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Wicker Men

Some Things in Their Natural State Have the Most Vivid Colors for the Four Guys in Animal Collective

THERE IS NO "I" IN "COLLECTIVE" . . . OH, WAIT A MINUTE, THERE IS: The various members of animal collective, who did not provide caption info.

By Tony Ware | Posted 11/17/2004

Animal Collective plays the Ottobar Nov. 19 with Gang Gang Dance, Growing, and Wzt Hearts.

Anyone who wears glasses will tell you that tears and raindrops on your lenses appear like tiny oil slicks, iridescent splotches that smear the vision field like a finger to a Polaroid’s emulsion. The sprawling sonic scrawls of Animal Collective—the four not-always-concurrently contributing musicians who have assumed the pseudonyms Avey Tare (David Portner), Deaken (Josh Dibb), Geologist (Brian Weitz), and Panda Bear (Noah Lennox)—are like strings of snapshots taken through those lenses. And with the contorted psychedelic folk of Sung Tongs, the latest release bearing the international-by-way of-New York-by-way of-Maryland quartet’s name, Animal Collective continues to make music as fevered, mercurial, and slippery as any viscous puddle.

This group of two transitory musicians, a carpenter, and a geologist/ecologist makes songs full of gnarled angles, earnest consciousness streams, and free-flowing rhythmic experiments. And when engaged in conversation, the group shows it has an invigoratingly convoluted way of not only composing sounds but of describing them as well.

“When I was in college, I’d spend a lot of time in my dorm room listening to music, making up stories to go along with the sound stuff,” says Portner, one of two performing members of Animal Collective, along with Dibb, available to discuss the group’s endeavors, though only Portner and Lennox wrote and recorded Sung Tongs. “And I think that’s part of the fun of making it, hoping that you’ll throw it out there and people will create this personal visualization of it.

“But it’s kinda weird to me,” he continues. “I’ve read a lot of variations on [Sung Tongs], and a lot of people still tend to use words like ‘forest’ and ‘berries’ and all this stuff, but I don’t think any of that stuff came up when we were making it. To us the songs were really personal songs and all the lyrics reflect what was going on in our lives. To me it’s really more of a deranged, comic-book-esque city-living family album rather than this weird pastoral forest thing people are always getting out of it.”

The pastoral certainly has its place in Animal Collective lore. The group—which when not touring is now scattered between Brooklyn, N.Y. (Portner, Dibb), Washington, D.C. (Weitz), and Lisbon, Portugal (Lennox)—originally began while in high school in northern Baltimore County. Albums including 2000’s Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished and 2003’s Campfire Songs exhibit the rural in mellifluous wisps, sifted through droning sediment and noisy static.

“I’m always inspired by how I grew up in Maryland and the thoughts and feelings I had being around the woods, driving around the countryside in Maryland,” Portner says. “That’s how I thought of music in relation to environment and nature. But in nature and New York there’s a theme of movement, and I think there’s definitely a lot of movement in our playing. Thinking about the different places we’ve stayed, I think this helps explain why our music has sometimes been chaotic, no holds barred, but these days it’s been a bit neater.”

Indeed, compared to the frenzied electronic manipulation of the more straightforward jamming showcased on Animal Collective’s 2001 release, Danse Manatee, the blissful abstraction of Sung Tongs is downright constrained. Animal Collective influences could be equal parts the Beach Boys, Syd Barrett, Captain Beefheart, the Incredible String Band, and New Weird America, and the result—babbling vocals, delayed guitars, pivoting found sounds, tape loops, tribal drumming, and myriad more outbursts—is a rustic, ritualistic chorale of highly visual minutiae. Sung Tongs is Animal Collective’s most concise, cooing, still kaleidoscopic material, more meticulously whittled but still left reasonably open-ended.

“We realized early when we were kids that music, art expression, isn’t about starting something to do anything specific,” Deaken says. “The inspiration comes from living and not being limited to being four dudes in the same city, the same house to be in this one thing.

“There’s a personal relationship, we’re all family,” he continues, explaining what it’s like to play Sung Tongs material he wasn’t involved in writing. “You could equate it to a polygamist relationship, with complications, but in ways wonderful. And nobody gets stifled. When you play with people for long periods without changing it gets boring, frustrated, and you feel you can’t do what you want to do.”

Utilizing whatever configuration of members and instruments that can raise their hands and voices, Animal Collective crafts artisan esoterica. And with Sung Tongs the members have proven they deserve their merit badge in knot-tying loosely ended sounds, cross-pollinating the wavering, concentric patterns gleaned from Maryland’s woods with New York’s insistent lurch in lysergic-laced dioramas. It’s the shifting shadows that play the most active role, flickering and sputtering like embers in a campfire.

“Most of the time when playing things happens so fast it’s not even the sound people pick up on,” Avey says. “It’s more like feelings or brief little moments of bursts or swells where everything comes out, and when you’re playing it’s cool to mess around with that kind of stuff and see where you can take it and get the audience to go. It’s always shifting, focused and unfocused, like the eye. Except we don’t always keep an eye on it all. We’ll try to see whatever there is to see.”

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