Review: Animal Collective – “Centipede Hz”

September 3, 2012 No comments yet

Consistency is predicated by expectations. When one claims that a band or musician is “consistent”, it’s identified by the idea that what they’ve done in the past follows a familiar trend or trajectory. Animal Collective is ‘consistent’, indeed… Consistently inconsistent. Great highs follow great lows for the veteran Baltimorean abstract-pop outfit. Nine studio albums in, and I still can’t tell you what it is that Noah Lennox, Avey Tare, Deakin (returning after taking an album cycle off) and co. do that’s so continuously incongruous. But, if Centipede Hz is an example of anything, it’s that these guys might share my same confounded wonderment.

The surprising accessibility of 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion turned a group of psychedelic weirdo’s into a, well, less weird, psychedelic indie breakthrough. Reactionary instinct might suggest the proper follow-up to their most successful LP would either be a full transition into the celebratory, electronic pomp that propelled “My Girls” onto radio feeds. Or, a full creative rebellion would ensue, jutting the Collective back into the, more fan service-like, days of defiantly abstract cult classics like Sung Tongs and Strawberry Jam. What the first single, “Today’s Supernatural”, confirmed was that, at least from a conceptual standpoint, AnCo is content with fusing both worlds into this colorful, anthropomorphic blob of captivation, yet holding onto their classic fascination with compositional dissonance.

“Moonjock” opens the album, and it’s immediately evident what Deakin (Josh Dibb) meant to the sound of Animal Collective in his absence. The sporadic uneasiness of the wordy melody weaving its way through the, sort of, breakbeat on a leash, encapsulates exactly why no one can really emulate AnCo’s sound. Tare and Lennox turn chants and mantras into vocal instruments, and it’s the relentless nature of that which, without the repository and creative patience they have with one another, could turn a lesser group into howling idiots wading in over-produced nonsense. “Monkey Riches” incorporates multiple refrains repeated, ad nauseam, that build in intensity cushioned around the verses. It’s a ton of fun without feeling like a chore. The aforementioned “Today’s Supernatural” does the same thing with its primal “WUH LEH-LEH-LEH-LEH-LEH-LEH-LEH-LEH” wail, and somehow comes across as just controlled enough. And, on “New Town Burnout”, they find a way to turn the songwriters much utilized “oh-oh” calls into belts of muffled distress through sheer chorus of will.

When the track isn’t being built on repetition, it’s on a constantly shifting structure. My personal favorite here, “Applesauce”, jumps directly into its verse (or bridge, I’m still not 100% sure) with Lennox speak-singing in double-time about, uh, mangoes? Anyway, that verse opens up into a second, more expansive section with the synths building and, I believe, some diluted strings. Then, all of a sudden, the drums pick up and the bass begins a staccato cadence. By the time we get to the hook (?) the pacing and time signature’s been so deconstructed that, by the second half, you’re just excited to be hearing Noah incoherently sing about mangoes again. This works marvelously, though, because AnCo knows that, even if they’re going to fuck your perception of what a pop song is, at the end of the day, it still has to be catchy.

That’s where some of the issues tend to seep in under all the pastel colors and intensely intricate syncopation. Tracks like “Father Time” and “Mercury Man” should be light and enjoyable from first listen, but the insistence on layering studio sound after electronic sample over the melody tends to water down the impact of the progression. AnCo have always littered their tracks with stray sounds and a handful of “what the fuck am I hearing?” moments, but, for the most part, they fit into the context of the track. No one ever questioned why there were nature recordings in the background of, Feels highlight, “Banshee Beat”, because, considering the subject matter, why the hell not? “Pulley’s”, conversely, features familiar aquatic textures, but it never seems necessary to the overall listening experience, and ends up becoming more of an obstacle than an accessory to the framework.

The conflict within Centipede Hz is that there are incredibly well-conceived tracks that demand to be replayed (like the Deakin solo cut “Wide Eyed”), but some of those are followed, almost directly, by tracks that are just “okay”. Even their last release, the Fall Be Kind EP, hit a stride almost immediately, and had more continuity among b-sides and a song performed in 7/8 time, of all things. Yet, here, just when the sonic expedition gets moving, we’re derailed by a “Rosie Oh” to take us out of the immersion that’s so superbly built in select spots.

It’s hard to determine exactly how I feel about Centipede Hz as a whole because, while it certainly sounds as if it were recorded in the same mindset, it definitely doesn’t all gel as one. At 11 tracks and 55 minutes, I can see myself probably regularly replaying about six or seven of them, (including one or two that may pop up on my ‘end of year’ list) and that’s not a terrible ratio. Centipede Hz isn’t a bad album by any means, and I’d be short-sighted to dismiss the tracks that didn’t resonate with me immediately as “filler”, but it is quintessentially Animal Collective to a fault. Meaning, honestly, “consistently inconsistent” with “great highs following great lows”. You certainly can’t accuse them of not staying true to themselves.

7.5/10

Centipede Hz is in store and on iTunes tomorrow.