Noah Lennox may be able to see the future. A little record he released back in 2007 under the Panda Bear moniker called “Person Pitch” struck hard amongst those with a love of memorable 60s pop infused with a sharp dose of psychedelia. Think of Brian Wilson’s music with more of a dosed electronica edge. It was a record so dense and complex that many struggled to fully grasp what it was doing, and though the reaction was mostly bewilderment, there was a consensus it was brilliant. Thinking about it in the most practical way possible, one could easily imagine trends in music to eventually head in the exact direction that “Person Pitch” was already showing us, thereby providing us with a glimpse into not what was but what would be. Nobody caught up to that record in 2008 or most of 2009, but somewhere near the middle of that year the rumblings of a new musical subgenre that some called chillwave and others called glo-fi began to seep out into the general populace. Though not exactly the same, the sound bore some of the distinctive fingerprints of music Panda Bear had put out a couple years earlier. Not only that, but upon reconvening with his bandmates in Animal Collective, they subsequently released their miracle of an album “Merriweather Post Pavilion” and it became like anything Lennox touched was turning to gold. That sort of Midas power is either a blessing or a curse, depending on how you look at it. All that praise can be nice, but the pressure can build to the point of madness. Plenty of people were salivating at the mere thought of new Panda Bear material, and as soon as some began to trickle out in the form of sone 7 inch singles previewing a full length without a release date, they were swallowed up immediately and obsessed over. It should come as little surprise then that Lennox waited quite awhile before finally putting the finishing touches on his new long player “Tomboy”, and though he surely hoped some of that anticipation would dissipate, in all likelihood it would have remained just as fevered had he waited another 4 years.
Instead of feeding the beast with a new Panda Bear record that has loftier ambitions than the one before, “Tomboy” shoots for something closer to normal. All those samples and complicated melodies that made “Person Pitch” such a gripping listen have been stripped back in favor of a closer focus on actual instruments such as guitars and drums. What used to be lush pieces that teemed with the life of a fully formed sonic landscape have now been trimmed significantly to the barest of essentials. For the majority of the record, it’s an exercise in minimalism. Despite some of these more drastic changes, the new album is no less of a psychedelic trip down memory lane than last time. If you’re looking for an extended journey in the form of a longer cut a la “Bros”, you’ll be left just a bit disappointed with the more concise songs that are clearly separated from one another yet fail to offer a whole lot of distinction between them. Just because there are no clear highlights doesn’t mean the majority of the tracks are terrible or that the record as a whole is disappointing. It’s far from either of those points actually, as this album is more like a colorful and beautifully painted mural rather than a whitewashed wall of nothing. As one gigantic piece, it’s rather fascinating but difficult to know exactly how to give it a proper listen in individual chunks. Simply dropping in on a centrally located track like “Drone” can create an odd sensation, particularly with its spacious yet direct melody that thrives on only vocals and synths. Start from the beginning with “You Can Count On Me” and it’s just busy enough to build a bridge between old material and new. The progression from that into the title track and so forth comes across as nuanced and refined, more than most might realize. “Person Pitch” may have had those longer cuts to push you into sticking out the entire record, that if you would stay for 12 minutes you might as well stay for 40, but digesting all of “Tomboy” in one sitting reflects a similar mentality despite the bite-sized track lengths. It seems that Lennox is trying to do more with less on most every aspect of this record.
What many fail to realize is that Panda Bear’s attempt to take a lot of the same complex ideas and genre tropes from the last album and work them into “Tomboy” is in many ways more challenging than ever. To put it another way, he’s like the MacGyver of chillwave, trapped inside a room with limited utensils at his disposal and trying to break out without the assistance of the door key that’s actually in his back pocket. Call it the thrill of the chase or just the inclination to try and do something different from all the other acts these days trying to pull off a similar sound, the results are still remarkably effective. The sun bakes and waves crash all over “Surfer’s Hymn”. There’s a slight doo-wop 50s charm smeared across “Last Night at the Jetty” that also makes it one of the most accessible things Lennox has ever created. Meanwhile “Alsatian Darn” shimmers with some of the most gorgeous psych-pop moments on the entire album. The pairing of the two longest tracks on the record right near the end feels genuinely inspired as well, taking the easier, more accessible stuff out front and the expansive mental zone outs of “Friendship Bracelet” and “Afterburner” in the back. Then “Benfica” slides in at the end to sort of tie everything together, to the point where the last few seconds make a firm period at the end of a 50 minute sentence.
Why “Tomboy” isn’t the mindblowing adventure that “Person Pitch” was can primarily be chalked up to the ever-changing musical landscape. As “Person Pitch” was very much ahead of its time, the start of a revolution that has bred countless imitators, “Tomboy” is pretty firmly rooted in the present. Where could Lennox have realistically gone with this new record? The mind can’t fathom because most of us don’t know an inspired or fresh idea until we actually hear it. At the very least, it was admirable of him to try to differentiate himself from similar-sounding counterparts by scaling back the instrumentation and increasing the overall accessibility through hooks and less obtuse melodies. What this album does more than anything else though is continue to prove that Lennox remains one of the most brilliant minds making music today. Even when falling perfectly in line with where the hype cycle is at these days, he takes all these other punks to school and shows them a thing or two about how to make good music great. It’s that angelic voice, twisted in reverb. It’s the structure and the way every piece of every song feels vital even when it isn’t. Everyone attempting to make music like this should feel lucky to have such a great example of how it’s done right. As for the rest of us, we’re lucky just being given the opportunity to listen to it, and as often as our ears will allow.