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Sunday, November 29, 2009

Animal Collective: Strawberry Jam


1) Peacebone; 2) Unsolved Mysteries; 3) Chores; 4) For Reverend Green; 5) Fireworks; 6) #1; 7) Winter Wonder Land; 8) Cuckoo Cuckoo; 9) Derek.

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.


  1. A "mix of Terry Riley and Brian Wilson"... yeah, that is at least somewhat novel (or as you said, at least this is the first example of it to break into the semi-mainstream)... and hence you get the people who don't understand how to dissect the influences of music thinking "OMG NUTHIN SOUNDS LIKE THIS, SO ORIGINAL! SEE? MODERN MUSIC IS ALIVE AND WELL"... when really it just signifies that the amount of exciting musical possibilities is a nearly dry well.

    Yeah, I'm a miserable cynic... but when stuff like this is purported as being some of the best music of the era... it's hard not to be. Ah well, it's interesting to see your reviews on this modern stuff anyway.

  2. Absurdly belated comment:

    I'd say that "combining Terry Riley with Brian Wilson" is exactly what Sufjan Stevens - who's no more obscure for the regular Joes of the world than Animal Collective - was doing from 2003 through 2006.

    And with a stronger claim to a having a human soul, too.

  3. Yeah Sufjan would definitely fit that discription alongside Animal Collective (though their stuff sounds totally different from each other). He can really write some great arrangements when it comes down to it. On the other hand Sufjan has no ability to self edit whatsoever, so I still prefer AnCo by a small margin.