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Animal Collective: NYC band transcends genre, creates new sound

Mark Witte | Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Take a step off the beaten track of mainstream music and enter the world of Animal Collective.

With classifications spanning from indie rock to psych and freak folk, it is impossible to pinpoint the exact genre of Animal Collective’s music. The band’s erratic, often nonsensical lyrics and its barrage of abstract sounds places Animal Collective in a genre of its own.

This might scare off the faint of heart, especially in the band’s latest album “Strawberry Jam.” But those lingering awhile will find that there is more to Animal Collective than first meets the ear.

Though the band’s founder and frontman Avey Tare (David Portner) and drummer Panda Bear (Noah Lennox), both Baltimore natives, first released music together in 2000, they did not create an album under the name Animal Collective until 2003, when they picked up guitarist Deakin (Josh Dibb) and the Geologist (Brian Weitz). Their album was called “Here Comes the Indian.”

“Strawberry Jam,” which hit stores Sept. 11, marks the eighth time Avey Tare has released an album and the third time all four of the members have collaborated on an effort. With a splash of insightful songwriting and radical tunes, “Strawberry Jam” renews Animal Collective’s distinctive sound.

The opening track, “Peacebone” blends chaotic influences with simple harmony. The song pulses forward with a space-age, techno-like rhythm, complimented in an off-beat manner by an assortment of jarring sound effects that include screams and cracking whips. The sound effects create a frenzied harmony during the song’s chorus as Tare sings of forgetting the past.

In the track “Unsolved Mysteries,” set against a merry-go-round melody, the band asks questions about childhood experiences and their place in the overall experience of life. Before the lyrics descend into nonsense about Jack the Ripper, the band makes an interesting discovery, asking, “What’s Pain? What’s sadness anyway?” and then answering, “It’s not crying like a child.”

The album’s most exciting song, “Winter Wonder Land,” dabbles with visions of a paradise that clash with ignorance and gloom. The song’s chorus is so rousing in its attempt to understand the human condition that one could spend hours pondering its questions.

Some of the tracks seem intent on giving the listener a serious headache. But maybe that is how Animal Collective intended it.

“Cuckoo Cuckoo” starts off pensively before descending into madness as a barrage of instruments and sounds clash, completely overwhelming the listener. Collective’s ability to make “Cuckoo” a reality is an achievement, but more than one listen is asking for a migraine.

The album’s final track “Derek” sounds like something you might hear at an Austrian puppet show as it joyfully bops along with Tare singing a sort of tribute to his dog, Derek. It feels a bit odd, however, as the upbeat instrumentation contrasts with lyrics intent on resounding guilt about the animal’s treatment.

To add to the confusion, the song completely turns on itself halfway through, becoming like an Irish march. The singer asks “What do you see when you see inside of me?” But such confusion may be Animal Collective’s ultimate goal as they strive to be a band unlike any other.

Animal Collective’s songs may appeal to too small an audience to ever become more than just a popular cult group. Still, the insightful explosiveness of their lyrics and unique sound makes them well worth a listen. So give “Strawberry Jam” a chance and enter the commune. It just might be your niche.