Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Inner Child: Panda Bear's 'Person Pitch'

I can remember having quite an in-depth conversation with Emmy the Great about Animal Collective during a car journey from the Brixton Windmill to Camden Town.
I think this must have been around the time the group released ‘Sung Tongs’, something of a leap towards accessibility, but Emmy had their debut album ‘Spirit They’ve Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished’ on the car stereo. I had ambivalent feelings about this record – whilst it contained flashes of the inspiration the group have since distilled far more successfully, it was also fiercely combative, characterised by noise so high-pitched it induced headaches. I’m all for experimentation, but I wondered whether their electronic interventions need be quite so forced and malevolent. Emmy clearly loved the album, but I feel that the group’s more recent excursions, which have assimilated electronic trickery and improvisation far more comfortably, have proved me right. I haven’t really felt the need to return to that frustrating debut.

Noah Lennox, AKA Panda Bear, is the group’s drummer and singer, and whilst ‘Person Pitch’ is his second solo recording, it’s his first to gather a feverish level of excitement from the cognoscenti. Many are suggesting it is the best record yet from the entire Animal Collective staple. They may well be right. Panda’s debut ‘Young Prayer’ has, with hindsight, been judged as a little confounding and obscure, although I loved its powerful mix of percussive clamour and mantric chanting. ‘Person Pitch’ arguably adopts a much more coherent vision though, weaving infectious melody and even some comprehensible, affecting lyrics into its intoxicating sound collage.

‘Intoxicating’ is a tricky adjective inevitably implying 60s cliché, but despite Lennox’s rejection of mind-altering substances on ‘Take Pills’, this music comes very close to a genuine recreation of the lysergic sounds of the psychedelic era. It’s not just mere homage, as Lennox’s cut and paste use of samples adds a fresh and exciting impetus to the music. If Lennox doesn’t require drugs to achieve this, surely the more interesting it all becomes. The most obvious influence is certainly Brian Wilson, particularly apparent in Lennox’s meticulously crafted harmonies, but there are also hints of The Byrds’ explorations on ‘3D’, The Monkees circa ‘Head’, and in the imaginative collage approach, David Axelrod’s productions for The Electric Prunes.

Many critics described the early Animal Collective material as ‘childlike’, and there’s a sense of awe and discovery here that lends that description weight in an entirely positive sense. The music, constructed almost entirely from samples, is dense and compelling. It has the minimalist ethos of contemporary composition, layering a variety of sounds over what can frequently be reduced to just one chord – it’s far more about texture, mood and atmosphere. This effect is rendered brilliantly on ‘I’m Not’, the album’s summery, swirling centrepiece.

Lyrically, Lennox makes little attempt to avoid straying into whimsy, but this is an intrinsic part of this album’s quirky and endearing charm. On the opening ‘Comfy in Nautica’, he proclaims, with little sense of irony, ‘coolness is having courage’. Well, there’s probably some truth in that sentiment, even if most lyricists would stop short of taking it further than a private notepad. It’s almost as if Lennox is trying to recapture some of the perceptive observations that children can make, many of which get lost in the more mundane routine of adult life.

Lennox creates great impact from altering the mood of his constructions mid-way through. Whilst the 12 minute epic ‘Bros’, daringly released as a single, is hypnotically relentless, it’s the added layers of processed guitars towards the conclusion that elevate the music to a new level. ‘Take Pills’ shifts between a woozy, abstract introduction into something chiming, infectious and almost jaunty. It’s a shift both surprising and satisfying. For all the obvious reference points, ‘Good Girls/Carrots’, another 12 minute epic, is both primitive and disturbingly modern, with its pulsating rhythms borrowed from house music. The tablas that open the track provide this album’s clearest link back to ‘Young Prayer’.

There’s a playful contrast at work between driving rhythms, and the hazy somnambulance of the punctuating mood pieces (particularly ‘I’m Not’ and ‘Search For Delicious’). Lennox arguably saves the simplest, and perhaps the best, for last with ‘Ponytail’. At just two minutes, its brevity comes as welcome relief after the intensity of the album’s main expositions. The lyrics are simple and charming (‘when my soul starts growing, I get so hungry, and I wish it never would stop growing’) It also sounds wonderfully warm, a contented conclusion to a quite remarkable album.

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