ARAB ON RADAR TWO-FER

Arab on Radar: Queen Hygiene II (Heparin, 1997) and Yahweh or the Highway (Skin Graft, 2001)

Between 1994 and 1997, I spent many nights at the Bug Jar, the one reliably stable punk/indie club in Rochester. (At the time, there was a pretty strong underground scene and a number of punks holding shows in houses and dorm rooms, but not many “official” places to play/see shows — venues opened and closed erratically, and/or would decide to “change formats” with no notice.) At least half the time, the touring acts who played there were “no-name” bands; it was a testament to the local scene (and, sure, the fact that there wasn’t much else to do) that they’d almost always get at least a couple dozen folks, even on an off night. I seem to remember Arab on Radar playing there, for the first time, on a Wednesday or Thursday, with maybe 30 or 40 people in the audience… but holy shit, they TORE IT UP. Totally unhinged and confrontational noise, with a crazed singer who, between shouting out his lines alternate between staring down audience members, climbing around on stuff, and shoving various objects down his pants.

These records — their first and last (think they disbanded in 2002, after the infamous Oops! Tour w/Lightning Bolt and others)— bring back memories of that show and the 3 or 4 other times I saw ‘em. Musically, this is freaking great stuff — v. much in line with other “neo-no-wave” bands of the era, but better in lots of ways. Queen Hygiene II is the more straight-ahead of the two, blaring its PiL influences proudly — mostly-one-riff rockers featuring pummeling distort-bass + rudimentary but grooving drums topped off with shrieking, trebly twin-guitar lines that shake around each other in a pleasantly tinnitus-inducing fashion. Yahweh or the Highway (excellent title) is frequently quite abstracted — aside from the first and last songs (that last one, “Birth Control Blues,” is prolly my fave AOR jam), the songs mostly eschew definite tempos and predictable patterns w/r/t both micro and macro structure, and having lost their bassist some time before, they’re much heavier on the high-end.

Over it all, Eric Paul (aka Mr. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, aka Mr. Potty Mouth) rants and moans about sex: transgressive sex, sexual dysfunction/inadequacy, everyday encounters reimagined as sexual encounters, household objects metaphorically transformed into genitalia, you name it. You can’t actually make much of that out, so each record helpfully includes a lyric sheet. It’s patently offensive, and I have to acknowledge that, at 45, I’m not 100% comfy with some of the themes here. That said, it’s so over the top that I wanna believe that he’s being mostly ironic — and anyhoo, it pairs logically with the musical style as an overall confrontational gesture.

THOUGHTS FOR LATER:

1. I sometimes wonder if there is a genetic predisposition toward weird stuff. As a music student and then a teacher, I engaged in conversations and efforts around helping my peers/students “appreciate” difficult music. But as a music fan, I didn’t have to go through that acclimation process. When I first heard No New York in 1986, my pleasure centers immediately lit up, and I’ve had the same experience with countless other “first times” (including AOR).

2. It says something about my background that I’m just now actually playing attention to the lyrics on these albums. The same could be said of a huge swatch of my collection, esp. the stuff I collected in the 1990s — i.e., I really couldn’t tell you much, AT ALL, about the words on ‘em. With a lot of the bands I cared most about in that time period, the lyrics just weren’t all that important. Often, they sounded like a complete afterthought, were mumbled/screamed inaudibly, and, while possibly serving to provide some overall impression, fell completely apart on closer examination — like, the band knew they were supposed to fulfill some expectation of having a “singer” up front, but really wished that didn’t have to bother with that crap. (Many of favorite math-rock and post-rock bands, in fact, didn’t bother with it at all, going full instro.) In a lot of cases, this seemed to be about being more concerned with instrumental texture and compositional complexity than vocals; in others, it seemed to have to do with wanting to reject a specific rock archetype; in yet others, it likely was about no one in the band wanting to be the “frontman” (gendered noun on purpose, natch). I expect someone’s written a dissertation on this.

3. I don’t have time to get into a whole thing here about lyrics and their function in music — esp. when said lyrics are, at face value, kinda reprehensible. But I expect that’ll come up again, so just leaving this here for later consideration (but please start a convo below if that piques yr interest).

MARK APPLEBAUM: 56 1/2 FEET (INNOVA RECORDINGS, 2005)

3 substantial pieces by Mark Applebaum, a composer/performer whose work is characterized by a kind of polymathic intellectualism, drawing on concepts from contemporary literature, acoustics, psychology, mathematics, and philosophy. The way he channels those influences, though, results in music that’s playful, unpredictable, and extremely captivating. I had the pleasure of meeting Mark when he visited Duke around the time this record was released. He came across as a kind, verbose, insanely-energetic thinker — and I remember thinking, during the concerts where his work was featured, that his compositional voice was a perfect encapsulation of his personality.

20, the opening work for string quartet, is in 20 movements, mostly in the range of a minute long. It’s structured in such a way, though, that one tends to hear it in 4 groups of 5 short sections; those 4 “meta-movements” are harmonically distinct and internally consistent. The short duration of each movement lends a sort of frantic quality to the musical gestures, which veer from achingly lyrical to vicious staccato attacks; the piece ends with a jaw-droppingly beautiful solo for cello over slowly-exhaled chords in the other strings.

Agitprop, a “concerto” for mouseketier (an “electroacoustic sound sculpture” built by Applebaum) and jazz orchestra, is a lot of fun — a carefully guided improvisation that takes the timbral characteristics of a big band as a loose basis for experimentation with extended techniques, stochastic processes, etc. While it’s fully NOT concerned with being loyal to whatever “jazz” is, some of the coolest parts are absolutely reminiscent of visionaries like Sun Ra and Mingus, and/or sound like a late-night community-radio set where a DJ’s mixing swing-band records with sound-effects tapes.

I ran out of available time today, so sadly could not listen to the last piece, Sum=Parts. I’ll come back to it later. But these two works have given me plenty of food for musical thought for the coming days of work…

APHEX TWIN TWO-FER

Aphex Twin: Come to Daddy (Warp Records, 1997) and Syro (Warp Records, 2014)

As with rap/hip-hop, my relationship to electronica is as a casual fan, though there are some artists in whom I’m a little more invested. Richard D. James is among them, though you wouldn’t know it by current collection — these are the only two things of his I’ve got in a physical format. (I lost my well-worn copy of Selected Ambient Works 85-92 in one of my post-undergrad moves, and never got around to replacing it; other things drifted in and out of my possession and/or got downloaded.)

He’s released stuff under many different aliases, but Aphex Twin is the one by which he’s probably most recognized (though I think he’s actually put out MORE material as AFX…). He’s proven very good at keeping people guessing over the years, including the nearly 13 years between Drukqs and Syro; oceans of verbiage have been spilled critiquing/questioning his music, performance aesthetic, and the overall veil of secrecy he’s managed to maintain for nigh-on 30 years of activity. It’s tricky to summarize his music, though it’s often labeled IDM (or “intelligent dance music”), meaning it’s rooted in the same fundamental urges as techno etc. but more “cerebral” than purely booty-shaking. I don’t think I can do better than that, so.

The Come to Daddy EP came out around the height of the first US electronica craze, while albums by Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim, and Moby were making major commercial waves. I dunno if James was looking to cash in on the fad — many of the songs have vocals, which is unusual for him — and if so, how that worked out, but this is bonkers and awesome. The lead-off cut, “Come to Daddy (Pappy Mix),” is one of the more straight-ahead Aphex tracks, meaning that it mostly locks into a steady groove and doesn’t make too many detours; over that, James lays on distorted vocals which are really just him repeating “I WANT YOUR SOUL, I WILL EAT YOUR SOUL.” Disturbing — as are the two alternate versions, both of which are basically unrecognizable as such. “Flim” and “IZ-US” occupy a more serene space (the former is genuinely pretty, albeit with some insane polyrhythms percolating underneath) that’s a sweet counterpoint to (for me) the highlight, “Bucephalus Bouncing Ball,” which somehow builds a driving dance track out of what sounds like metallic beads being dropped and allowed to skitter around in a resonant room.

Syro is a triple LP (!) that’s the product of several years of work. For the most part, it’s more restrained and “open” — the tempos average out a little slower than a lot of his earlier work, and even on the faster cuts, he leaves a lot of space in the texture. Each track feels like a little self-contained statement, and there is a LOT to absorb here. “produk 29” settles into a slow-low syncopation, with cool little bass burbles; the droning “fz pseudotimestretch+e+3” wavers woozily for less than a minute before the hyperspeed “CIRCLONT14 (shrymoming mix)” tears in with arpeggiated synth-bass stuff that shifts unpredictably between duple and triple subdivisions (geeking, I know), while treated vocal samples and square waves float lazily over it all. Vintage synths combine with more recent technology to produce a rekkid that’s both warm and jagged. Listing all the highlights would take up a whole page, and I’d still not do it full justice. I love this, a lot.

IT’S A 7-INCH PARTY, Y’ALL!

Algebra Suicide: True Romance at the Worlds Fair EP (Buzzarama Records, 1982)

Spare and kinda arch/arty. Lydia Tomkiw dispassionately and semi-rhythmically declaims her free-verse lyrics — nice abstractions about social norms, gender roles, etc. — over hubby Don Hedeker’s ultra-rudimentary, new-wavish electric-guitar-and-drum-machine backing. It’s oddly catchy, despite the tunelessness, and there’s something about her delivery (maybe partly due to her thick Chicago accent) that really draws me in. Standout track: “Recalling the Last Encounter.”

A.M.P.: Studio EP (Colorful Clouds for Acoustics, 1997)

A.M.P. (also just Amp) came out of the same Bristol scene as Flying Saucer Attack and Third Eye Foundation; a common thread is the use of sounds that seem to evoke/embody industrial decay. The two instrumental tracks on this EP plod along nicely, with drones ’n’ drums ’n’ delay ’n’ other relentless noises combining into walls of gleaming darkness (or something). Very somber and very good.

Arab on Radar: “Kangaroo”/“Pig Roast” (Heparin, 1996)

Early release by the Providence neo-no-wave icons. Shrill twin-slide-guitar mini-motives over sludgy bass and basic drums lay the groundwork for paranoid/acerbic ranting by Mr. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. One of those bands about whom ambivalence is impossible — you either absolutely hate ‘em or totally love ‘em, and I’m in the latter camp. These two tunes aren’t quite as over-the-top as what came next (about which more in a future post), but they’re close.

Bardo Pond: “Testing for New Swords”/“Good Friday” (Siltbreeze, 1996)

Nice little appetizer from the stalwart Philly psych-rock titans. “Testing for New Swords” is a slow burner in the classic Bardo mold, with bass and drums creeping around loosely under waves of echoing guitar and infrequent vocal turns by chanteuse Isobel Sollenberger. “Good Friday” is a pretty-OK unaccompanied showcase for the Gibbons brothers’ spacy twin-guitar explorations. I prefer this band in the LP setting (or live, where, good lord), where they have more room to sprawl, but this is a fine warmup.

ANTIPOP CONSORTIUM: ARRHYTHMIA (WARP RECORDS, 2002)

I totally forgot about this one! I found it on the new-release shelf while DJing at WXDU; on a whim, I spun “Ghostlawns” during a set, and was instantly captivated. Antipop Consortium are an experimental hip-hop crew from NYC; this record is a total mind-melter, with stream-of-consciousness lyrics skittering fluidly over simple but hyper-creative beats and out-of-left-field production flourishes (sudden bursts of distortion/delay/compression/sampled-operatic-vocals that surprise me every time). Plus, the de rigueur vignettes are really good/weird — e.g., “Tron Man” starts off as a mundane radio call-in skit, but quickly turns ultra-dark. No single track stands out — it’s just a solid, fascinating listen from beginning to end.

The “experimental hip-hop” designation got me thinking about my own history with rap and hip-hop. I was in elementary school when I first became conscious of rap — so, this’d be the era of Grandmaster Flash, Newcleus, Whodini, etc. — and it is no lie to say that it ALL seemed totally foreign and experimental. I’m almost certain that the same could have been said about virtually every new musical treed at the time of its appearance. With rap, though, it also had, in my case, a great deal to do with the circumstances of my surroundings. I grew up in a small rural community on the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge in Virginia, with a largely-invisible non-white population — both in number and, sadly, by dint of systemic segregation. Hip-hop, being the product of black-and-brown urban culture, came from somewhere well outside of my experiences — but I was totally fascinated by it regardless.

By junior high and high school (mid-1980s), rap had become a pretty serious market force, although it was viewed with suspicion and hostility by many of my peers. For some, the problem was that it was “noisy” or “nonsense” or “not really music”; others were less veiled in their dismissal of rap as “n***er music,” music to which only “n***ers” and “n***er lovers” listened. (I’m ashamed to admit that I rarely called my peers out for using those terms at the time.) History proves that every black-originated form of American popular music — from jazz and blues to early rock ’n’ roll and soul — was subject to the same white-supremacist discourse. But I didn’t know that history then — I just knew that rap was (a) controversial, (b) not like other music, and (c) totally mesmerizing, in spite (or more likely because) of (a)+(b).

I never developed any real collection of hip-hop; over the course of my life, I’ve probably owned no more than about 50 or 60 rap/hip-hop records, in any format. But I’ve remained a casual fan throughout my life, and particularly to the stuff that seems, to me, to represent the original, rebellious and self-made spirit of the movement. I guess what I’m getting at is that, for me, “experimental hip-hop” almost seems like a redundancy — the best hip-hop, in my mind, is the weird stuff. From Kool Herc to Doug E. Fresh to Public Enemy to A Tribe Called Quest to Missy Elliott to Kool Keith to, well, Antipop Consortium, making my head spin with the unexpected is what makes the form meaningful and exciting to this old dude.

Whoo, this got long-winded. Point is, Arrhythmia is a great record that pushed my brain into unexpected places — v. cool.

ANTIOCH ARROW: IN LOVE WITH JETTS (GRAVITY RECORDS, 1994)

A couple of posts ago, I made some sweeping generalizations about indie fandom in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Here are two more: (1) For many of us, aside from word of mouth, our primary source for finding out about interesting new bands was through zines. (2) We also tended to embrace a kind of “brand loyalty” for particular independent labels, based on the quality of their past output.

These two points explain why I own this mini-LP by Antioch Arrow, a fairly obscure San Diego band that existed for maybe 2 years. I read a glowing feature article about ‘em in Your Flesh, one of the longer-running and most respected underground-rock zines of the era (Bob Mould of Hüsker Dü was one of the cofounders). And in that article, I noted that they’d put stuff out on Gravity Records, a label I already knew and liked from their releases of early stuff by Heroin, Unwound, and Huggy Bear. So, when I saw In Love With Jetts in the bin at Buffalo’s Home of the Hits (RIP), I snagged it.

Buying records in this way was always a gamble, and I’d call this particular purchase a just-breaking-even situation. I was underwhelmed by it when I bought it — it struck me as OK, but not so good as to warrant celebration by one of my favorite zines — and I distinctly remember listening several times back to back, hoping it’d stick, before disappointedly filing it. Might have put it on 3 times in the 20+ years years since; I was really hoping I’d hear something different today, but no dice.

According to folks for whom I’ve got plenty of respect, Antioch Arrow were major influences on subsequent bands in the post-hardcore/“screamo” mold. I can hear that — they, themselves, sound like they’re channeling punk outliers like Rites of Spring and Nation of Ulysses, in their chaotic, dissonant, sprawling-in-spite-of-brevity musical approach (only two of the 9 tracks break the minute-and-a-half mark!). Assuming they could pull off the quick tempo and meter changes in these songs, I bet they were an awesome live band. But on record, their thing comes across kinda flat and same-y; aside from a nice slowish part in penultimate track “The Blessed Test,” and some cool feedback/fretboard scraping leading into “This Great Wall,” it’s all a blur of angst, tritones and speed. Those are fine attributes (to me), and often even better than fine (again, to me), but it just doesn’t do it for me here — though I do give them credit for getting in and out in less than 14 minutes, and the artwork is fantastic.

Ah well — win some, lose some. Listen for yourself; maybe it’ll be just the thing for you.

THOUGHTS FOR LATER:

  1. I definitely have other records in my collection by bands who put on incredible live shows, but whose energy or what have you doesn’t quite translate to the recorded format. And in those cases, while I objectively recognize the disconnect, I still mostly like the records (or at least appreciate them for what they are, i.e., imperfect reminders of sometimes profound experiences). So I’m wondering how I’d feel about this one if I’d gotten a chance to see Antioch Arrow perform.
  2. That raises larger questions about recording vs. performance — potentially a rabbit hole of ‘em. I don’t think I wanna go there right now, so I’ll leave that for later pondering.
  3. San Diego seems to have been something of a hotbed of angst-ridden, off-kilter, noisy bands in the early to mid ‘90s. Heroin, Antioch Arrow, Clikitat Ikatowi, Three Mile Pilot… Could be interesting to suss this out.

AN ANTHOLOGY OF NOISE & ELECTRONIC MUSIC / FIRST A-CHRONOLOGY (VOLUME #1) (SUB ROSA, 2001)

The 8-or-so-year span around the turn of the millennium — let’s say 1995 to 2003 — was kind of an extraordinary, magical time to be a participant in the musical underground, especially (for me) in the crossover between the experimental wings of both “popular” and “classical” worlds. (Scare quotes because, well, you know.) I attribute a lot of this to Tortoise and other so-called “post-rock” bands, who were citing Cage, Reich, Xenakis, and other art-music types as influences on their approach to song-craft, as well as to an increasing number of young conservatory-trained musicians finding long-assumed value differentials b/t art and pop totally baseless. Whatever: it meant that, at a certain point, I wasn’t remotely surprised when, flipping through the new-release bin at Durham, NC’s Radio Free Records — a short-lived but much-loved shop serving the rekkid-gripping needs of local punx — I came across this gem.

Sub Rosa’s aesthetic encapsulates the pan-genre ideology of the time, and this release distills it nicely. It includes landmark early examples of musique concrète and “pure” electronic music (Pierre Schaeffer’s Cinq Etudes de Bruits, Edgard Varèse’s Poème Electronique, Iannis Xenakis’s Concret PH), alongside deeper cuts by folks both well-known (John Cage, Pauline Oliveros, Henri Pousseur) and less so (Walter Ruttman, Gordon Mumma, Konrad Boehmer). But it also digs heavily into areas that would usually elude anthologies of “art music” electronica — and in the process, illustrates how that distinction is pretty meaningless. Sonic Youth’s Audience is usefully juxtaposed with Cage’s Rozart Mix, highlighting their overlapping approach to “non-musical” sound as compositional material; Einstürzende Neubauten’s Ragout: Küchen Rezept sits nicely against Boehmer’s Aspekt, both highly complex and detailed arrangements of noise and texture. A few things aren’t great representations of their creators’ best work, but even those are interesting for being otherwise unreleased. The biggest revelation is a recording from an event by Survival Research Laboratories, a Bay Area collective who create self-destructing spectacles of noise and violence with robots and explosives; the biggest letdown is the first cut, an at-the-time VERY rare document of Luigi Russolo’s notorious intoarumori (noise instruments) —unfortunately, represented in a pretty lame composition by the composer’s brother Antonio. On the whole, though, this is an awesome reminder of the range of sonic possibilities available since the onset of recording technology, as well as the extent to which artists across genre boundaries have influenced one another irrespective of those artificial divisions.

THOUGHTS FOR LATER:

  1. Radio Free Records was SO awesome, and SO short-lived. In retrospect, it was so clearly doomed to fail, with e-commerce and Napster and all that. Still, I haver such excellent memories of both the store and the community it fostered…
  2. This is some serious old-man shit, I know, but boy, do I miss my record-store heyday. We are blessed with some really great ones here in the Asheville area, and I frequent them when I can — but with responsibility comes a loss of that special feeling of freedom to spend hours thumbing through vinyl, chatting with clerks, and not really thinking twice about spending too much money.
  3. It is interesting to consider how revolutionary (like, in a crazy-person way) the intermingling of genres seemed in those pre-YouTube days. I don’t, in any way, feel nostalgia for what came before (i.e., the feeling I had, while at Eastman, of harboring a dirty secret in my love for punk and indie rock). Still, I do wonder how the experience of coming of age in music today differs — like, do young musicians still hold some sense of some types of music being more value-laden than others? (My students give me varying stories on that front.) And in the end, does it make any difference whether they truly understand how intensely those “battle-lines” were drawn? Idle thoughts, maybe.

No full-length posting. Here’s the catalog page if you wanna look for individual pieces, and a couple teasers.

ANNA & ELIZABETH TWO-FER

Anna & Elizabeth: Sun to Sun (self-released, 2013) and Anna & Elizabeth (Free Dirt Records, 2015)

First two records by this awesome duo of “new young fogies.” Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle are, individually, known as outstanding artists and activists within the old-time music community; working together, they attain some profoundly magical chemistry that both honors history AND totally explodes whatever artificial constraints one might imagine “old-time music” has around it. (And as anyone who’s been to Clifftop or Mt. Airy knows well, such boundaries are pretty apt to disappear in the wee hours anyway.)

Sun to Sun is the more conventional of the two, emphasizing relatively straightforward renderings of a wide-ranging selection of rural songs and ballads, with a couple of instrumental numbers in the mix for good measure. (Their fiddle-and-banjo rendering of Hobart Smith’s “Pateroller” f-ing SLAYS.) But closer examination reveals they’re drawing on some less-than-common sources — multiple songs each learned and adapted from Texas Gladden (southwest VA) and Addie Graham (eastern KY), two female singers who’ve not received the same level of attention as male peers — and their decisions about arrangements and harmony are really personal and distinctive, with lots and lots of space and breath and changes in color. Also included is a video of one of their “crankie” performances — a song/ballad accompanied by a handmade, hand-cranked scroll that visually tells the story. Really, really good.

Anna & Elizabeth is simultaneously more ambitious and more focused, with the pair joined by several guests; their source material ranges across time and the American landscape of song, and they approach it with a freedom and joy of discovery that’s totally palpable. Standout (to me) “Greenwood Sidey” melds a haunting, centuries-old ballad fragment (sung with an emotional detachment that is even more haunting) with asynchronous guitar strumming that grows increasingly dissonant as the story reaches its cruel climax; nearly-as-good “Orfeo” does a similar trick with uilleann pipes. Elsewhere, seemingly more straightforward folk songs and hymns like “Poor Pilgrim of Sorrow,” “Don’t Want to Die in the Storm,” and “Goin’ Across the Mountain” are given an intriguing new cast through inventive harmonies and pacing; on several of these, they’re joined by Alice Gerrard, who fills out the texture beautifully. (They return the honor with a duo take on “Won’t You Come and Sing for Me,” a song Alice recorded in the ‘70s with her late musical partner Hazel Dickens; Anna & Elizabeth’s version is sparse, heartfelt, and devastating .) And even the simpler numbers, like “Little Black Train” and “Trouble,” are taken on with creativity and propulsion. Really, this is just an overwhelmingly fantastic album. They’ve got a new one coming out on Smithsonian Folkways soon; I can’t wait to hear what quantum leaps they’ve made in the last couple of years.

ANIMAL COLLECTIVE: Feels (Fat Cat, 2005) and Strawberry Jam (Domino, 2007)

Like a lot of folks (I think) whose tastes were formed in the indie-rock heyday of the ‘80s and ‘90s, I’m an avid loyalist. If I discover a band I really like, I’m generally a fan for life, willing to forgive temporary missteps (and even long stretches of less-than-optimum output) because they put out that one record that made me totally love ‘em. There are definitely exceptions, but that’s the general pattern.

So, as I wrote yesterday, Animal Collective’s Sung Tongs hit me hard — I loved that goddamned record SO MUCH, and played it incessantly for a few months. (For reasons unfathomable to today’s young’uns, I couldn’t find copies of their previous releases at the time — out of print, the internet wasn’t what it is now, etc.) My timing was such that I discovered Sung Tongs not too long before the band put out their next album, Feels. There was a brief period — maybe a week, and after a couple of beers — when I’d’ve claimed it was even better than the previous one. That seems crazy now, but it’s still really good. It takes the things that made Sung Tongs so compelling — catchy uptempo numbers with skewed ‘60s shading and raucous/lovely vocal interplay, juxtaposed against more abstract, floaty pieces — but all of it’s ever so slightly more direct, both in experimental passages AND in nods toward some festival-headliner aspirations I’d not picked up on earlier. Openers “Did You See the Words” and “Grass” are absolute head-bangers/fist-pumpers, but in the most bizarre and nonsensical way; “Bees”’s swooning meditation segues effortlessly into the lovely shuffling drive of “Banshee Beat,” and then floating in space with “Daffy Duck” and “Loch Raven” (the former featuring outré violin textures by Eyvind Kang); then revving back up for the driving-then-drifiting closer “Turn Into Something.” Feels goes on a little too long for me, but not by much — solid stuff overall.

2 years later, Strawberry Jam dropped, and I was stoked… and then not. It’s a dramatic shift — almost irrepressibly giddy, much more electronic, and almost devoid of the rambling, free-ranging parts I liked so much on the other two albums. I *might* have listened to this two or three times, but also maybe not. Hearing it today, though, I’m a little surprised at my near-total dismissal. It’s WAY different for sure, but it’s pretty good nonetheless. There are definitely some goofy songs (esp. “Peacebone” and “Fireworks”), but they’re still full of that boisterous sense of exploration and striving, as ever, for the best lost-Brian-Wilson vocal line. And the best moments — like “For Reverend Green,” second half of “Chores,” and “Cuckoo” — are easily as good as anything on Sung Tongs or Feels — the same basic musical instincts, but transferred to a different sonic palette. So, really not sure what I was thinking… though this was right around the time I’d started a new job and moved to a town where we knew no-one, so plenty of room for speculation.

And true to my roots, I didn’t give up on ‘em (though I’ve not purchased a physical copy of one of their records since this one), and was rewarded (like everyone else on the planet, it seemed) by the excellent Merriweather Post Pavilion. (In retrospect, it’s obvious how Strawberry Jam is setting the stage for that record.) I’ve not been in love with everything else they’ve done, but I’ll keep listening, because after all, they put out that one record that made me totally love ‘em.

ANIMAL COLLECTIVE: SUNG TONGS (FAT CAT RECORDS, 2004)

My intro to Animal Collective, coinciding with significant buzz around what some were calling “freak folk,” others were referring to as “the New Weird America.” Sung Tongs is definitely resonant with some of that stuff (see: Devendra Banhart, Espers, Sunburned Hand of the Man, etc.), though it’s also got vestiges of the band’s earlier, more abstract noodling, while simultaneously feinting toward the neo-hippie-crowd-pleasing path they’d embrace later on.

14 years and many stadium tours later, this is still a great album. Many of the uptempo songs (which is most of ‘em) come across like a skewed recontextualization of the Beach Boys (with occasional nods to more global influences (“Sweet Road,” e.g.)) — it’s got that same kind of ecstatic embrace of simple major-key melodies and complicated vocal interplay, but then forced through a haze of off-kilter instrumentation and studio wackiness. The effect is weirdly catchy and awfully endearing. That’s balanced, though, by more pastoral moments (“The Softest Voice,” “Visiting Friends,” “Mouth Wooed Her”), where sweet voices — sometimes effects-laden, sometimes not — swoop around lazily over freely strummed acoustic gtrs and bubbling electronics. Personal favorite cut “We Tigers” sounds like a summer-camp soundtrack — with pounding tom-toms, wordless “whoops” and insistent falsetto harmonizing — before suddenly shifting, out of nowhere, into some vocal hocketing that’s gotta be a nod to the Ramayana Monkey Chant. Killer.

I probably haven’t listened to this record in almost a decade — how awesome that it’s still every bit as thrilling as it was back then…