ANIMAL COLLECTIVE: STRAWBERRY JAM (2007)
You know you're in for a special treat when the album you're listening to is known to draw its inspiration from a strawberry jam packet included in a tray of airplane food — at least, according to Panda Bear's account of it. So many thoughts spring up so immediately. For instance, like any normal human being, I get the urge to throw up at the very idea of airplane food, much more so at the idea of a music record inspired by airplane food. On the other hand, I admit that strawberry jam is just about the most eatable thing out of all the orcish variety of airplane food, and it's a big relief to know that the album wasn't at least inspired by tasteless bread rolls or cashew nuts. Nevertheless, the album cover does make me want to throw up.
Strawberry Jam is a big progression over Sung Tongs and Feels — it is the first record on which the band really takes advantage of sophisticated production values, adding so much depth and scope to their sound that, in the eyes of "quality sound aficionados", it might as well be the band's first proper album as such. They are also slowly, but steadily drifting more and more into the realms of conventional songwriting — oh, nothing to worry about, ye goofballs and whackos all over the world, because they were so far away from it when they started out it will probably take them at least a couple more decades to become Phil Collins. For now, this is a pleasant "golden middle mix" of the experimental and the traditional.
With the addition of new sound layers and all, the Collective's general aim — revival of the Brian Wilson spirit for the new millennium — becomes even more obvious. How else can one explain these whirls of falsetto vocals clinging to baroque-tinged tape loops and bright shiny upbeat guitars? Almost every song on Strawberry Jam owes at least something, here and there, to the SMiLE sessions, from the rousing power pop opener 'Peacebone' to the hypnotizing "power folk" closer 'Derek'. This does not do much in the way of diversity — frankly speaking, even the modest length of fourty three minutes wears me out somewhat — but it does generate a very consistent and convincing sonic kaleidoscope (sorry, could not resist using the word again).
There is nothing truly "bad" I could say about the album. It is respectful of tradition yet quite strikingly original, it has songs that carefully avoid cheap catchiness but slowly end up being interestingly memorable, it has HARD WORK AND SOLID CRAFT written in invisible ink on every square inch of it, it has enough musical ideas and twisted lyrics to merit deep philological and artistic analysis, and it has justifiedly earned glowing reviews from most alternative sources and even a few mainstream ones.
At the same time, I cannot bring myself to love it. Feels worked better towards achieving that goal, and so, two years later, would Merriweather Post Pavilion; but as for Strawberry Jam, I cannot get rid of the feeling that the band's aim here was mostly to practice the new form rather than go for further nurturing of the spirit. The hooks feel hollow, the excitement feels forced, the whole experience has a decidedly post-modernist flavour that either kills emotion off the cuff or makes emotion physically undistinguishable from mock-emotion. And it is not contradictory that I should be mentioning this so late in discussing the Collective's career: if a record keeps continuously inviting comparisons with the Beach Boys, it is only fit to mention why it cannot, and should not, really function as a substitute for the Beach Boys.
'An obsession with the past is like a dead fly, and just a few things are related to the old times', they say in 'Peacebone', as if predicting the kind of reaction described in the previous paragraph — a pretty strong statement, considering that most of the things they do are, in fact, quite strongly related to the "old times". But, two lines later, what they say then is 'It's not my words that you should follow, it's your insides' — and here they are perfectly right. I follow my insides, and my insides tell me that either Strawberry Jam has no soul, or, if it has one, then I am way too old-timey and retarded to feel it.
And yet, in the final run, with all the wonderful creativity flowing through the record, it would be at the very least disrespectful to give it a thumbs down and, God forbid, maybe prevent some curious seeker to test its charms on himself. Yes, at the very least, it is a total triumph of form, and, on that level, thumbs up are guaranteed. Let's face it: before these guys came along, nobody (at least, no one we regular Joes are aware of) ever dreamed of combining Terry Riley with Brian Wilson, and this means that new and exciting syntheses of ideas, if not exactly new and exciting ideas themselves, are still possible as late in humanity's development as The Pre-Apocalypse Period we happen to live in.