ANIMAL COLLECTIVE: SPIRIT THEY'RE GONE, SPIRIT THEY'VE VANISHED (2000)
1) Spirit They've Vanished; 2) April And The Phantom; 3) Untitled; 4) Penny Dreadfuls; 5) Chocolate Girl; 6) Everyone Whistling; 7) La Rapet; 8) Bat You'll Fly; 9) Someday I'll Grow To Be As Tall As The Giant; 10) Alvin Row.
The story of what we know today as the «Animal Collective» formally begins with this homebrewn recording, featuring Avey Tare (David Portner) on everything except percussion, on the latter featuring Panda Bear (Noah Lennox). No need to be afraid of the «homebrewn» label: we have come a long way since the dawn of technology, and it all sounds fantastically good for something recorded directly in a living room. Well, actually, the vocals sound like shit, but presumably that was the idea, or close to the idea.
Since, for the first few years of the team's recording career, Spirit was only available in a two-digit number of copies (perhaps three, but given the world's overall population, that's hardly a significant difference), "important people" only started admiring its quality in retrospect, but the retrospect turned out to be fortunate: most indie bands, no matter how respectable they become eventually, only wish their initial, pre-big label, efforts got the same amount of admiration.
What is it that makes this recording important in any way, or simply interesting? As much as I'm left indifferent by it, I can't deny that I haven't heard anything like it before. The best way to describe the genre in which it is cast — or, in fact, which it creates — is arguably "Psychedelic Avantgarde For Kiddies", where "avantgarde" stands for "weirdass unpredictable rhythms and chord changes", "psychedelic" for "trippy effects furnished by the latest in electronic gadgets", and "kiddies" for "an overall feeling of almost overdone furry cuteness all over this thing".
Obviously, each of the three directions can be found separately on any number of albums by any number of artists from the last five decades, but to combine all three the way A. T. and P. B. have judged them to be combinable — something fairly unique in here. Many people, even seasoned listeners, will be left dazed and confused by these sounds, uncertain whether this really means anything and whether music like that has any future. And this, I think, is an excellent thing in itself, because these days, too few things exist that can daze and confuse any more.
The magic does not work on me; I find that the "cuteness" clashes with the "avantgardism" angle in a way that sort of flattens both. I'd gather that all of these playful polyrhythms saddled with fairish vocals, all of these innocent nature sounds interwoven with jazz modulations, all of these 'Chocolate Girl' and 'April And The Phantom' song titles mixed with ear-splitting sounds and mind-defying lyrics pretty much kill off each other's effect. Kids won't like this unless they were born and raised in nuthouses, and elitists may scoff at the cuteness aspect. To truly "get into this", you probably have to be an archi-arrogant hipster with a subconscious need to release and satisfy your inner child — a category of people that must be about as rare as Jewish Neo-nazis (but since we know for a fact that Jewish Neo-nazis exist, so should childlike avantgardists).
Individual songs do not matter at all; it's probably more correct to perceive all of the album's sixty minutes as one continuous suite, written for the purposes of exploding your mind rather than ingraining itself into it. Even after four listens I still haven't been able to decompose these sixty minutes — not a single moment stands out as particularly inspiring, particularly catchy, particularly ugly, or particularly out-of-place. It's as if someone were evenly and meticulously shaking the same sonic kaleidoscope, letting you in on an endlessly shifting array of glistening dots and bits but never allowing you to focus in on any one single configuration; in the end, you're dazzled with what you've just seen but you also find it hard to explain what it is that you have just seen. In my case at least, you're also not quite certain about whether the things you have just seen have any actual meaning, and whether, in fact, there was any necessity in seeing them in the first place.
One definite complaint I'd like to voice, though, is that these sonic textures lack any sort of depth. I mentioned that the recording does not suffer from the usual problems associated with lo-fi, but nevertheless, all the tunes might have benefited from professional studio production. In the past, bands like Amon Düül II or the Cocteau Twins would drag you into their fantasy worlds because they really felt like three-dimensional worlds; Avey Tare and Panda Bear do not really go beyond the second dimension, and it feels like you're merely walking on the pages of their book of fairy tales, not diving into it — and the primary fault lies not with their composing skills or the strength of their imagination, but with the poorness of their technical capacities. It is still amazing how much they managed to accomplish within the four walls of their living room, but it is not enough to turn this living room into a flying saucer on chicken legs, if you know what I mean.
It is mostly because of this — implying that this obstacle was at least somewhat overcome as the years went by — that the record receives a thumbs down, following a repulsive reaction from the heart that overrides the positive logical argumentation of the brain. If this were the only Animal Collective album ever recorded, some reconsideration might be in order, but this is, after all, a living-room quality recording by two well-meaning, but still relatively unexperienced whackos that went on to bigger and better things. And I don't think this is the best place to start your acquaintance with them, unless you just live for the challenge.