The guys of Animal Collective would have no interest in this post. Not because they consider criticism beneath them, but because they could care less of what anyone else thinks of them, much less within the blogosphere culture they’ve become so inadvertently ingrained in.
Yet when it comes to that culture, it’s hard to find another band as divisive. The Collective is both revered and dismissed, considered to be either progressive geniuses pushing the bounds of sonic experimentation or pretentious frauds, creating a bunch of noise with no semblance of melody. In short, there is a faction who gets them—those who become a part of their select tribe—and a faction that wants no part of what they’re doing, who become baffled and frustrated by the constant praise awarded to them at all corners of the internet.
Personally, I consider Animal Collective to be the greatest and most admirable band of the past decade in terms of output, ingenuity, consistency, constant evolution, restlessness, and whatever other positive connotations I can associate with a band. But their greatest attribute is their inability to let anyone tell them what they’re supposed to be. They don’t perceive the music industry the same ways other artists do—you’ll never hear them griping about Grammy snubs and illegal downloads of their music the same way indie cohort Ed Droste of Grizzly Bear does. They’ve been given an opportunity to make whatever music they want, and they do nothing but capitalize on that, turning every stage into their playground, coming up with new games to play every time. Make no mistake- some of them are challenging, and some of them require time to get to learn the rules of how they work.
That’s the main turn-off with the group, I think. In an age where any song is available at the push of a button on Spotify (see the setlist from last week’s concert, which I promise I’ll get to eventually, embedded below), they require time to sit down with to get to know better. Anyone who thinks they don’t have time to do so is quick to write the group off, generally as “pretentious hipster douchebags making a bunch of noise.” I can give you any number of reasons as to why that’s inaccurate. Having met them myself at a screening for their “visual album” Oddsac in Los Angeles, I can confirm that they’re some of the humblest, nicest, most down-to-earth guys I’ve encountered. They don’t particularly fit the mold of hipsters, other than that they’re thin, white musicians. And that “bunch of noise” is laced with more melodies and harmonies than most current big-name pop artists- it just doesn’t present itself as immediately.
Full disclosure, I was in the camp that didn’t get them at all either when I was younger. It wasn’t that I actively disliked them—I simply ignored them for a while in high school, because nothing was clicking when I heard their songs. It took their 2007 album Strawberry Jam for me to start hearing something, back in my freshman year of college. Jam was a strange kaleidoscope of sound, the whole thing oddly danceable, with vocals that morphed from screams to childish falsettos seemingly within the same second, instruments that were unidentifiable, and songs that didn’t adhere to any traditional structure. Basically, it sounded not quite like nothing else—and that’s the highest praise I can give to a work of music. Once it clicked for me- before I had ever consumed a single drug, mind you- “Fireworks,” “Peacebone,” and “For Reverend Green” became some of my absolute favorite songs, I was part of the tribe. Little did I know what was to come.
When the Collective released their 2009 magnum opus Merriweather Post Pavilion, it was received as a landmark album within a small, unidentifiable sphere of the internet. Gone were the days when a Modest Mouse could break onto the radio with a song like “Float On”—Merriweather was the closest thing left to a crossover hit. I even heard “Summertime Clothes” playing in a Macy’s once, which previously seemed unfathomable. Yet the band chose to go to a different place with their 2012 follow-up Centipede Hz, an album that, in contrast, has been practically ignored by that same internet subculture. Perhaps some saw it as a “fuck you” to the people who fell in love with the more relaxed sounds of “My Girls,” “Bluish,” and “More More Running,” as Centipede saw the band trading in their synthesizers and melodic ambiance for a more guitar-centric, aggressive sound.
But as tribe ringleader Avey Tare (Dave Portner, tearing the D off of Davey to become Avey) puts it, they just wanted create music they could “sweat to” a bit more after a tour of “standing around too much” in support of Merriweather, their most-beloved album (though I’ll take the raw energy of 2004’s Sung Tongs or 2005’s Feels in a pinch). Drummer and vocalist Panda Bear (Noah Lennox, named after his favorite animal) shares his sentiments, stating that they “tried to stop thinking about the way something might be perceived or interpreted. It’s kind of a dangerous way of going about things.” That’s the thing with these guys—everything they claim about their process is genuine. It’s not that they didn’t want another hit album after Merriweather, it’s that they never expected that album to become such a hit in the first place. If the next album replicated that success, cool. If not, that’s cool too. Avey described Centipede in the weeks leading up to its release as such: “I think Animal Collective fans will really dig it.”
That’s what Centipede Hz is and nothing more—a love letter to their tribe, those who have stuck with them since 2009, and perhaps more importantly, since before 2009. In that regard, their two shows at Terminal 5 in Manhattan last week, make-up shows that partially benefited Hurricane Sandy relief, was more of the same. It wasn’t a set designed for the guy behind me griping that they hadn’t played “My Girls” when the band walked off-stage before the encore. (I almost wish they hadn’t brought it out when they returned, just to piss him off.) It was a set for the fans who were proud to be part of their current incarnation, comprised mostly of songs from Centipede, an album largely ignored by outsiders—a stark contrast to when I saw them three years ago in Philadelphia. Like most Collective concerts, the whole thing was a subtle dance party, with songs gracefully transitioning into one another but maintaining more or less the same tempo. Appropriately, they opened with new live fan favorite “Crimson,” before the literal mouth of the stage sprung to life with the frantic “Today’s Supernatural.”
Centipede songs dominated the set—ten of the fifteen songs played were from those sessions—but that only served to turn the old favorites into complete events. There was a notable change in the air when the Merriweather songs came out. “Lion In a Coma” was the first to interrupt the new material, but the closing combo of “Brothersport” and “Peacebone” sent the crowd into a frenzy. “Brothersport” is a perfect showcase of Animal Collective’s restlessness, how they never really stop writing their songs. It was exceptional as recorded on Merriweather, but it’s continued to grow since then, and it’s now become one of the most masterful live spectacles I’ve ever witnessed. There are moments during any Animal Collective show that are guaranteed to elicit a positive fan response—Avey coming down from one of his controlled fits, guitarist Deakin getting out from his corner and hopping around the stage, Panda Bear simply positioning the microphone in front of him before a song begins—and “Brothersport” contained all of them within a chaotic ten minutes, where you could practically see the dopamines floating amidst the weed clouds. (I was in the balcony above the bulk of the crowd, my girlfriend and I chronicling which songs generated the most smoke). “Peacebone” afterwards was the cherry on top, with Avey finally able to get out from behind his keyboard and join in on the fun with the crowd. Avey was sporting newly bleached-blonde hair (new flame Angel Deradoorian from The Dirty Projectors must be having quite the influence on his style), which made him look either like Lincoln Park’s Chester Bennington or an older, gray David Byrne, depending on the lighting, but he wasn’t visible towards the end of the song, rolling around the stage and screaming “PEACEBONE!” for about a minute before getting up and giving the crowd a calm “Thanks guys.”
When the band returned to the elaborately constructed stage—another symbol of the dedication to their craft, as it apparently took “countless hours” to create—they gave us two more Merriweather favorites, busting out “Also Frightened” and “My Girls” to the delight of the crowd (and the asshole behind me, who turned into my friend for five minutes.) Then they closed with “Amanita,” the final track off Centipede. It’s a song that didn’t quite garner the same response from the tribe that “Brothersport” and “My Girls” did—but I wouldn’t be surprised if it did years from now, when it’s adorned as yet another highlight from a back-catalogue album.
On the subway ride home from the show, I asked my girlfriend, who was coming off her first AnCo show, what she thought. She paused for a moment before saying that she thought they were “just the right amount of weird.” And so, just like that, she was part of the tribe as well. Maybe that’s all it takes—maybe there’s a certain part of every brain that is able to determine the amount of weird that every individual can take, a direct line that divides the pleasure center from impatience and frustration. What a simple answer that would be, for a band who has tapped into a brand of music—“music that sounds, to us, like soul music,” Tare once aptly described when asked what genre the Collective falls into—that resonates so purely with a few, and so negatively with many.
But hey, as the band itself would tell you—if you’re in the tribe, that’s cool. If you’re not, that’s cool too.