Psych-pop heavyweights create another idiosyncratic canvas
by Jericho Cerrona
If album titles are any indication, then the latest madcap creation from everyone's favorite (or divisive) psych-pop makers Animal Collective is more than simply a coy joke. Painting With, above all else, is an embrace of slapdash splatter art; a cacophonous mix of techno-babble, hallucinogenic sounds, fractured melodies, and digital overload. In some ways, we should have been prepared for this. Their last record, 2012's abrasively brilliant Centipede Hz, was for many the absolute nadir of their artistic input; alienating all the hipster bandwagon jumpers whose knees buckled at the reverb-drenched gorgeousness of 2009's Merriweather Post Pavilion. Painting With takes the divisive elements of Centipede Hz and streamlines them a bit in terms of scope, choosing to focus less on psychedelic sprawl and more on dense layering of sounds to the point of implosion.
Always the outsider pop band, Animal Collective show no signs of returning to the freak-folk days of early work like Feels (2005), or the Beach Boys-esque warm accessibility of Merriweather. Instead, Centipede Hz was a turning point; an extreme left turn which left many fans and critics cold, and this trajectory continues here with probably one of least emotionally affecting records the band has recorded yet. Still, emotional connection rarely figures into Animal Collective's aesthetic, anyways. Noah Lennox (aka Panda Bear), David Portner (aka Avey Tare), and Brian Weitz (aka Geologist) have been at this for well over 15 years now, and are at this point well aware that expectations are bullshit. Incidentily, the fourth member, Josh Dibb (aka Deakin), sat this one out. With no one left to impress and a decidedly mixed reaction to their last opus, Animal Collective are free to indulge (or rather, become more self-indulgent) by making something that will likely have even the most ardent fans miffed. It's an album, like all of their work, which improves upon multiple listens, and of course, works immensely much better through headphones.
What one notices right away on Painting With is the lack of reverb and overall "big" sound that's categorized the band's discography over the past decade. It seems, at least superficially, that Animal Collective are going for more verse/chorus/verse structure here rather than sprawling everything out. Additionally, unlike Centipede Hz, where Portner took most of the vocal duties with his yelped delivery, Lennox gets more airtime this time and the two offer up a variety of interesting counter-melodies. The results are both hypnotic and frustrating; a series of carefully calibrated songs arranged with such precision that there isn't a sonic nugget which hasn't been modulated or fussed over, but which also can become muddled through sheer overproduction. At it's best, the album creates a disorienting sense of pop music funneled through a robotics factory. At it's worst, it tries to par down it's vision into a concise 40 minutes, which means the band are literally trying to cram every musical idea they can into a shorter span of time, which can come across undisciplined. Still, it's tough to complain too much when tracks like lead single "FloriDada", with it's bouncy vocals and propulsive rhythm, and standout "Golden Gal", which samples a Golden Girls audio clip and then goes into a wobbly jam with some gender-bending lyrics, are so winning.
Elsewhere, the band get into frenetic 16-bit Saturday morning cartoon craziness on "The Burglars", hand-clapping and wandering saxophone courtesy of Colin Stetson on "Lying in the Grass", and some deranged vocal intonations from John Cale on the woozy "Hocus Pocus". As a whole, the record is a mishmash of colliding textures, blipping beeps, swirling keyboard washes, and mantra-like vocals which at first sounds disjointed, but eventually comes into focus as a more cohesive piece of pop art. At times, Painting With sounds like something chip-tunes connoisseur Dan Deacon would come up with on a bender, but there's also a beguiling sweetness lurking under all the modular synths and zing-zagging percussion, especially with "On Delay", which achieves a rare sense of wonder lacking from many of the more hectic tracks.
In some senses, Animal Collective may have modulated their approach here based on the reactions to Centipede Hz, many of which were vitriolic. For a band accustom to critical acclaim, the impression was that ego and self-indulgence had overwhelmed the kind of memorable songwriting which made them break out of the underground in the first place. This, however, is a misjudged reaction, since whatever flaws existed in that last album simply stemmed from being too ambitious, which is nothing to sneer at. In a way, Painting With could have the effect of drawing the fans back into the fold, although it's a record just as confrontational as Centipede Hz, only more accessible by virtue of the band reigning in all the tangential diversions. The splatter-art moniker of the album's title may have more to do with living in an ADD-imbued world where connectivity relates to social media clicks and preening Instagram selfies rather than any particular musical narrative. In their own idiosyncratic way, Animal Collective have made another album which reflects our current pop-political-digital moment; frantic, urgently moving forward, chock full of sound bites which will be consumed and then re-posted.