Each year, there are a handful of artists who put out new records that blow our minds, disappoint or surprise us. In the final quarter of 2007, noise pop vanguard Animal Collective give us Strawberry Jam, their first album for Domino. Now rubbing prestigious elbows with bands such as Franz Ferdinand and Clinic, the Collective’s sound seems ready to spread itself even further than blogs and hipsters. But Animal Collective have done a much more important thing with Strawberry Jam than make a “commercial” album, or whatever: they’ve made an Animal Collective album, the next in a long line of fabulously artistic, musical statements by the band.
Coursing the Collective canon does not bring us to a new album thinking, “This will definitely sound like _______.” From the fractured electronic pulses of Danse Manatee to the freeform acoustic guitar stroking of Campfire Songs, charting a linear artistic path for these guys is problematic. However, starting with Here Comes the Indian, there could be something we could relatively recognize as an “Animal Collective sound.” Still heavy on loops and weird noises-as-percussion, the pop movements and general kid-like playfulness evoked in their sound has been increasingly evident since Indian. And here on Strawberry Jam the sound still prevails and evolves.
Storming out the gates is first single, “Peacebone.” The chaotic electronics sound autonomous from the song, and if you have not seen the group live since Feels came out, chances are this sounds like a mess. Panda Bear’s tribal stomp drumming ushers in the pulse that carries the song throughout. Though the aggressiveness of “Peacebone” is lost a little in the studio, the chorus is still something of beauty. Their songs may feel playful, but it’s the inner depth of a child’s psyche that the band can explore so beautifully at times, as in “Peacebone”: “And an obsession with the past is like a kid flying / Just a few things are related to the old times / When we did believe in magic and we didn’t die / It's not my words that you should follow, it's your insight.”
The melancholy expressed in “Fireworks,” one of the album’s excellent tracks, genuinely sounds like somebody wondering, out loud, “What's the day? What’s you doing? How’s your mood?…And I can't lift you up, my mind is tired.” This song also expresses one of the Collective’s patient traits in that they can easily ride a simple percussive thump through a six-plus minute song while meditating on very real, human mundaneness. But everybody raves about their musical endeavors, their penchant for pushing stagnant pop music forward with a tear-it-all-down-and-make-something-from-the-deconstruction tendency. And of course, they do.
On the Panda Bear-sung “Chores,” he opens the song with “If I think too fast,” stretching the “if” out for seconds before the song explodes all over the place. For those familiar with Animal Collective, the opening stretch of the first syllable might sound like somebody inhaling greatly and exhaling out a fucking galaxy; sometimes their songs are just that euphoric. The drums start pounding away by accenting the vocals and chords, while Panda’s wonderful harmonies drape over the noise. Though the song ends in a sort of quieted chanting, the preceding spastic bursts of energy are examples of the kind of uninhibited energy that a lot of self-conscious bands would steer clear of for fear of sounding sloppy. Further evidence is “Cuckoo Cuckoo,” a drilling number that thrashes hard and mixes up very heavy pounding with discordant grind; all this with messy cooing and a light piano line covering the whole mess.
Things have been pushed forward once again. The only thing close to being a miss on here is the Yes-like keyboard looped “#1,” which sounds like smoking weed at space camp. Even this track, which is basically a looping keyboard line with weird lazer noises and wordless melodies, holds some interest and is -- if anything -- a little break between other brilliances. Animal Collective tap into something very fundamentally appealing in music, and it probably falls somewhere between the very childlike approach to melody, instrumentation, experimentation, etc. Strawberry Jam comes out of the box highly recommended for its excitement it brings for music in general, and for Animal Collective’s unparalleled musical vision.