The hottest music from Chicago & beyond

Tag: freak folk

Album Review: Animal Collective – Centipede Hz [Domino]

Animal Collective have put themselves in an extremely tough spot. They dared to make a great album, and vastly succeeded in doing so. 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion became the poster child for psychedelic pop music, and it was at or near the top of virtually every year-end “best of” list. As recently as last month, the album claimed the #8 spot on Pitchfork’s People’s List, a poll voted on by close to 28,000 readers. It took the band nine albums and nine years to finally find that sweet spot in their music. Great as success might be, the expectations that bloom from it are anything but easy to handle. Do you try and build upon the things you’ve done before, stay in a holding pattern by trying something similar, or go off the grid altogether and hope for the best? Anyone that’s listened to enough Animal Collective over the years knows they don’t pander to an audience and they don’t sit still. They don’t even know what or where the “grid” is.

In many ways, their courage to always try new and different things is admirable. There’s brilliance in the unknown, and somebody’s got to go looking for it. The problem is you can take a lot of wrong turns along the way. Animal Collective have fared better than most, because even when their songs sound positively nuts, there’s still that slight pop sensibility that keeps them grounded. Jumping through their catalogue, it’s a little tough to find a lot of similarities between Here Comes the Indian (2003), Feels (2005) and Strawberry Jam (2007).Where they are similar is that all of them are very good albums, and all are challenging to a multitude of unique degrees. It’s not hard to understand why the band failed to gain a large audience in the pre-MPP years, even as they jumped record labels from the smaller Fat Cat to the larger Domino in 2007. Taking three years and keeping many music obsessives waiting patiently for a follow-up, Centipede Hz is what they’ve finally handed over. Whatever your expectations are, don’t think for a second that they’ll be met.

One of the main things worth noting about Centipede Hz is that multi-instrumentalist Deakin has rejoined Animal collective after taking an extended break back in 2007. It’s difficult to quantify exactly how much or how little of an impact he’s had on the band over the years, but his absence from the last album may have played some part in its success. That’s not meaning to suggest Deakin is a harmful presence, but rather a catalyst that caused Avey Tare, Panda Bear and Geologist to rethink their approach to songwriting and composition at least a little bit. Sometimes less is more. In the case of the new album, the sentiment turns out to be the exact opposite. Virtually every song is jam-packed with sonic dissonance, and with so much going on it’s tough to know what to focus on at any given time. Some would call it layered and practical, rewarding multiple listens by giving you new elements to explore each run through. While it does become easier to penetrate the more you listen to it, this album forgets the one key that has made Animal Collective such a compelling band over the years – patience. They used to grow their songs slowly, adding more parts and elements until you’re left wondering how you wound up so buried in sound. The cacophony of opening tracks “Moonjock” and “Today’s Supernatural” don’t build to anything. They start with the dam already broken and millions of gallons of water bearing down on you. It’s overwhelming if you haven’t battened down the hatches in anticipation.

Animal Collective also used to have the “freak folk” descriptor attached to their name, a label that was justified for their emphasis on acoustic guitars with a splattering of odd time signatures and polyrhythms. Listen to an old song like “Leaf House” off of Sung Tongs to get a fair grasp of what that sounded like. Their movement away from guitars and towards synths and electronic textures changed things a bit, but it also gave the band a better lower end with some severely heavy bass that cranked up the danceability factor of their music. Take “Peacebone” from Strawberry Jam as an example. By contrast, virtually all of Centipede Hz sounds thin because it ignores that heft and replaces some of the bass and rhythm parts with bells and whistles and other random sounds that all stay in the shallow end. “New Town Burnout” and “Rosie Oh” both skitter by without ever bringing the sort of boom they might otherwise deserve. Even tracks like “Mercury Man” and “Amanita” where you can hear things that are almost definitively bass drums and guitars don’t impact and rattle speakers the way they should. The effect may be intentional though, designed to mimic the effect of listening to the radio on tinny speakers. The mixture of varying radio broadcasts which serve as interstitial moments between tracks and give fluidity to the record seem to support this theory. Is that sort of a move necessary on an album like this? Not really, but who knows what goes through these guys’ heads as they piece together songs.

Maybe one of the main points of Centipede Hz is to push you into liking it, because at their heart these are really simple psych-pop songs dirtied up by a lot of challenging excess. The more you listen to it, the better you can process all of it. That doesn’t make the songs good though. Some of them just sort of wander without much purpose or direction, or take detours down paths that otherwise betray strong melodies. “Wide Eyed” and “Father Time” are both guilty of this, and they sit right at the center of the record. The former is surprisingly straightforward and bouncy, but overstays its welcome and has some so-so vocal work from Deakin. The latter is just utterly forgettable. On an album with so many distinguishing moments for better or worse, it stands as a shrug-worthy effort that even the rather slow and boring “New Town Burnout” doesn’t stoop to minutes later. After pointing out so many apparent flaws, it’s important to note that there are a bunch of very good to great moments on Centipede Hz too. Besides the opening two tracks that have their charms, “Applesauce” has some weirdly great energy going for it, as does the closer “Amanita.” The powerhouse cut of this album though is “Monkey Riches,” a nearly seven minute freak out that comes across like a breath of fresh air. If Animal Collective had done the entire record using that song as an inspirational point, we would have another Merriweather Post Pavilion on our hands, but in a different sort of way that likely would have stood up well amidst their varied catalogue.

You can’t really say that Centipede Hz is a bad record. It’s bad by Animal Collective standards, which are heights that are tough for almost every other artist to reach. If you’re in search of an entry point and a way to ease into the band’s world, this isn’t it by a long shot. But that also raises a great point about these guys: no matter which of their albums you listen to, you’ll never think it’s another band. They may have jumped from acoustic guitars to thumping beats to sound effects and radio snippets in the last dozen years, but they’ve always retained a challenging conceptual sonic structure uniquely their own. There’s comfort in that, even when they release something that might be considered subpar. So they’ve finally hit a creative speedbump, which more than anything else has been a long time coming. Consider this also a way to temper excitement for whatever they’re going to do next. Not that they ever felt any pressure before. At least fans won’t be expecting another miracle. The greatest and best hope you can have is that Animal Collective remain Animal Collective. Everything else is a proverbial roll of the dice.

Watch/Listen to “Today’s Supernatural” at YouTube

Buy Centipede Hz from Amazon

Snapshot Review: Liars – WIXIW [Mute]

Liars are undoubtedly a talented band. They’re also impressively weird, to the point where even some of their most hardcore fans have probably felt a little alienated at times. In effect, they are the onion of bands: multi-layered, not for everybody, and sometimes they’ll draw tears from your eyes. If you’re listening to “The Other Side of Mt. Heart Attack”, those tears might be the result of sheer beauty, whereas “Scarecrows On A Killer Slant” could easily bring forth tears of terror. So yeah, it’s not easy to pigeonhole Liars, and they seem to like it that way. Not knowing what to expect from them on each new album is an exciting proposition, even if it doesn’t always work out. For the most part they’ve been smart with career twists and turns, jumping from a concept record about witches (They Were Wrong, So We Drowned) to one that places a huge emphasis on percussion (Drum’s Not Dead) and then attempting to grind out something more straightforwad with heavy post-punk leanings (Sisterworld). On their new album WIXIW, the band once again explores new territory, this time peeling away most of the guitars and focusing on programmed beats and electronica elements. Many are calling it a “Kid A-like shift”, in reference to Radiohead’s steep change in sonic direction after the immense success of OK Computer. Liars frontman Angus Andrew even sounds a little like Thom Yorke on a couple tracks, perhaps most notably on “Ill Valley Prodigies” and “His and Mine Sensations”. Apt as those comparisons might be, the last thing you want to do is try and imitate a record that many believe was the finest thing released in the last dozen or so years. The band hasn’t said that was their intention, so maybe the similarities are wholly accidental. Really the whole “abandon instruments and go electronica” thing has become a plague among artists in recent years, with most citing the apparent limits that guitar and drum combinations have versus the wider realm of programmed sounds. That’s the main reason why Liars did it too, as they’ve said in recent interviews. Hell, that’s probably Radiohead’s excuse as well, only they did it before it was cool. Parts of WIXIW feel like a cop-out because of it though. It’s as if the band has lost confidence in their own ability to generate something original, so they’re creating new music based on sounds and influences they know are cool at the moment. That doesn’t mean the record is terrible or devoid of original ideas though. Opening track “The Exact Colour of Doubt” features calming waves of synths and handclap percussion that is downright beautiful. Single “No. 1 Against the Rush” glides, pulses and tinkers in a very Brian Eno-like fashion, even evolving the final minute of the song into a touch of instrumental madness. Those moments when Liars can condense some of their best elements from earlier records into the more electro-based structures are what work best. The rhythmically complex and bassline-driven madness of “Brats” is the band’s classic rave-up with a synth-etic twist, and “A Ring On Every Finger” puts a Depeche Mode spin on some of their favorite tribal rhythms. Most of these songs are interesting at least in concept, and the closer attention you lend them the more carefully composed they seem. That your perception of this record can change over time definitely makes it worth repeat examinations, even if those changes cause you to like it less. When you’re Liars, that comes with the territory. WIXIW may not be the shining moment for this band, and their own bout of self-doubt spawning its creation isn’t helping, but nobody else could have made this album. Sometimes that’s enough.

Buy WIXIW from Amazon

Snapshot Review: Here We Go Magic – A Different Ship [Secretly Canadian]

The progression of Here We Go Magic over the course of their now three albums has been nothing short of fascinating. Luke Temple started the project like many others, with some recording equipment in his bedroom. The band’s 2009 self-titled album resulted directly from those sessions, a supremely lo-fi yet strikingly catchy examination of the freak folk and psychedelic genres. If songs like “Fangela” and “Tunnelvision” didn’t get stuck in your head after a couple spins, there was something wrong with you. Things progressed as you might expect – attracting all sorts of attention, Temple expanded the band out into a full-fledged five piece, though the second HWGM record Pigeons was recorded in a house with only slightly better equipment. The fidelity remained relatively the same as the first album, even as the arrangements were a lot more complicated and busy. The band’s sound changed somewhat too, abandoning the white noise instrumentals and most of the African polyrhythms in favor of something more synth-based and dream pop in nature. Good as that record was, it also made the band seem just a little indecisive about what musical direction they hoped to take for the future. They lacked conviction and a truly unified sound. When you hear the wild mixture of echoing drums that begin HWGM’s third album A Different Ship, there’s a remarkable familiarity to it that raises your spirits for just a minute in the hopes that this might finally be the moment when everything comes together perfectly as part of Temple’s master plan. The initial shock arrives on the second track, once the instrumental intro finishes off. “Hard to Be Close” glides out of its gates with clarity and whimsy that tells you they used an actual studio with an actual producer this time. The dirt and grime of the past two records are gone, and Temple’s vocal sits at the front of the mix. It also feels a lot like puberty arrived since that last full length, as Temple’s voice has dropped a couple octaves from the falsetto he typically uses. Once again this band has gone through more sonic growing pains, still unsettled as to what they want to sound like. They jump genres on a whim and while it’s impressive to hear them reasonably balance everything with some degree of uniformity, you come away with no better idea of where this band is headed than you did at the start of the album. The icy drift of “Alone But Moving” feels like a direct tribute to Radiohead, with Temple breaking out his Thom Yorke-ian falsetto and Nigel Godrich producing it. After delving into some serious yet unremarkable psychedelia for a few tracks, “How Do I Know” suddenly roars to life like it belongs on an entirely different record. The song itself is great and catchy, but it really serves as a red flag by pointing out the flaws with much of the rest of the album. By cleaning up their sound and getting Godrich behind the boards, the curtain behind Here We Go Magic is lifted, and we’re left not with the great and powerful Oz but instead a regular man with a special effects budget. It’d help if there was some semblance of deep emotion or heft to fill in the gaps the lack of instrumentation leave behind, but alas Temple prefers to keep his distance from those things. That leads to something like the sprawling finale “A Different Ship”, which spends most of its 8+ minute running time in some adult contemporary haze that devolves into a largely do-nothing drone. Like so much of the entire record, it feels lost at sea with no real idea where it’s headed. Occasionally land will be spotted and you get a nice spark of fun and inspiration, but it vanishes almost as quickly as it arrives. If this is what it’s like on A Different Ship, perhaps the better idea would be to return to your original one.

Here We Go Magic – How Do I Know

Here We Go Magic – Make Up Your Mind

Buy A Different Ship from Amazon

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén