‘Painting With’ Animal Collective
Matt McMahon | Monday, February 22, 2016
Over Animal Collective’s most recent 10 years as a band, the one-time Brooklyn darlings have systematically released a short EP or single between each of their major albums to bridge stylistic gaps and hint at the musical direction of their subsequent album.
Collaboration with Vashti Bunyan on 2005’s “Prospect Hummer” bridged the acoustic freak folk of “Sung Tongs” with the baroque “Feels”; 2006’s “People” merged the patience of “Feels” with the abrasiveness of “Strawberry Jam”; 2008’s “Water Curses” took the erratic digitality of “Strawberry Jam” and contextualized it in the aqueous production and pop harmonies that dominate “Merriweather Post Pavilion”; and 2012’s “Honeycomb / Gotham” took “Merriweather Post Pavilion’s” pop perfection and twisted it with the jumpy AM/FM sampling of “Centipede Hz.” Because of their ever-changing interests, the group’s rigid schedule of album-EP-album was one of the only consistent qualities of their output — besides quirk, earnestness and quality.
Comparatively, 2013’s “Monkey Been to Burn Town,” comprised exclusively of remixes of the two tracks from previous album “Centipede Hz” referred to in its title, was extremely noncommittal and uninformative in terms of the band’s next steps. When the new album “Painting With” was announced in late 2015, there was little indication of what to expect.
That is until they preempted the studio album’s release with concert album “Live at 9:30,” a two-hour epic featuring jam versions averaging 10 minutes of songs off each of their albums from the past decade. This move served to wrap up their seemingly concluded previous phase and usher in a new one. Within that frame, the album would represent a significant departure for Animal Collective’s well seasoned members.
This departure most explicitly takes form in the album’s structure (“Painting With” is by far the group’s shortest, most straightforward production) and vocal ambitions (every song tackles harmonies heavily indebted to band member Panda Bear’s solo record from last year, but these harmonies nonetheless become this album’s main standouts). Lead single “FloriDada” features call-and-response verses, layered choruses and additional wordless vocal melodies in one of the most annoyingly catchy songs you’ll hear this year. Elsewhere the effects sound like quick experiments with tape phasing techniques popularized by Steve Reich, while “Summing the Wretch” best apes the loping harmony of Panda Bear’s excellent “Boys Latin” the group obsesses over mastering across the album.
In these regards, “Painting With” is Animal Collective’s clearest stab at their version of “Pet Sounds”; both vocalists Panda Bear and Avey Tare have been preoccupied with Brian Wilson’s style of West Coast harmonies since the beginning of their music careers, and the group even recorded the new album in the same room where “Pet Sounds” was recorded 50 years ago. While the Beach Boy’s classic of three-minute bursts of pop harmonies remains a fixture to this date, “Painting With” already feels completely inconsequential, not only in comparison to “Pet Sounds” but to contemporary music and Animal Collective’s entire discography.
Prior to the album’s release, Panda Bear explained the band was exploring “this idea of wanting to do something with short songs, with a homogenous energy to the record,” comparing the idea to the Ramones’ blistering debut record. Unfortunately, the homogenous energy settled on is that of the quick and overstuffed leading third of their previous album “Centipede Hz,” perhaps the worst section of an Animal Collective album before the release of “Painting With.”
Like the remixing on these two albums’ bridge EP, the songs on “Painting With” are cluttered and poorly pieced together. Busy, rushed harmonies compete with dense-yet-flat production to the detriment of both parts. The worst culprits of this come in the form of the mid-album, three-song stretch from “The Burglar” to “Bagels in Kiev.” Each song spends its entire 2:45 runtime building to some expected payoff that never comes.
In contrast, follow-up “On Delay” takes only a few additional moments to establish itself — using a killer delay effect on feedback to grow a simple, effective backing for the rest of the song, much like the similarly structured “Recycling” — and the result is so much more rewarding. Even the harmonies ratchet down a step and take a chance to breathe rather than suffocate at the hands of the album’s dominant echoing vocals.
On “Painting With,” the band seems to have abandoned all of its most charismatic qualities. All of Animal Collective’s best songs develop over time, even their most popular tracks: “My Girls” aimlessly circles around its two alternating verses for the majority of its length, and “Summertime Clothes” creates its ever-interpretable synth lines in an extended intro. By setting out to depart from the ambience and drawn-out drone of their best works, the band has given up too much of its personality. Gone are the childlike sentimentality and charming overindulgences that, nevertheless, end up playful rather than insufferable. Here instead are 12 short, dub versions of the same irritatingly cramped song.
Maybe Animal Collective is adhering to a changing of the tide — which is something, up until this point, the band was never wont to do — in which audiences beg for music to reveal itself immediately or threaten to tune out. But on “Painting With,” they further forget about the charming anachronism that propelled them in the first place and reestablished itself in the second half of “Centipede Hz,” carrying the album away from complete dismissal. What’s left in that wake are a stiff reliance on vocal effects, one-note percussion-heavy production and two-and-a-half-minute songs that wind up more overlong than the lengthiest live renditions of their predecessors.
Songs: “On Delay,” “Summing the Wretch,” “Recycling”
If You Like: Beach Boys, Yeasayer, Battles, Walk the Moon