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Friday, April 8, 2011

Panda Bear: Tomboy (Release Date: 4-12-2011)

        I don't really know how to put this, but Panda Bear is Kind of a big deal. After over a decade on the scene as Animal Collective's most well known member, PB, aka Noah Lennox, has really seen his career take off in the last few years. While his band has always had a fair amount of buzz swirling around them, their streak of four straight instantly essential discs (Sung Tongs [2004], Feels [2005], Strawberry Jam [2007], and Merriweather Post Pavilion [2009]) has steered them to the top tier of the independent music world. But what really sets Panda Bear apart is the fact the he's also leading a phenomenal solo career, and he's doing it during his band's prime as opposed to afterwards. Person Pitch, his last individual effort, has garnered right around as much fame and affection as any of his full band's efforts, and it was released right in the middle of the four-piece's winning streak (2007). For a guy whose career has seemingly always been fairly experimental, the works of Lennox have become a surprisingly consistent enterprise, each time staking out a slightly new sonic territory without ever ceasing to sound like himself. If you were going to bet on Tomboy as being where his hit streak ended... well, I'd reconsider your options.

        Tomboy kicks off with You Can Count On Me, a modest but glowing little number that calls to memory Person Pitch's closing track, Ponytail. Unlike any other song of his that comes to mind, YCCOM opens with just Lennox's voice, echoing and layered over itself into oblivion. Given his tendency towards odd and interesting sounds and sonics, it's been easy to forget just how golden Lennox's singing is in the past, but no such statement could be made about Tomboy. YCCOM's opening moments turn out to be a mission statement of sorts, as the disc that follows utilizes Lennox's croon in just about every corner of every song, whether as a lead singer or as another element in the ever-swirling mix. The looping, enveloping backing isn't far behind, wrapping around the ears in the same warm way as Person Pitch, but this time constructed out of instruments just as often as samples. It's a tune that sounds endlessly expansive and infinite in the span of just 2:40, yet another ripe bit of foreshadowing for what is to follow.

        The title track is next, hypnotizing and far darker than any other song on the album. Given the three singles and one leaked track that preceded the record, songs one through seven have already met the ears of anyone who avidly followed the lead-up to Tomboy. In the months anticipating the record's release, however, each tune has undergone a good deal of extra production, the result of which is never so obvious or effective as on track two. The song has an almost militant march to it, and while the original version already had no problem working its listener into spaced-out submission, the album version of Tomboy adds another guitar part, as well as a variety of other samples, that bring its thunderous procession to the next level. Slow Motion, another track that pre-dates the album's release by quite a ways, goes a bit heavy on said extra samples near the beginning, but ends up benefitting from the extra production in a similarly engulfing manner.

        There's not much point in doing a track-by-track rundown of Tomboy for a couple of reasons. First of all, the entire eleven track playlist takes place in the same sonic landscape, so trying to find new ways to describe how one simply gets immersed in the thing would be exhausting. Secondly, if I opted to write about every song I harbored a particular affection for, I might end up being here for a while. It's a truly mind-boggling trick that Lennox has pulled here: ensuring that every track fits the exact thematics of the album while somehow ensuring that each stands out as its own special piece of the puzzle. Like many AC discs, picking a favorite tune here is nearly impossible, and I expect everyone who hears it to pick differently, as just about all are ripe for selection. Surfer's Hymn, the chime-driven beach-bum hum is sure to be a favorite option, its heavy sampling of waves crashing against the shore, as paired with Lennox's Brian Wilson-esque swoon, creating a smiling summer escape.

        My two personal favorite so far are probably Last Night At Jetty and Alsation Darn. The former introduces itself with a punching, distant kick drum right before adding a contentedly sublime guitar riff, eventually wrapping that same shimmering voice around them. The latter, on the other hand, is a much more straight-faced affair, a suddenly urgent tune in the middle of Tomboy's blissful trip-out. Every element of the song, from pulse-like beat to heavily layered vocals, sounds stretched and warped, Lennox repeating over and over again his promise that, "I won't let it slide/No, I won't let it slip by." Much like the title track, AD breaks from its tension on a few occasions, but the contrast only makes the darker and/or more serious moments that much more intense. LNAT and AD are followed by Drone and Scheherezade respectively, both functioning as transitional pieces, and while this distinction will likely prevent them from, 'favorite track,' status, they both work wonders for the flow of the album, proving just as entrancing as anything else here.

        Believe it or not, the last three tracks on the disc, Friendship Bracelet, Benfica, and (especially) Afterburner, are also head-spinningly good, but I'd might as well let you discover them for yourself. If one was really looking to find a fault in Tomboy, it's that none of the individual tracks bares the mark of an instant classic like, say, My Girls or Bros, but with consistency like this, there's not much need to look for an individual tune to emerge as leader of the pack. As always, Panda Bear isn't for everyone, and if trippy and/or psychedelic aren't words that you like getting too close to your music, Tomboy probably isn't for you. But my god is it for me, and if you've made an effort to read this whole article, my guess is that it's for you as well. Tomboy is hands down my favorite album from the first three and a half months of 2011, and if that makes me more of a Lennox fanboy than a real critic of any sort, so be it. I'll love what I'll love, thank you very much, and I've got a funny feeling that I'm not going to be alone in my affections.

Grade: A

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