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Color me incorrect. Last December, in this paper’s 2004 Arts in Review feature, I wrote that Brooklyn-and-D.C.-based quartet Animal Collective was the “cream of the hipster-folk revival”—a granola-munching clique that includes critic faves Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom, plus a gaggle of others who see nothing wrong with one more version of “House Carpenter.” The recording that inspired said praise, 2004’s Sung Tongs, is, indeed, a disc that deserves to be filed between the Albion Band and Joan Baez. Tongs’ unplugged songs boast campfire-simple melodies and vocals that, though fun-house-surrealistic, are pleasantly sung. And this past spring’s Prospect Hummer EP, a rather short, rather apropos collaboration with Brit folkie Vashti Bunyan, is even more gentle and approachable.
A year and a few months after its release, Tongs still holds up as the finest of 2004’s back-to-the-garden efforts. But as evidenced by its new full-length, the electrified and unmistakably rock Feels, Animal Collective is simply too restless to be lumped in with the folk-revivalists. Yelp out “Judas!” if you must; Feels’ Con Edison–friendliness—or, depending on where the group rehearses, PEPCO-friendliness—will come as no surprise to those who have followed the story since band members Avey Tare and Panda Bear first recorded with Geologist and Deaken, the fruits of which effort appear on 2003’s effects-laden Here Comes the Indian.
That album is, simply put, a messy but endearing slab of outsider rock, one that reveals a fair amount of paisley in the quartet’s otherwise turbid DNA. For those who haven’t heard it: If band-run label Paw Track’s PR references to psych obscurities Amon Düül II and Sun City Girls fail to conjure anything, then just try to imagine the Grateful Dead about midway through the most otherworldly—not to mention least muso—version of “Dark Star” that it never performed (see: Dick’s Picks, Vol. 2,001: Moon Base Fillmore, 4/1/69).
Feels, though similarly amped up, is less a retreat back to Animal Collective’s debut than an attempt to split the difference between Indian’s wantonness and Tongs’ emphasis on songwriting. At times, the band is quite successful. Debut single “Grass,” a hootenanny that suggests Lee Perry remixing T. Rex (chorus: “Pow!/Whoo-hoo”), is both bathed in a warm psychedelic glow and every bit as catchy as Tongs’ only single, “Who Could Win a Rabbit.” Album opener “Did You See the Words,” a track full of swirling stringed instruments, pierces producer Scott Colburn’s miasma of effects with clippity-clop percussion and a “doo dee doo dee doo” falsetto. And surprisingly sweet love song “The Purple Bottle,” which includes standout lyric “Sometimes I’m naked/And, thank God, sometimes you’re naked,” pairs Dylan-fast vocal hooks with an amethyst haze of electric guitars, achieving pop liftoff in spite of foggy conditions.
The thing is, for every great ditty on Feels—and there are a few—the nine-song, nearly hourlong album holds just as many cuts that won’t be making it onto too many iPods this fall. Several overpsyched tunes get buried beneath the everything-all-at-once production (murky folk-rockers “Flesh Canoe” and “Turn Into Something” ). A few tracks are barely even songlike to begin with (minimalist guitar-and-indecipherable-vox exercises “Daffy Duck” and “Loch Raven”). And one number exhumes Carter Family autoharpist Sara and sustains her with bong hits from a honey bear (the wasted and lugubrious “Bees”)—which is not a good idea.
None of these lesser tracks would suffer from the stripped-down Tongs treatment. And the strongest songs on the flawed but worthwhile Feels would work in just about any context. Yet it’s hard to fault the band for branching out at the peak of the hipster-folk revival. Whatever produced this resurgence—whether it’s the war in Iraq, the conservative political environs, or plain ol’ nostalgia—is unlikely to last too much longer. Or at least not long enough for a whole career. And Animal Collective has demonstrated that it’s either lithe or impatient enough to avoid that trap. Still, good career moves are less useful than good songs, and a band that can’t keep still isn’t always the same thing as one moving forward.
Animal Collective collaborator Bunyan also has a new album out, her second, which, given the singer-guitarist’s sparse biography, is unexpected if not indeed a small miracle. Originally groomed for Marianne Faithfull–style pop success, Bunyan signed to Decca in 1965 and recorded a single that went nowhere, as well as several sessions that simply gathered dust in the vaults. Deciding that the hit parade was the wrong route, Bunyan retreated from London to live what she calls a “sixties dream,” piloting a horse-drawn cart up to Scotland’s Hebrides islands, where pal Donovan was attempting to establish an artists’ colony. Bunyan was, however, lured back briefly at the end of the decade—long enough to record a commercially unsuccessful album, 1970 folk treasure Just Another Diamond Day—before she disappeared once again into the wilds of Scotland, falling off the radar entirely.
This, of course, is the type of unfinished tale that makes hard-core folk enthusiasts drool. During the ’60s revival, Bunyan’s narrative probably would’ve resumed with some 78-collecting boho type tracking the singer down and coaxing her back onto the stage and into the studio. Except, in this case, the lost artist rediscovered herself. Bunyan, who now lives in Edinburgh, says she gained access to the Internet in the late ’90s and, after Googling her own name, realized that Diamond not only is far from forgotten but also sometimes fetches hundreds, even thousands, of dollars online. A Bunyan-directed 2000 reissue of the album led to widespread praise and, naturally, a bevy of young suitors.
Several of these newbies from the folk-obsessed underground, such as Prince Banhart and Princess Newsom, contribute to the new Lookaftering. Trends be damned, though, the reappearance of Diamond, which features support from members of Fairport Convention and the Incredible String Band, would’ve been welcomed in any era, and only an agist or a folk hater would deny that Lookaftering is a worthy successor. Actually, were it not for the increased raggedness of Bunyan’s voice—all that sitting by the lantern, watching as the years turned—Lookaftering could pass for a recently unearthed Diamond-vintage follow-up.
Like Diamond, an album on which the cameos never outshine the star, the youngster-laden Lookaftering foregrounds Bunyan’s own singing and fingerpicking. The latter is dulcet and solid, lovely and melodically inventive. True, the former has taken on a Nico-esque edge in the intervening decades. But despite the relative wear and tear, Bunyan’s vocal delivery is as delicate and whisperlike as always, almost cautious. Even when Bunyan sings lyrics that are more happy than sad (“Here Before”), she sounds as if she might be on the verge of tears.
The biggest difference, it turns out, between Diamond and Lookaftering is the subject matter, not the performances. Typical of Diamond’s optimism is the middle stanza of its “Glow Worms”: “Whisper fairy stories ’til they’re real/Wonder how the night can make us feel/Loving living more with love to stay/Long past sadness that was in our way.” Lookaftering, on the other hand, finds the older record’s hippiedom stormed by reality. Album opener “Lately” pleads to the heavens to keep a loved one “safe from harm.” “Brother” ventures back to the old “red brick house and all the trees” to deal with a sibling’s death. And “Hidden,” perhaps the most heartbreaking song on the record, surrenders to a relationship that allows for none of the old magic: “Stars and moons are not your style/I’ve known for a while this is not your way.”
Only the disc-closing “Wayward Hum,” a wordless vocal-and-guitar warm-up recorded without Bunyan’s knowledge, reclaims the simple innocence of the first album. The track is a slight, almost ignorable piece of music, but its inclusion makes perfect sense. It is the Bunyan that Diamond fans always imagined they might find in an offstage moment: lost in an epiphany, lost in the notes—not singing for the mikes or for anyone but herself. “Hum” is the dawn chorus on the road to the Hebrides, the reflex of a woman who needs no trends or movements to do what it is she does. At the end of all this weird darkness, it’s four-and-a-half minutes of the ’60s dream gone right. CP