Posts Tagged ‘Psychedelic’

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Off This Century – My Favorite Albums of 2000-2009

December 25, 2009
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The Flaming Lips – Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots

February 21, 2009
The Flaming Lips - Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots

The Flaming Lips - Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots

The Soft Bulletin may have been the most accomplished album by the Flaming Lips, but it certainly was not the last great album by the bizarre troubadours. Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots is the most advanced the band’s sound has ever been, and yet another wonderful set of songs that meld together into a grand, cohesive album. But also in its possession are some of the bands most immediate and touching  singles, which The Soft Bulletin does not quite deliver in as great a breadth.  “Fight Test,” “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots Pt. 1,” “Ego Tripping At The Gates of Hell,” “It’s Summertime,” and of course the timeless classic “Do You Realize?” are all in the run for both catchiest and most sophisticated pop songs ever. The lyrical content is miraculously quite universal. The opening “Fight Test” introduces an immediately challenging moral dilemma which even philosophers might have a tough time wrestling with, while many of the album’s other songs deal with both the robotic and human emotional sides of the said Battle. Only one of the world’s most talented bands could ever make an album about such magical content so heartwarming and close to the human condition.

The Flaming Lips

The Flaming Lips

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Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavillion

January 20, 2009

Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavillion

Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion

I saw Animal Collective live at the Pitchfork festival in 2008, and it was like no concert I had ever seen or heard. I stood in the same place for hours in order to get a good spot to see the band which I hardly knew well save for their at that point latest album, Strawberry Jam. In the sea of hipsters, I felt like a faux-hipster, not knowing what to expect, somehow at fault for his fascination and curiosity with a band that he had close to no knowledge of despite the fact that they already had a devoted following since the turn of the century. I felt ashamed to want to hear the more melodic songs at the concert. I was afraid of being ridiculed because I had wanted to hear the hits.

My insecurities would be sorted out in due time (actually with Panda Bear’s 2007 solo album Person Pitch which dealt with musical elitism head on), but at that point  in time what was important was what I was hearing, and I couldn’t even tell what that was. The concert was a complete sensory overload. I felt as if the concert was so loud, so dense, so invasive of my brain that I literally could not hear what I was hearing. It sounds strange, but I was completely enveloped by the music. It felt like I was inside the music, as opposed to the music going inside of my ears and being inside me. I was not even completely sure if I liked it at the time, but I knew that what I was listening to was catchy, and I was too fascinated to want it to stop. About half of that concert’s setlist consisted of songs that would later be on Merriweather Post Pavilion (named after the legendary Maryland concert venue), which is arguably the album that everyone has been waiting for the band to make for almost ten years.

With that said, comparing any Animal Collective album to any other is risky business. Merriweather is their ninth, and almost all of them are unique, although their progression makes sense and they share certain qualities. Starting from free form electronic, moving through noisy, improvisational psychedelia, folk, pop, and guitar rock, Animal Collective seem to have done it all, but they have developed and retained distinctive styles throughout their career. Observers have tried to condense these avant garde tendencies, just a few being rhythm-less guitar strumming, conversely rhythmic hooks, and drastic dynamics, into the label “freak folk,” but pinning a genre on the band seems futile, because they are always trying new things and moving in different directions. The core of the band has always been Noah Lennox (otherwise known as Panda Bear) and David Portner (Avey Tare), with other members Brian Weitz (The Geologist) and Josh Dibb (Deakin) joining in early on. The band’s lineup has changed since their last album, 2007s more guitar based Strawberry Jam, with the (presumably temporary) departure of guitarist Deakin.

Animal Collective at the 2008 Pitchfork Festival

Animal Collective at the 2008 Pitchfork Festival

The concert I attended in 2008 was with this lineup, Panda Bear, Avey Tare and the Geologist, and primarily an electronic show. The spirit of the band’s live show is a thorough and accurate representation of Merriweather Post Pavilion’s style. Songs are thickly layered with sampled sounds of all kinds, everything from the more standard tools of the trade such as drums, guitars, and pianos, to bizarre electronic samples, found sounds, and foreign instruments. This technique has been honed by the band since their earliest days, but it seems to be a perfected art here, with more pleasing things going on at any given time than one can distinguish or separate. Particularly impenetrable are Daily Routine, Panda Bear’s sonic representation of a morning out with his daughter, and Also Frightened, which sounds like an electronic acid drenched rainforest. But this sonic complexity actually feels quite down to earth, for several reasons.

One of which is the band’s melodic maturity. Earlier Animal Collective albums often ran with numerous musical ideas and hooks in the same song somewhat linearly,  often separately. On Merriweather, the band run with the catchiest melodies and simultaneously lean on their production without ever simply relying on it. The most notable example of capitalization of melody is the album’s second song and first single, My Girls, primarily a Panda Bear song. The production here is excellent – the rhythmic arpeggios and low bass blasts are something that was hinted at on Strawberry Jam but are brought to their full potential here – but the song’s primary feature is that you would be hard pressed to find a more catchy song in the band’s catalog. The album’s centerpiece is Bluish, conversely more of an Avey Tare piece, which utilizes an absolutely lovely synthesizer melody alongside lush clicks and whirs and held up by a heart thumping rhythm, and ends up being Animal Collective’s cutest song to date. Just about every song, no, sound, on this album will make you smile.

Avey Tare and Panda Bear at the 2008 Pitchfork Festival

Avey Tare and Panda Bear at the 2008 Pitchfork Festival

Both of the aforementioned songs, and at that a majority of the songs on Merriweather Post Pavilion, feature shared vocal responsibilities from Panda Bear and Avey Tare. Animal Collective have always been about the unique melodic and vocal styles of Avey Tare and Panda Bear, and on this album, these styles blend perfectly. The two bounce main hooks off of one another on a song by song basis, but it is clear that each member of the band has a key role in just about each song. It is difficult to tell who does what, but from examining the solo work of Panda Bear and Avey Tare in relation to Animal Collective’s catalog, it becomes clear what each member of the band, including the Geologist, bring to the table. And they bring quite a lot. Merriweather Post Pavilion is a blend of countless ideas, old and new.

Lyrically, Panda Bear and Avey Tare have also matured. Panda has always been a bit more down to earth than Avey, but his lyrics reached drum-tight focus on Person Pitch, where they were almost conversational. Although Avey’s lyrics are still whimsical and focused on imagery, he has followed Panda towards a more tangible lyrical style, most recognizably with his romantic musings on Bluish. But Avey’s greatest moment might be Lion In a Coma, a multifaceted percussive song. It probably gets the closest to bizarre as any other song on the album, but Avey’s lyrics are spot on; just bizarre enough to be fun but also touchingly yearning and sensitive.

Conversely, Panda Bear’s finest moment comes last with Brother Sport, on which Panda engages in a completely new catharsis, specifically, dance until you drop. It explodes into Animal Collective’s most memorable song from the start, riding waves through hook after hook until a dramatic Boredoms-esque psychedelic freakout, in which it seems like just about every animal in the zoo got a musical instrument and everybody went wild at the same time, in perfect synchronization. Meanwhile, a sound collage cascades down from the sky and Panda chants “Halfway to fully grown/you’ve got a real good shot/won’t help to hold inside/keep it real, keep it real, shout out.” It’s the sound of a band who wants to do everything at once and has the experience and maturity to do so without sounding contrived or muddy. But this song is just one of many on an adventurous pop album where everything is carefully considered, and all of Animal Collective’s tools come together to make something utterly unique and irresistible, their best and most fun album to date.

Animal Collective

Animal Collective

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Panda Bear – Person Pitch

August 26, 2008

I know the last thing that anyone needs from me right now is a review of Panda Bear’s Person Pitch, and that I am a year and a half late on this, but I simply feel I must address this album.

After thoroughly listening through Person Pitch, Noah Lennox’s third solo album, several times, three things ultimately struck me most.

The first was how quickly this album seemed to pass by. On the first listen, I passively lent it my ears while doing other busy work. I knew I liked what I heard, but it seemed to have ended after fifteen minutes. After looking through the tracklist, I realized that over forty five minutes had passed in actuality. And on many listens since then, I have also felt similarly, even though I have been paying very close attention to the music, that it seems like it must go by in under a half hour.

I can attribute this strange phenomenon to a number of factors, the first of which is Panda Bear’s wide use of sampling and repetition throughout the album. When I saw Animal Collective live at Pitchfork, I found it quite interesting that the show was really just shy of a laptop show; all three members of the band were at one point in front of a soundboard, the Geologist actually for the entire show. Avey Tare was actually quite versatile, sometimes on a guitar or drums. Panda Bear spent most of the show in front of his soundboard, but picked up on percussion a couple times.

What is interesting about Panda  Bear’s behavior as an electronic artist, and I firmly believe he can be considered some type of electronic artist now, is that he actually doesn’t sample more than a little bit throughout the album. But when he does, he combines his sample choices with concocted or found sounds, and he never lets the album be completely electronic or completely organic. He builds up layers of sound much like Animal Collective did on Strawberry Jam, although somewhat less violent here, and then places them carefully over his rhythms. Many of his loops end in dissonant or floaty chords, thus making them that much more versatile and fluid. What many of them reminded me of before anything else was the album Pygmalion by Slowdive, and its accompanying demo sessions. It is only marginally likely that Panda Bear was ever actually influenced by this album, but judging by his use of these floaty vocal loops and many of the subtle melodies buried beneath the surfaces of many songs, it sure wouldn’t surprise me. In any case, all of these elements come together to make a rhythmic result that begs for the listener to do two things at once, relax and listen. In this sense, time is not a concern. Panda Bear does what he needs to do, and lets the songs end on their own. Sometimes it takes twelve minutes, and sometimes four. Perhaps the juxtaposition of long songs next to shorter songs has something to do with my loss of sense of time while listening to this album.

The second thing that surprised me was how accurately the album cover depicts the sound of the album. I can think of several other albums that have done such just as effectively, but none of those other album covers were quite as complex as the one for Person Pitch, making it that much more impressive.

The meat of the album are the layers of sound built in each song. Sounds are built upon each other, sometimes used for one time, several bars, or the rest of the song. The samples and effects come from all different directions, parts of life. Some may sound like the sound of water in a bubble bath, while others may sound like animals, the clattering of chains, the sound that Pop Rocks make in your mouth, fireworks going off, doorbells, and whatever else Panda Bear has found or created. The effects, however, are treated with so much watery reverberation that deciphering them becomes difficult. I can liken this to the experience of seeing Animal Collective live, and not really being able to tell what was going on in the music simply because it was so thick, loud, and confusing. This may have been somewhat of a flaw live, but it sure made the music sound that much more awe inspiring, and on record it isn’t a problem. However, I do find myself unable to pick out what I am hearing much of the time while listening to this album. It begs to be turned up, because you can never really hear exactly what is happening. After you turn it up, you still can’t really make sense of things, but this is an album that grows in power exponentially with volume simply because for every notch on your knob you turn, you are that much more submerged in the music and what is going on.

Lastly, I have been simply amazed at how happy it makes me to listen to the album.

People seem to have forgotten to harmonize their voices with one another. They are getting better with it lately (See Fleet Foxes pretty swell release this year that has been lapped up by the hipster crowd this year, with very good vocal harmonies. Actually, they played on the same stage as Animal Collective at Pitchfork.), but still, people forget that vocal harmonies sell. Panda Bear isn’t the freaking Mamas and Papas, but he harmonizes with himself in lovely ways that we don’t hear often enough. And his smooth, playful vocals are really what make this album the pop gem it is.

Lyrically, Panda Bear has the balls to sing about things that actually matter. And at that, values that his audience might actually need to hear. And the main theme of the album is so basic, so fundamental that most everyone, including myself, have glazed over it in our minds a long time ago. Be yourself. Don’t let anyone else tell you what is cool, what you should listen to, or make you feel inferior. Good Girl/Carrots seems to be the most prevalent in this philosophy. After the whimsical and fun run of “Good Girl,” the next movement “Carrots,” after a heartwarming reference to Mitch Hedberg, rouses a widespread defense against the kind of people who try to tell you what to listen to, to make you cling to a scene. The kinds of people that try to make themselves feel superior by collecting “all those first editions.” Possibly the most affecting line is an indirect put down against “those mags and websites who try to shape your style,” like perhaps Pitchforkmedia.com, or better yet, this website right here. The best and most representative line, however, is sandwiched in the middle of this song; “All I need to know, I knew so early.” These are the kind of lyrics that we heard when we were small children on TV. Why doesn’t anyone sing about these issues anymore?

But what really makes this album special is that it doesn’t falter even once. All of these elements come together to make a collection of seven lovely, moving songs that keep their momentum. The opening Comfy In Nautica sounds like a glorious call over a cliff to some canyon. Then, Take Pills’ two separate movements end up being as wonderful as one another, the first a slow relaxing piece, and then a marching, so-catchy-it-should-be-illegal second piece. And then of course comes the main song on the album, the sprawling Bros, for which my praise cannot be effectively articulated into written word. The almost tropical sounding aural cascades of I’m Not act as the keystone of the album. Good Girl/Carrots comes after it, and is just as moving as Bros. In the final stretch of the album, we have possibly the two most digestible and overall lovely pieces on the album, the ambient sound collage Search For Delicious, and a tiny, quite moving lullaby type song, Ponytail, which addresses the difficulties and wonders associated with change.

I think this is the one album of 2007 that I feel I can be unnecessarily enthusiastic about. It really is that good. Saying it is important or groundbreaking might be a little premature. But what seems to be the trend in pop music lately is either going toward the extremes of wildly experimental or almost ridiculously palatable. Sometimes we get people hitting pots and pans in complex polyrhythms, and sometimes we get The Jonas Brothers. Pop music has become a hedgemaze, and people seem to think that they need to base their decisions on which way to go according to how much is going to sell. Panda Bear, it seems, doesn’t really care. He was just taking a walk, and he stumbled upon the beautiful garden in the center. If any album could introduce free form and experimentalism into the world of glorious catchy pop music, Person Pitch is that album.