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Sunday, February 21, 2016

Animal Collective: Painting With (Release Date: 2-20-2016)

        As long as I live, I will always be in love with the concept of an album, a collection of songs produced to represent some sort whole, and sequenced in a purposeful manner. The modern music industry, however, doesn't seem to share my affection, and every year, the strength and relevancy of the Long Player seems to diminish. It started with internet downloads, free or otherwise, that allowed listeners to curate their own music libraries by only snagging the exact songs they wanted, and leaving the rest in the dust. Then came Spotify and Pandora, which essentially accomplished the aforementioned task for you, cherry-picking tunes that maintain the mood of whatever your selected station may be. Finally, the emergence of the 'surprise album,' as notoriously dropped by Beyoncé a couple years ago, and foreseen by Radiohead's release strategy for both In Rainbows and The King of Limbs. It's a guerrilla marketing tactic that stirs up an instantaneous frenzy, sending fingers flying over keyboards as the cultural mass seeks the anoint the finest offerings, their opinions calcifying all too soon. There are, of course, several advantages to all this, not least of which is the increased number of artists who are granted attention and exposure by our harried desire to find the best of the best of the best. But I can't lie that watching one of my favorite forms of media art become obsolete before my very eyes is disheartening, especially when members of the old guard like Animal Collective acquiesce to our present musical mindset.

        The Baltimore four-piece (three-piece in the case of this album, which Deakin decided to sit out) enjoyed a decade-long run of indie music untouchability, starting with 2000's Spirit They're Gone, Spirit They've Vanished, and cresting, both culturally and commercially, with 2009's Merriweather Post Pavilion. The latter disc was a electro-pop offering of the finest order, adored by core fans and capable of seducing new ones, a symphony of easy melodies and broad but heartfelt sentiments. In other words, it was the first Animal Collective album that prioritized beauty over boundary-breaking, which must have felt like selling out to a group of musicians who had just spent the last eight years expanding both our minds, and our sonic pallets. They followed it with Centipede Hz, a half-lovely, half-abrasive entry that was met with little more than mild appreciation. Not every album needs its creator's entire backstory to be unspooled at the opening of a review, but I bring up these two records because they're the bedrock of Painting With's artistic aspirations. It's a disc that attempts to lure back Pavilion fans by indulging in the sweet mechanics of pop, but fashions each track with the eccentricity upon which they'd initially built a following.

        Say what you will about its percolating bass line and trippy synths; lead single FloriDada is a few less drugs away from playing like a traditional pop anthem. Golden Gal is also welcomely old school, its mid-tempo melody reaching out and grabbing listeners without pomp or circumstance. The whole album plays this way, a blurry-eyed, esoteric tribute to the comfort found in familiar song structures that would make Brian Wilson proud. This is at least partially due to Panda Bear's contribution, again situated as co-band leader for the first time since Pavilion, and only the second in the outfit's storied career. His golden voice has always been the delicious, sugary punch that co-figurehead Avey Tare seemed so intent on spiking, and they truly bring the best out in each other... accept when they're bringing out the worst. Painting With is a delightful, occasionally bewitching listen from front to back, but the band's insistence on the rapid interplay of its lead vocalists becomes downright exhausting at points. First heard on the glorious Laying in the Grass, the technique bogs down the LP's third act, becoming almost laughable by the time closer Recycling arrives. There's also the substantial issue of Painting With's inability to find a 'that song.' Where Monkey Riches, My Girls, and The Purple Bottle stood as paradigm-altering slabs of headphone bliss in the past, the band's new album lacks a singular tune that you're dying to show your friends from the moment it meets your ears.

        Now 17 years into their career, Animal Collective have found themselves in that rarified zone where the glory of past accomplishments has begun hindering fans' ability to embrace their new material. Painting With has been saddled with middling reviews from just about every music publication on the planet, and while I'm certainly not going to tell you it's on the level of something like Sung Tongs or Strawberry Jam, I can't help but find its reception a bit unfair. Most bands would give a kidney to have crafted these songs, from the off-kilter time signatures of Vertical, to the hypnotizing madness of Hocus Pocus, to the gorgeous Looney Tunes-style insanity of The Burglars. Their history has served to distract people from the new LP's accomplishments, but the album format is also failing them at the very same time. Nearly each song here, when taken out of context, is ravishing, knotty, and strangely inviting, but when played front-to-back, their similarity to one another begins to cast the band as a one-trick-pony. Perhaps they're simply oblivious to this fact, but given their unimpeachable brilliance over the years, my guess is they're wagering in a different direction, expecting each 3+ minute morsel to stand out better when afforded the spotlight. Shuffling these tracks with others from the band's catalogue would undoubtably yield better results, as would splicing in the work of other artists on a custom-made playlist. So we arrive at a strange divide; nearly every song on Painting With is great, but the album itself is only mediocre. There are far worse things in the world than a brand new batch of songs from Panda Bear, Avery Tare, and company, I just never thought an Animal Collective LP could be less than the sum of its parts.

Grade: B+

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