“Sung Tongs” combines psychedelic acoustics and experimental sound, which still resonates after 15 years.
This article was lightly updated on Nov. 26 at 12:30 p.m.
At the beginning of this summer — May 3, to be exact — experimental pop band Animal Collective’s fifth studio album, “Sung Tongs,” turned 15. If that record were a person, it could head to the DMV to test for its driver’s permit in about two months. It seemed like just yesterday we first heard the overlapped vocals, multi-tracked guitars and pounding tribal drums that would come to perfectly define “freak folk.” But, having missed the big day itself, let’s at least look at the ol’ scrapbook and remember what this thing was like on the day it came out.
Animal Collective members David “Avey Tare” Portner and Noah “Panda Bear” Lennox locked themselves in a small house lit only with red light in September 2003 and recorded the album over roughly a month. Avey Tare’s sister, Abby, designed the album art — a grotesque piece of collage art made only from warm colors depicting a smiling man and woman, bones peeking out from under missing flesh. The album’s liner notes cheekily refer to the tracks as “tongs,” indicating a switch of the letters t and s, revealing the riddle to the record’s name: “tongue songs.”
The nature of Animal Collective involves a revolving door of the same four members: the aforementioned Avey Tare and Panda Bear, alongside Brian “Geologist” Weitz and Josh “Deakin” Dibb, neither of whom appear on “Sung Tongs,” but who did perform variously on the band’s earlier output. Following “Sung Tongs,” the four members would become a general mainstay and proper band (though Deakin still sits out the occasional album).
“Sung Tongs” saw the release of the band’s first single, “Who Could Win a Rabbit,” the music video for which was produced by experimental filmmaker Danny Perez, who would later collaborate with the band on their 2010 visual album, “ODDSAC.” The video features a demented take on Aesop’s “The Tortoise and The Hare” in which the Tortoise kills and eats the Hare after winning the race.
The other most notable track from the record is the equal parts soft and energetic “Winters Love,” which has appeared on multiple soundtracks, including the end of an episode of “The Simpsons.” The track showcases Avey Tare and Panda Bear at their collaborative best, trading verses that screech at one moment and coo the next. It’s beautiful, subversive, confusing and a necessity for the freak folk enthusiast (or general folk enthusiast).
Other songs on the record explore the — in my opinion — generally untapped realm of acoustic psychedelia. “Visiting Friends” is a 12-minute haze of reverbed acoustic guitars and backward speech, samples that resemble cawing birds and the occasional, soft sound of actual, forward speech, giving the song the impression of a soundtrack to, well, a visit to some friends. Perhaps multiple visits. It comes after “Kids on Holiday,” a generally straightforward song about the sights at the airport, and helps to establish travel and change as important themes in the record. Speaking on the theme of change, its prominence in the record is further solidified by the one-minute track “College,” which reminds every 18-year-old listener that “you don’t have to go to college.”
Other songs, like “Sweet Road,” embody the childlike spirit of Animal Collective, which has been around since the band’s first record and has helped form a reputation for the band as unbearably young-at-heart musicians, a reputation which — for better or worse — has followed them to this day. To that end, the song was once featured in a Crayola commercial that does, indeed, depict a roomful of children enjoying the opportunity to express themselves through art.
Other songs, like “We Tigers,” hearken to the tribal sounds of the band’s earlier releases, like “Here Comes the Indian” (2003) and “Holinndagain” (2002). This earlier, arguably more embryonic version of Animal Collective embodied a musical practice of almost complete improvisation and trance-like performance, almost always accompanied by Panda Bear’s repetitive and empowering drumming. The whooping vocals and odd percussive elements of those early days appear on “We Tigers,” but so does an undeniable sense of fun and childlike wonderment, as in the lyrics, “Hey kids let’s pick up sticks / let’s make out the sounds of our own.”
An important thing to remember, however, is that the Animal Collective of “Sung Tongs” is the same one that would produce “Merriweather Post Pavilion” (and “My Girls”) in 2009. While the latter record is certainly more domestically-minded and deals with heavier, more familial themes than “Sung Tongs,” there is an undeniable influence from their more volatile, youthful days (think “Lion in a Coma”).
“Sung Tongs” is an excellent, varied record that shows just what two unendingly creative minds can create with some acoustic guitars and tom drums. Little other musical elements appear on the record, except for looping and reverb effects in the more psychedelic cuts, but the record still comes out sounding triumphant and full — even a little naive — despite its stripped-down production.
In any case, I hope it’s forgiven us for having missed its birthday by so wide a mark, and I do hope that it passes its permit test in November.
Don’t forget to catch the band when they come to the Cain’s Ballroom on Oct. 7 — hopefully they’ll play “Winters Love.”