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If you’re not into Animal Collective’s whole singsong, electro-hippie thing, the first two-and-a-half minutes of Merriweather Post Pavilion won’t seem to hold much promise. The album’s opening statement, “In the Flowers,” slowly emerges from a sea of audio ooze: Vocals wiggle, guitars squirm, and it seems as if the whole song is on the verge of collapsing like a shoddy Jell-O mold.
But then the track’s big electronic drums come in and the vibe shifts from blubber to banger, making up for the wobbly start. That percussive onslaught is what will ultimately change your mind about Animal Collective’s latest album and the band itself.
It’s not that Animal Collective has never managed a sturdy backbeat before. The trio—currently split between New York City, Washington, D.C., and Lisbon, Portugal—has long made use of spastic tribal pounding and even, at times, elements of electronic dance music.
This is something else entirely, though: Merriweather Post Pavilion is full of huge, tumbling, club-worthy beats that propel the serotonin-soaked vocals of singers David “Avey Tare” Portner and Noah “Panda Bear” Lennox into the atmosphere. Unlike the band’s previous records, where songs jerked back and forth between droning lullabies and rough savagery, this album grooves.
More than any of Animal Collective’s previous works, Merriweather Post Pavilion commits to being a pop record. There are hooks, both melodic and rhythmic. There are big choruses and lyrics that you can actually remember. And it’s all wrapped in gorgeous sheets of psychedelic noise.
Animal Collective’s shift from blog band to the pop excellence of Merriweather Post Pavilion began in 2007, with Strawberry Jam and Panda Bear’s solo album Person Pitch. Both albums moved away from the decidedly acoustic, albeit sometimes overly effected and noisy, sound cultivated by members Avey Tare, Panda Bear, Brian “Geologist” Weitz, and Josh “Deakin” Dibb (who is absent from Merriweather).
After Animal Collective’s 2005 LP Feels, Lennox moved to Lisbon and started writing songs using a Boss SP-303 sampler; he’d left most of his old musical equipment in the States. Using the sampler, he developed a set of compositions that married the group’s layered vocals to repetitive and abstract, but heavily rhythmic, backing tracks.
When it came time for the band to reconvene for what was to be its seventh album, Strawberry Jam, the group shifted its writing process to accommodate Lennox’s new gear. Animal Collective moved into decidedly edgy and futuristic territory and away from the influence of late-’60s English folk revival (evident on Feels and 2004’s Sung Tongs) that allowed them to be lazily lumped in with airy-fairy freak-folk acts like Devendra Banhart.
Merriweather Post Pavilion pushes the band even further away from their original sound. If Strawberry Jam found Animal Collective merely playing around with samplers and uncertain of the technology, they’ve gone the route of the Bomb Squad on their latest effort.
Programmed beats and electronic sounds dominate the record and, by and large, they’re expertly used. The album also finds the loop-driven songwriting style that Lennox developed on Person Pitch refined and perfected. “My Girls,” with its throbbing, low-end synthesizer, plays like Einstein on the Beach Boys. “I don’t mean to seem like I care about material things/I just want four walls and adobe slats for my girls,” sing Lennox and Portner, their vocals bouncing across Animal Collective’s first serious bass line.
The fundamental elements of the group’s sound are still intact. Vocal harmonies and squishy electronic noises continue to rule, with drum machines and synthesizers dropping into the roles that guitars and organic drum kits once played. But the machines allow the band a level of sophistication and compositional complexity that they might not have had access to when they had to, you know, play all of the instruments themselves. The vibrant Brazilian rhythms on “Brother Sport” supplant the four-on-the-floor tapping of yesteryear. “Guys Eyes” evolves from a hooky verse into a zoned-out tribal breakdown only to suddenly slam on the brakes and shift back into a chorus of intricately layered melodies. While technology plays a major role in Merriweather Post Pavilion’s brilliance, the disc succeeds, in part, because the members of Animal Collective have become better songwriters. Lyrically, the band still seems to write about only two things—stoner thoughts (Feels’ “Grass”) and the mundane daily tasks that must be accomplished between thinking stoner thoughts (Strawberry Jam’s “Chores”, MPP’s “Daily Routine”). Yet, despite not showing much thematic maturity, “My Girls” and “Also Frightened” are the source of some of the band’s most focused and memorable melodies. Portner, in particular, seems to have entirely rethought his approach to singing—he ditches the grating screams and cartoon voices that used to pepper his songs. Instead, compositions such as “Summertime Clothes” and “Bluish,” with their McCartney-esque ’70s soft rock sensibility, sound more traditional.
Although a variety of factors work to make Merriweather Post Pavilion great, in the end, it is the big rhythms that are really pushing Animal Collective forward. They are what keep ballads like “No More Running” from evaporating into the ether and prevent the jaw-harp-powered “Lion in a Coma” from becoming background music for an Animal Planet documentary. The rave-worthy breakdown on album closer “Brother Sport” makes drum circles sound relevant in a way that must have jam bands with their sights set on Bonnaroo tearing out their dreadlocks in frustration. “Guys Eyes” is such a stew of druggie innovations that it could pass muster at a Timothy Leary crash pad, a Steve Reich concert, or a Balearic hot spot.
Those beats are what announce that Merriweather Post Pavilion, named for a Maryland mega-concert amphitheater, is ready for the arena.