Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Same Tricks, Different Results

Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavillion (Domino, 2009)
Bon Iver – Blood Bank (Jagjaguwar, 2009)

On the surface, you couldn’t find two acts more appreciably different than Animal Collective and Bon Iver. The former are synaesthetic, expansive, sometimes confrontational but more often these days full of unbridled joy. Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon has, so far, excelled at making music that is spare, hauting, melancholy and introspective, in the best possible way. Yet listening to the two new releases by these most inspired of artists, I’m struck by a common ground in their understanding of the power and emotional impact of the human voice. Much of the appeal of AC comes from the interaction of the voices of Avery Tare and Panda Bear, and in their deployment of various yelps and other vocal quirks. Justin Vernon uses his multitracked choir as a means both of self-expression and self-examination.

Animal Collective have always played a risky game in straddling that very fine boundary between infectious and infuriating. On ‘Merriweather Post Pavillion’, they push that distinctive style to the very limit. The resulting music is delirious, intoxicating and completely irresistible. Resistance is clearly futile. Just listen to ‘Summertime Clothes’, a song about wandering aimlessly during nights when it’s too hot to sleep. There’s a vibrant explosion in the song’s chorus – ‘I want to walk around with you! Justyoujustyoujustyou!’ – it’s wonderful. Or then there’s the extended, radical closing track ‘Brothersport’, where the near ecstatic nature of the voices, combined with the sharp rhythmic interplay, sounds informed by African music.

The influence of electronic and dance music seems to have been pushed to the forefront on this record. ‘My Girls’ even seems to slyly reference the sound of something like The Source and Candi Staton’s ‘You Got The Love’. As such, it’s the logical conclusion of their experiments with insistence and unrelenting rhythm. For my ears, it’s a much more interesting area than their earlier experiments with pure noise, whimsical acid folk and feedback. Perhaps one of the reason why there is such a buzz around AC at the moment is that they are one of the few bands to have really progressed and developed. Where their earlier records had a loose, ramshackle charm and a childlike core, ‘Merriweather…’ feels multi-layered, rich, exotic and carefully composed. This isn’t to say that they’ve lost their drive for spontaneity or radicalism, just that the group’s internal systems are now operating on a more sophisticated level.

Listening to ‘Merriweather..’ on headphones is like diving into a swimming pool filled with honey. Sonically, at first it is hardly subtle, but beneath the pulsing heartbeats, electro glam stomps and background noise there is also plenty of nuance. If you embrace the group’s positivity and worlds of possibility wholeheartedly, there is much to discover. Some of the album’s most compelling moments occur when the insistence dissipates a little. There’s the way that ‘Daily Routine’ mysteriously and unexpectedly evaporates, or when the opener ‘In The Flowers’ performs the precise inverse function, exploding into a clattering barrage of percussion from a rather elusive, slippery introduction.

Those who felt (wrongly in my view) that ‘Strawberry Jam’ was too infectious, and therefore some form of artistic compromise, might be further challenged by the blissful, fulfilled nature of ‘Merriweather…’. The regressive sense of whimsy seems to have given way to a broader sense of awe and fascination, a feeling that often seems to be expressed as total euphoria. A large chunk of this album constitutes a celebration of immediacy and physicality, from ‘Guys Eyes’ expressing a desire ‘to do exactly what my body wants to’ to the experience of liberation through dancing on ‘In The Flowers’ or stepping outside in ‘Summertime Clothes’. So much of this comes through the dynamics and sonority of the voices of Avey Tare and Panda Bear.

Perhaps this is too reductive an analysis given the increasingly elaborate means AC deploy to achieve these goals (hello asymmetrical time signatures!), or when ‘My Girls’ expresses a more homely sentiment focusing on the joy of family life. Either way, it’s surprising and refreshing to hear an album, particularly in these difficult times, that is so devoid of melancholy or sadness. Listening to ‘Merriweather…’ for the fourth time now, I’m struck that it’s an album that works on multiple levels. It’s an immediately loveable statement, but full of unpredictable, highly creative avenues to explore on further listening. Time alone will tell if it’s a classic, but there’s definitely something exciting and fresh in its modern take on psychedelia. It’s a series of enriching auditory hallucinations.

The ‘Blood Bank’ EP is the first new material from Justin Vernon since his rapturously received debut album. Pleasingly, it shows few signs of performance anxiety, or uncertain direction. Instead, the title track represents a grander version of his core musical vision. It uses similar tricks to those deployed by AC – the multi layered vocals and harmonies, the insistent pulsating heartbeat. Yet the impact is not one of euphoria, but one of bittersweet reminiscence. It’s a strangely comforting sound at first, but the smouldering crescendos that are more familiar from Bon Iver live performances than from Vernon’s recordings imbue it with real intensity.

Typical of Vernon too are the disarmingly weird lyrics. ‘Well I met you at the blood bank/We were looking at the bags’ is a rather unconventional opening gambit for what might ostensibly be a love song. It’s also a song about how our secrets are sometimes our very life blood, a rather fascinating and intriguing sentiment that Vernon leaves teasingly under-developed.

Elsewhere, the EP provides further, equally fruitful paths through which Vernon might advance his interests in sounds and effects. The rather intimate feel of ‘For Emma..’ is welded into something more strident and confident with the minimal but austere piano of ‘Babys’. Most shocking of all is ‘The Woods’, in which a multi-tracked chorus of Vernons is fed, ‘808s and Heartbreaks’-style, through an auto-tuner. The effect, rather than being self-consciously cheesy, is actually uneasy and uncomfortable. It’s the sound of someone lost and trying to reconnect. It’s a particularly audacious move given how important the reverb-laden vocal sound was to ‘For Emma…’ Here, Vernon has abandoned it in favour of the least natural vocal sound conceivable, but one which in his control still sounds convincingly emotional.

In between all this is the relatively conventional ‘Beach Baby’, which serves as a neat bridge back to Vernon’s isolation on ‘For Emma..’. The addition of steel guitar adds a positive, playful touch. The four tracks together suggest that rather than a premature apotheosis, ‘For Emma…’ really was just the beginning.

1 comment:

Demob Happy said...

Hi Daniel,
Love 'Merriweather' - my favourite AC album by some distance.

Blood Bank hasn't grown on me much since my initial bloggings. I made a half-joking remark about 'In the Woods' sounding like Craig David improvising on a country walk and now I can't shake it off ! I gave him credit for doing something different but I think the Auto-Tune worked better when it was adding a little textural abstraction rather than at the forefront.