Sunday, February 05, 2006

Pet Soundz

DISCUSSED: Animal Collective's Feels

Back in college-which was longer ago than I care to admit, so let's just say some time after the earth cooled but before the Internet-I lived in an old Victorian house that the college owned and subdivided into separate apartments.
It was a gathering house for all the freaks and geeks who didn't quite blend in with the frat-boy-cheerleader-chug-a-lug-date-rape ethos of the main campus. Across the hall my neighbors had set up a de facto commune-some of the guys living there weren't even enrolled-of 24/7 hacky-sack drum-circling and druggy bird-dogging. They all had sophomoric nicknames-Andy Crack, Stinker, Wild Bill, Bleep-and they all looked like they lived underwater.

Almost nobody knew how to play an instrument, but these guys were gonna start a band. "Whatever you say, Hippie Pants," I thought to myself. They were gonna call themselves the Gooney Birds after the sheet of primo blotter they'd scored at a recent Dead show. While I went to classes, these guys woodshedded day and night, nourished only by an Evian bottle filled to the brim with liquid LSD.

By the end of the semester the bottle was empty and these guys were making some of the most jaw-droppingly mesmerizing folk-based psych I'd ever heard. They sounded like the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey looks. Fuck me, I thought. It's like they mutated a couple steps up the food chain.

I can't help but think something similar happened to the men of Animal Collective during their formative years. They've known each other since high school. They all have sophomoric nicknames: Panda Bear, Avey Tare, Geologist, Deaken. They never show their faces in photographs, preferring to don lurid Halloween masks. From the sound of things, I wouldn't be surprised to learn they too had a private stock of that Evian elixir when they first took up instruments.

Six albums into their career, Animal Collective have become a cause celebre among the freak-folk meritocracy, creating some of the most stunningly original and indescribably otherworldly music since, well, the acid hit the punk rock some time around the Meat Puppets' Up on the Sun and Hüsker Dü's Flip Your Wig.

Let's face it-when it comes to rock music, that's when pure WTF innovation pretty much ended. Everything after, including just about all of the '90s, was music that wore its debts to the canon on its sleeve. (Grunge = Black Sabbath + Beatles. Discuss.) Even wild cards like Beck were decanting old wine into new glasses.

Truth is, celebrated freak-folkers-the box of rain that lazy journos like to corral Animal Collective into-are merely performing the old trick of reviving discarded and discredited fashions. By which I mean not so much the ridiculous Renaissance Faire wardrobes its scenesters don, but the hairy-fairy '60s Brit psych-folk of Donovan and the Incredible String Band they've resuscitated.

When it comes to pedigree, Animal Collective cover their paw tracks with six degrees of sonic separation, mutating sound over and over again until it sounds quite ordinary-if you live on Neptune.

And they have two great tricks that can't be easily dismissed: First, they somehow make music that continues to morph even when it's set in stone on CD. (I've listened to the new Feels about 18 times, and I swear to God not one nanosecond of it ever sounds the same twice.) Second, their unwavering refusal to be serious is what makes them so profound.

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