Friday, August 03, 2007

Summer Confectionary

Animal Collective - 'Strawberry Jam' (Domino)/Caribou - 'Andorra' (Merge)

With the weather, in London at least, finally having taken some kind of turn toward the norm for the season, two albums have come along that enhance the sense of wonder in the rays of sunshine.

The development of Animal Collective from freaky feedback noise merchants to quirky pop act would now appear to be complete. ‘Strawberry Jam’ is comfortably their most accessible album to date, although it achieves this without compromising on their distinctive ethos. Their characteristic elements are all still intact – including Panda Bear’s vigorous tribal drumming, the strange interventions of electronic noise, the childlike melodies and the disorientating overlapping vocal lines.

Although ‘Sung Tongs’ and ‘Feels’ had already made strides in this direction, there’s an immediate and clear difference to the sound of this new album. The vocals are produced with greater clarity and pushed much higher in the mix, so much so that the group’s somewhat bizarre, lysergic-sounding lyrics are at last comprehensible with little effort. There are individual lines that stand out as a result, perhaps for the first time on an AC record (‘For Reverend Green’s triumphant singalong ‘I think it’s alright to be inhuman now!’ or ‘Unsolved Mysteries’ relating the surprise of looking into someone’s eyes and ‘finding out he’s Jack the Ripper’). They can also make much more of their unhinged singing styles – the weird and wonderful yelps that pepper the background add a warped intensity, and the sudden leaps into falsetto without prior warning become much more striking here.

It’s also much simpler rhythmically – the jerky mechanics of previous records have been almost completely eschewed in favour of pulsating heartbeats and relentless pounding. It’s clear that Brian Wilson, particularly the ‘child is the father of the man’ idea that dominated ‘Smile’, remains the primary influence, but his harmonic and melodic values are filtered through such a peculiar prism that this band can comfortably be distanced from more slavish Wilson copyists (The High Llamas or even Super Furry Animals).

All nine of these songs boldly straddle the fine line between infectious and infuriating, mostly staying on just the right side of it. There’s certainly a real sense of fun and enthusiasm infusing the whole record, each song being delivered with demented glee. ‘Peacebone’ seems almost unstoppable in its release of primal joy, whilst ‘Unsolved Mysteries’ sounds like a demonic fairground carousel. The album is dominated by two lengthy explorations – the hazy, surreal and mysterious ‘For Reverend Green’ and the evocative, gently rolling ‘Fireworks’. The former seems unusually linear, extrapolating its single, insistent idea to its very limit.

The group remain structurally unpredictable but easily identifiable in their sound, and the greater emphasis on immediacy and vocal clarity has given them a fresh lease of life. With publishing now handled by Rough Trade and a new deal with Domino, there’s every chance of ‘Strawberry Jam’ being a modest commercial breakthrough. I shall be spreading it on my toast liberally.

The artist formerly known as Manitoba is another act to have undergone a rather dramatic and unusual change in sound. It is increasingly hard to believe that the same Dan Snaith who made the warm, jittery electronica of Manitoba’s ‘Start Breaking My Heart’ also made this musically audacious but melodically conventional record under the name of Caribou.

Again, the influence of Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys would appear to be somewhat thinly veiled, but the music is a heat-hazed, endearingly ragged concoction that delves into a broad range of musical inspirations. There are hints of the bold, ambitious production values of David Axelrod, particularly on the stomping and insistent ‘Eli’, and the big, clattering drums throughout are redolent of the percussive sound textures Kieren Hebden conjured for the last two Four Tet albums. A number of tracks benefit from real attention to detail, with chattering woodwind samples creating a disorientating sense of confusion.

Superimposed over this peculiar sound mix is a lush and unashamed lyrical romanticism. Several tracks are given girls’ names for titles (‘Sandy’, ‘Eli’, ‘Irene’) and there’s a summery, loving atmosphere pervading throughout. At its most restrained, there’s a hint of the strange combination of positivity and melancholy that Yo La Tengo have recently captured so well, but when the clatter kicks back in, it’s bracingly synaesthetic.

There are points at which the music here becomes genuinely, unsettlingly odd. ‘Irene’ for example sounds like an old piece of sun-warped vinyl, its shimmering chords veering oddly out of tune. Its processed mechanical drum beat also breaks the mood somewhat – given the use of live-sounding drums throughout the rest of the record. ‘Andorra’ also closes on a peculiarly dark note, with ‘Niobe’ initially sounding like the start of a pulsating house track, before journeying off on several unpredictable tangents.

Yet for all its attempts to confound and confuse, ‘Andorra’ is in the main a refreshingly warm and approachable work and one that completely envelops the listener in its sun-drenched majesty.

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