ANIMAL COLLECTIVE: PAINTING WITH (2016)
1) FloriDada; 2) Hocus Pocus; 3) Vertical; 4) Lying In The Grass; 5) The Burglars; 6) Natural Selection; 7) Bagels In Kiev; 8) On Delay; 9) Spilling Guts; 10) Summing The Wretch; 11) Golden Gal; 12) Recycling.
After the overdubbing excesses of Centipede Hz, its follow-up Painting With almost sounds like an exercise in stripping down to the basics — quieter, less cluttered with bombastic overdubs, sort of an «Animal Collective-lite», back-to-roots version of the transcendental-psychedelic AC of the past ten years. As far as I understand, much of this has to do with the band dropping their reliance on the reverb effect — and so, this time around, they bring the music right into your living room instead of having it drop down on you from the skies, in a benevolent gesture from the Olympian gods of candy-colored psychedelia.
Another change is that the songs are getting shorter: the entire record is over in less than fourty minutes, with the longest track clocking in at a measly 4:33 (which led them to jokingly calling this «our Ramones album»). By throwing out lengthy build-ups and drones and relying far more on the strength of vocal melodies than they used to, they are indeed moving as close to the «pop» format as is possible for The Animal Collective without ceasing to be The Animal Collective and beginning to be The Sellout Collective. Not that anybody should be worried — the whole thing still sounds totally insane — but this time we are presented with a lighter, fluffier form of insanity, sort of a silly romp of elfish kids through Central Park rather than a solemn ritual performed with the goal of breaking through into another dimension. Or, perhaps, a more accurate analogy would be that, if Merryweather Post Pavillion is this band's Pet Sounds and Centipede Hz is an attempt at its Smile, then Painting With is their Wild Honey — a definite step backwards in terms of experimentation without sacrificing too much of the essence.
Contrary to rumors, Painting With is quite a diverse record: capturing the songs in an analytical web, anyone can see that ʽFloriDadaʼ is retro-sunshine pop, ʽHocus Pocusʼ is folk-based progressive rock, ʽVerticalʼ is contemporary R&B, ʽNatural Selectionʼ is fast-tempo techno-pop, and there's quite a few other musical genres lurking in the shadows, too — the problem being that, once they all go through the prescribed Animal Collective filter, the substantial differences between them are neutralised. Sure there's no more reverb, but the band's technique of overdubbing psychedelic vocal harmonies and entrusting the melodic backbone to humming-bubbling synthesizers remains quite stable, so every single song sets almost precisely the same mood, and the inherent differences of all these musical genres are not only not exploited, but diligently covered up by the production. In the end, there's absolutely no reason for me to discuss what makes any two of these tracks stand out from each other — who really cares about complex time signatures or peculiarities of voice distribution over different sound channels when no matter what you do, you come out with more or less the same result?
Repeated listens are essential for the record, because at first (and at second, and at third...) it just sounds like a big jar of sweet sonic goo — short song lengths not helping any, and vocal hooks all reduced to the same common psychedelic denominator. Eventually, through the aid of some particularly outstanding vocal lines (like the chorus to ʽFloriDadaʼ), the tracks come apart, but just barely so, and I am still left wondering: it is one thing when we are exposed to, say, a full album of same-mood ballads by Sinatra or Dusty Springfield, but with a band as experimental as these guys, is it really right that it should take so much time to separate one track from another? I guess you really have to love The Animal Collective to death, and to «get» this kind of sound in your heart the way other people «get» Willie Nelson or J. J. Cale, to give Painting With all the admiration it may deserve.
But there's the catch — I think that this shorter-song, simpler-sound approach does them a disfavor in the end. At least for me, much too often, the album ends up on the verge of being annoying: all those hee-haw-hee-haw vocals, when they are not directly carried out into the stratosphere, as they used to, eventually bring on associations with village idiots and bad taste humorists. If the record's major purpose is to convey a feeling of light-hearted joy, as I believe it is, then, as far as I am concerned, it fails. Not that I envy the band's position: having clearly peaked at the turn of the decade, they have nothing left to prove and (probably) nothing left to blow our minds even one more time, so any further experimental detour, be it even in the direction of «de-experimentalizing» themselves, is potentially welcome. But one cannot also avoid asking oneself the horrid question about jumping the shark — because, for all I know, the point of Painting With might be to state "It's Only Psycho Pop, But I Like It, Yes I Do", and if so, who's gonna be carrying the real banner of psychedelia into the 2010s? Kanye West?..