Tuesday, January 27, 2009

I Will Never Like: Anything by Animal Collective As Much as "Sung Tongs"

Back in 2004 when I worked as a music critic for my college paper, my editor at the time gave me a burnt copy of Sung Tongs after I'd mentioned to him that I'd never heard Animal Collective. This was back at the height of the freak folk scene's popularity, and it's hard now to imagine how an album as weird and as messy as Sung Tongs could have found an audience without being lumped in with Devendra Banhart and Co. It was a sort of "collect 'em all" feeling, like once you got Milk Eyed Mender or Rejoicing In Hands, well, now you've got to get the first Vetiver album and Espers and Sung Tongs..

My first listen to the album left me mostly irritated. Musically, it sounded incoherent, and the liberal amount of screaming and meowing just made it sound like the self-indulgent mess I thought all experimental music was at the time. But my enjoyment of the other freak folk artists just kept sending me back to the album for another shot, another try.

The songs that first stood out were "Winters Love" and "Who Could Win A Rabbit." "Winters Love" still manages to conjure up for me the joy and excitement of singing around a campfire, and this is strange because I hate singing around campfires. The song's harmonies sound so much like a half remembered children's song that it tricks the listener (or at least me) into remembering their childhood as one long hike through a forest at golden hour ("Visiting Old Friends" gives me a similar feeling). For me, Animal Collective so often sounds nothing like my actual childhood and everything like the hazy, colorful memories I have when I think back on it.

"Who Could Win A Rabbit," as well as "Kids On Holiday," sounds more like my actual childhood. Dizzy, excitable, and prone to fits of screaming nonsense was me when I was playing with friends, and I'm sure we would have run around in circles to "Who Could Win..," yelling and throwing action figures around the room. "Kids On Holiday" is sung from the viewpoint of a child waiting with their parents at the airport (though I don't think most kids have the word "vulva" in their vocabulary) and it captures the mix of fear and exhilaration that comes with all that stimuli (including hectoring Krishnas, though I personally haven't seem them in an airport in ages). 

Sung Tongs was recorded by Avey Tare and Panda Bear only, and I think it benefits tremendously from most tracks being built around a base of just acoustic guitar and drums. Sure, there are crazy samples and textures, but hearing that folk staple the acoustic guitar twisted and shattered and made to stutter connects the sound of AC influences like The Incredible String Band and Vashti Bunyan to musique-concrete and even Kid 606. As much as it's kind of unfair, I wish Animal Collective still built their songs on folk chord progressions instead of bloated synth and sampler noises.

For me, there has never been the same pure joy in any other Animal Collective record since Sung Tongs (with the exception of the Prospect Hummer EP with Vashti Bunyan, can't forget to mention that..). While I still enjoy their music, I also find it increasingly overloaded with electronics and a "regular dudes" whimsy that often gets grating (i.e. I've never wished to get lost in a girl's curls--please, save that sentiment for a birthday card).