Animal Collective is the world’s most-beloved and most-obscure superstar group. Wildly celebrated by critics and a large cult of fans, this merry band of incredibly talented musicians is virtually unknown to those for whom the word “pitchfork” still only conjures a tool farmers use to move hay. Artists such as Radiohead, Jack White, and Fiona Apple remain critical giants despite diminished mainstream fame. Holdovers from an era when radio programmers and tastemakers once found common ground, they may be fading into the background, but at least they’ve had their heydays. Even Bon Iver and Arcade Fire, Animal Collective’s indie-darling contemporaries, have gained notoriety, and have experienced spikes in album sales, thanks to their respective coups at the Grammys.
Not so for the four members of Animal Collective: Avey Tare (Dave Portner), Panda Bear (Noah Lennox), Geologist (Brian Weitz), and Deakin (Josh Dibb). Since 2000, they’ve been making experimental music – anathema to every radio format – that’s increasingly friendly to the pop ear, with modest mass-market validation. Feels, the band’s 2005 breakthrough album, solidified what was becoming Animal Collective’s signature technique: injecting warm, elegant melodies into the swirl of vocal, instrumental, and electronic pandemonium. Strawberry Jam followed in 2007 with an even stronger collection of songs. Two years later, the magnificent Merriweather Post Pavilion found Animal Collective directing its sound skyward and beyond. Universal critical acclaim and a new set of fans soon followed.
Animal Collective’s madcap and vital new album Centipede Hz will likely divide fans into two lopsided camps: a mostly satisfied majority and those who hate it because it’s not Merriweather Post Pavilion. Fans with little familiarity with Animal Collective’s prolific output apart from MPP, or with its member’s solo efforts, will have to brace themselves for a skittering, bonkers midway ride. For those familiar with the twists and turns of this changeling’s work, Centipede Hz’s stark departure will seem more like a natural progression, though one ostensibly juiced up by large doses of methamphetamine.
Centipede Hz not only sounds beamed in from another galaxy (AC’s expressed goal), the stadium-sized satellite dish required to receive such a transmission seems to have picked up a good deal of celestial interference and fragments of old television commercials along the way. The album notably marks the return of Deakin, who was absent on MPP and its wonderful, autumnal EP offspring Fall Be Kind. How much he’s responsible for this record’s unfortunate fussiness is unclear. Nevertheless, the AC boys seem adamant on distancing their new record from the last by replacing MPP’s dreaminess with hurried tempos and the application of thick coats of feedback, beeps, and boings to tracks that are already gigantic.
The band convened in person to write and record these tracks, unlike MPP, which was developed and assembled in part over the internet, with its members separated by vast distances. The album’s core was largely composed live on musical instruments rather than with electronics and samples. And whileCentipede Hz often sounds otherworldly, roaring, out-of-nowhere guitars; warm, singing synths; and Panda Bear’s adept drum-kit beats anchor the album onto terra firma. Ben H. Allen returns as co-producer and deftly brings the best elements of each song to the foreground.
To Animal Collective and Allen’s credit, Centipede Hz remains remarkably nimble when it ought to lumber. Lead single “Today’s Supernatural” is shot from a cannon. The four minutes that follow Avey Tare’s opening salvo to “come on le-le-le-le-le-le-le-let go!” are an ecstatic blur. Tare’s lead vocal, Panda Bear’s ascending “whoas”, and the stamping unison of guitar and bass drum hits join together for a lively waltz on “Applesauce.” The Panda Bear standout “Rosie Oh” bounces Tigger-like without care atop guitar arpeggios, takes a breath, and bounds forward again. Its melody recalls Panda Bear’s most recent solo album Tomboy, but its watery execution is vintage Animal Collective.
There’s no use in tiptoeing around the obvious: Merriweather Post Pavilion was a once-in-a-career album. Centipede Hz’s showcases can’t approach the majesty of MPP’s four masterpieces (“My Girls,” “Brother Sport,” “In the Flowers,” and “Summertime Clothes”). Though it never escapes the shadow of its elder sibling, Centipede Hz is, in true black-sheep fashion, undeniably entertaining. “Moonjock” opens the album with detonations of punkish bliss. “Father Time” uses the silliness of the Beach Boys’ “Barnyard” as its backbone. Crashing guitar chords and the incessant ostinato of Avey Tare’s background vocal buoy “New Town Burnout.” Meanwhile, the cascading, Deakin-led hymn “Wide Eyed” explores the joys and apprehensions of family life and comes closest to MPP’s loveliness.
Centipede Hz was bound to dissatisfy. After you’re done qualifying Centipede Hz, you’re still left with a terrific, jubilant, life-affirming album. In other words, an Animal Collective album. Most bands would kill to disappoint this well. [A-]
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