.
The tracks are all electronic, as Panda Bear’s solo works tend to be. In typical Panda Bear style, he blends the sample with the original work, the digital with the analog; it ultimately adds up to a pleasant experience on every track, a welcome change of pace since 2015’s glitchy, sometimes abrasive and cold but equally gooey and warm “Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper.” The choice to release music that is largely digitally-produced on only a physical format is an interesting one, however, and one that I don’t quite understand. I see no advantage that vinyl could give the music; decent mastering and mixing will always deliver a better listening experience on the digital format. Perhaps, though, he just wanted to release a fun novelty EP. In any case, it’s a record worth adding to one’s collection.
Musically, the record marks a slight departure from the aforementioned 2015 album, as well as 2015’s “Crosswords” EP which was essentially a collection of B-sides and Panda Bear’s most recent release until “A Day With the Homies.” He retains the poppy, synth-heavy beats he’s been known for since revolutionizing the genre with 2007’s “Person Pitch.” While Panda Bear’s solo work has been surprisingly distinct from his work with Animal Collective, influences of their 2016 album “Painting With” can be heard in the vocal melodies of some of the tracks, notably the opener, “Flight.” Panda Bear does a good job of retaining his sound, however, and doesn’t betray his overdubbed vocal tracks to the hocketing that pervaded Animal Collective in 2016.
Panda Bear’s previous works feel mostly like songs in the traditional sense, however, with beginnings and middles and ends. “A Day With the Homies,” in contrast, feels like a genuine attempt at an IDM release, with each song feeling like an extended club cut. This is perhaps the influence behind the vinyl-only release, harkening back to the days when clubs only played bangers on wax.
For each song, Panda Bear lays out a beat in the first few minutes and sings over it in three or more ghostly voices. There are tinges of verses and choruses, but the songs can mostly be defined as straight, upward lines.
This isn’t a bad thing, because Panda Bear’s production is always enjoyable and, for lack of a higher word, masterful.
“Flight” is a lovely opener with its surf rock feel and its funky synthesizer roll, while “Part of the Math” slows things down with a simple ticking sound for percussion and long, drawn out notes over which Panda Bear sings. Despite such bare production, Panda Bear’s vocals and drum loops always fill the gaps in perfect ways.
Panda Bear is, for the most part, a fan of long build-ups on this EP. “Shepard Tone,” for example, features a rather lengthy intro of only a spasming hi-hat and what sounds merely like blowing wind. Also ever-present on the EP are long, drawn out notes and tones over which Panda Bear layers percussion and simple melodies. I already mentioned the notes on “Part of the Math,” but “Nod to the Folks” features the most notable example, with repeated downward tones akin to WWII-era bombs heralding their arrival or a double-tracked tornado siren. The uncanniness of these downward tones is striking, but their presence with the rest of the song’s ingredients just feels a little lacking and undercooked, making for the weakest track on the release.
The final track, “Sunset,” brings back both the tapping percussion and the slow build-up. In typical IDM form, the song carries onward with new instruments and sounds added incrementally as it soars upward. The beat continues long after Panda Bear has sung his last words, and then abruptly ceases as the needle rolls out of the last groove.
Panda Bear’s newest album is his most fearlessly electronic one yet. That’s not to say that his other releases were crafted from primarily analog components, but his other pieces all felt markedly unique and his own. Panda Bear has always claimed to take inspiration from IDM artists such as Aphex Twin, and it seems in this EP that he has attempted somewhat to mirror that genre in a more to-the-point manner. It’s not typical Panda Bear, but if anything, it’s a decent EP featuring above-average IDM that I’m glad to have in my collection. Buy it if you find it, but don’t fall prey to the inevitable online scalpers.