“Never trust a hippie” was one of punk rock’s first mottoes, but it didn’t take long for many of its Pink Floyd–
hating vanguard to reconsider. Faced with becoming formulaic, reactionary, or (shudder) mainstream, plenty of early adopters turned to dub, jazz, and krautrock—pot-smokers’ musics, every one. The historical imperatives of 1979 are long gone, of course, but much the same thing is happening again—in fact, at least a dozen post-hardcore bands have recently been labeled “prog,” a term usually associated with the likes of Yes and Genesis.
Yet that side of prog, which yielded concept albums and rock arrangements of orchestral standards, is not the most pertinent to such free-form groups as Washington’s Black Eyes and New York’s Animal Collective. They are closer in spirit to the hippie-prog tradition, which blesses meandering structures, tribal thumping and chanting, childlike self-absorption, and general earthiness. It wasn’t the Moody Blues, after all, that inspired the Slits to smear themselves with mud or the Pop Group to put New Guinea tribesmen in ceremonial gear on the cover of its debut album. And it’s no accident that the Pop Group disc shared a label with the 1978 reissue of The Parable of Arable Land by the Red Crayola, the debut of an improv-friendly LSD-era ensemble that was later reborn as a left-field postpunk act.
One of first-wave punk’s weapons against hippiedom’s we-are-the-primal-world-ism was emphatic local color: Punk rockers drove Route 128, hung out at 53rd & 3rd, and nearly got raped in Ladbroke Grove. Presplit, none of the five Black Eyes (including Washington City Paper employee Mike Kanin) lived farther away from D.C. than Silver Spring, and Animal Collective is part of the Brooklyn rock Renaissance, albeit with some sort of Maryland connection. (At least two of its albums were recorded in Parkton, a tiny town in northern Baltimore County.) Both Black Eyes’ posthumous Cough and Animal Collective’s Sung Tongs, however, emanate from god knows where. (Or, rather, God knows where.)
Cough’s “False Positive” does refer to the 17th Street of “kissing clones”—I know where that is—but most of the album’s terrain would confound a Mapquest search. Indeed, the album draws the occasional oracular lyric from a work so universal that it’s known simply as the Book: Principal vocalists Hugh McElroy (the shouter) and Daniel Martin-McCormick (the screamer) lift lines, with attribution, from
the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, as well as from The Song of Songs. (Some of the last is even rendered in Yiddish.)
If Cough, Black Eyes’ second long-player, is Bible-freaked music, the emphasis is on the “freaked.” When not blurting or rambling, the band is as thorny as on its first album, last year’s Black Eyes. That record’s up-front, multidrummer rhythm section, use of guitar as coloration, and shouted, contrapuntal vocals recalled punk-funk fountainhead Gang of Four (and early Fugazi, of course). This time, though, the structures are looser and generally less driving, the guitar has been largely supplanted by saxophone, and glossolalia is both a technique and a theme: “Foreign tongues speak to ghosts is act of generation/Speaking tongues is our separation,” culminates McElroy’s frenzied statement of frenzy in “Another Country.”
Traditionally, loud rock ’n’ roll is tightly structured music that climaxes with some sort of outburst—after all, you don’t set the piano on fire during the first number. But on Cough, the big moments are the ones when everything comes together, however fleetingly. Amid the brutal free-jazz/rock breakdowns, the ear awaits moments of reassuring coherence: the locomotive bass line that enters “Cough, Cough/Eternal Life” after a section of ambient drone, burble, and clatter; “False Positive”’s quick-start attack and the single-word shoutalongs that follow; the unexpectedly clicked-into-focus chant that concludes “Holy of Holies”; the “na na na” vocal bridge of “Spring Into Winter,” which sounds like a half-remembered snippet of a bubble-gum hit.
That last song includes a reference to a man whose music could hardly be less akin to Black Eyes’: Brian Wilson. At his most melancholy, the Beach Boys mastermind may have been as cheerless as McElroy and Martin-McCormick, but “In My Room”’s adolescent isolation doesn’t exactly rival such “Spring Into Winter” pronouncements as “I don’t feel I know my own face anymore/I don’t think I can trust my own face.”
Coincidentally, Wilson is often invoked in reviews of Animal Collective, and Sung Tongs includes a brief number, “College,” that arrays strangled Beach Boys–like harmonies atop a bed of crackling noise. The Collective’s music is sweeter and less assaultive than the Eyes’, but the two groups have more in common with each other than with Pet Sounds—and not just because both are inclined to yelp their own barks and meows rather than record the family pets.
Sung Tongs could be described as Animal Collective’s pop move, but that doesn’t mean it resembles the work of a craftsman like Wilson. Most of its tracks include the ingredients of mainstream pop—airy melodies, strummy acoustic guitars, tuneful chorales—but they never coalesce into something that qualifies as a pop song.
With its naive artwork, hand-lettered credits, and titles along the lines of “Who Could Win a Rabbit,” Animal Collective clearly represents the day-care-center wing of hippie prog. Yet the band members, who call themselves Avey Tare and Panda Bear, once indulged in synth bleats, percussive tirades, and guttural screams—and they haven’t entirely renounced them. Such pounding and polyrhythmic Tongs songs as “We Tigers” and “Leaf House” suggest the Boredoms, another band that moved from disorderly outbursts to cryptoritualistic world beat rooted in no particular custom.
The central fallacy of hippie prog has always been that you can capture thunderbolts in a bottle. Both Cough and Sung Tongs sound as
if they’ve been overdubbed—the latter more extensively—yet each aspires to spontaneity. They seek that sacred moment of unrepeatable inspiration that’s more precious for being lost forever (but can still be preserved on CD). Much of the time, however, they don’t find it. In their quest for random epiphanies, both albums unleash a curiously formulaic sort of chaos; almost any given 30 seconds fully encapsulates the entire disc.
Give Animal Collective credit for melody, harmony, and groove; give Black Eyes more for conserving some punk virtues, including passion, vigor, and economy. (Not for them uneventful 12-minute vamps such as Sung Tongs’ “Visiting Friends.”) Still, as art-rock cycles reiterate themselves in what now seems an endless loop, exploration is no longer an end in itself. If you’re going to go out there, you’ve got to bring something back. CP