Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Look Both Ways #1: Animal Sounds

When I listen to the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, I often imagine all five members passing smiles to one another in the studio, feeding off a collective vibe as they sing into their microphones. Usually, I sing along. When I listen to Animal Collective, I get sucked even deeper into the musical process. I often find myself adding something to their explosive, communal music--perhaps I’ll sing a rhythmic “dah dum” on every downbeat, or maybe add a harmony line.

On Pet Sounds, the Beach Boys’ famous vocal harmonies comprise only a fraction of what makes this music feel so bright and inviting. And if there is one band today that builds on the Beach Boys’ collaborative rubric, breaks down another wall, launches their musical pastiche into another universe, it’s Animal Collective.

Nowadays, a huge number of largely unknown bands are building in exciting ways on the best of classic rock, folk, soul and ’60s pop. I’ve decided to write one post each week that sheds new light on a recent album by comparing it to what I see as its parent, of sorts, from years ago. (The posts will normally come out on Tuesdays.) This week, I’ll line up Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion, released on vinyl Jan. 6 and CD last week, with 1966's Pet Sounds, an album that many critics consider history’s greatest.

“I really want to do, just what my body wants to,” Animal Collective member Panda Bear sings on the swelling and exploding “Guys Eyes.” Panda’s vocals here immediately recall those of Beach Boys frontman Brian Wilson: He takes one strong melodic phrase, belted in stretched-out vowel sounds, and builds above and around it with harmonies and background vocals centered on counterpoint.

“You Still Believe in Me” is Pet Soundsclosest analog to “Guys Eyes,” musically and lyrically. Wilson sings a repetitious melody that climbs up then dips down, and the Boys cap it with a chorus harmony so rich it’s hard to find an overarching melody.

The orchestral sounds of “Believe” (and of other Pet Sounds gems like “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “God Only Knows”) are distinctly baroque. Harpsichords and chimes and horns swim around each other in a goopy warmth. “Guys Eyes” and the rest of Merriweather also give the feeling of an immense ensemble, but this is a wilder one. Continuing to move away from their earlier work as freak folkies, Animal Collective have essentially made an electro-pop album, with high and hooky vocals backed by synthetic bass drums, whirly organs and indescribable sounds (how’s that one for a music writer’s cop-out?).

On "Believe" and "Guys Eyes," respectively, Wilson and Panda demonstrate knacks for refreshing self-critique as they beat themselves up over questions of fidelity. Wilson sings, “I try hard to be strong, but sometimes I fail myself.” Panda goes deeper inside his own head: “I want to do just what my body needs to / If I could just hold all the thoughts in my head and just keep them for you / I want to show to my girl that I need her / If I could just purge all the urges that I have and keep them for you."

Some friends who have no patience for Animal Collective tell me that the group’s music sounds like a broken record. There’s some merit to their complaint. For an entire minute on “Brothersport,” Merriweather’s magnificent closer, we hear an overwhelming repetition of what sounds like an out-of-whack organ; a distant synthesizer; and a police siren, brought to life and pissed off. But why not have some fun? Play Brian Wilson for a day and seize on these relentless phrases to add your own harmony to the mix. Now you’re instantaneously a part of the Collective, and you understand how beautifully the line can be blurred between observing art and participating.

  • Click here to see Merriweather's first music video, a trippy, goopy clip for "My Girls." A higher-quality version is streaming from their Web site,, but that may change soon. Sure sounds like the Beach Boys. Looks . . . totally different.
A version of this piece first appeared as a column in the Jan. 26 issue of the Tufts Daily.

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