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.


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…