Noise group Animal Collective went from critics' darlings to cult scapegoats. What happened?
I think accessible is the worst word that people can use to describe our music,” laments Animal Collective guitarist Dave “Avey Tare” Porter. “We would never go into a studio and think, Let’s make an accessible record!”
That dreaded descriptor is one of several epithets that have been directed at the experimental act in reaction to its latest album, Feels (Fat Cat). When any band challenges pop and rock tradition, it’s expected that it will have some detractors, but what has been surprising about some of the static Animal Collective has been receiving recently is its source. Many people who are supposed to dig this, the same folks who made 2004’s Sung Tongs the unofficial hippest record of that year, are drinking Haterade this time out. Rumblings from a number of the biggest local Animal Collective fans we know have labeled this album as too popish, while an over-the-top, scathing review by one of our colleagues in another fine weekly publication accused it of the opposite, calling the songs hookless, boring, and comparable to the music one hears while getting a New Age massage. Even a rave review on the locally based Pitchforkmedia.com did no favors to the band when it conceded that Animal Collective now sounds like a traditional “indie-rock band.” This all leads to the scarlet letter of the A word.
“Accessible is what you’ll see on the little card at Tower Records or something,” offers keyboardist Brian Weitz. “That’s not making a comment on the music—that’s making a comment on how well it can sell, and that’s why that’s offensive. We didn’t set out with a goal to make this our most easy-to-digest record, but I guess if everybody feels that way then it is.”
After a pause, the Artist Also Known as Geologist adds, “I guess we just have some fans that don’t like easily digestible things.”
It has always surprised us how much crossover there seems to be (in Chicago at least) between audiences of the genuinely discordant noise scene and the generally pleasant-sounding underground psych/folk scene, in which Animal Collective seems to fall. Certainly both of these genres value unpredictability and devalue traditional song structures—but they sure sound different. Over the course of the last five years the members of Animal Collective (with various configurations of members) have put out an armful of excellent albums, none of which sounds particularly like the one that preceded it. Yet even at its most out-there (perhaps “Hey Light” on 2003’s Here Comes the Indian (Paw Tracks), to our ears the band has never done anything that didn’t seem kind of pretty, with more nods to the Beach Boys and Zamfir, the master of pan flute, than to Metal Machine Music and Wolf Eyes. It’s not odd that devotees of difficult music would react negatively to Feels songs like the danceable “Grass” or the almost ethereal “Bees.” What is odd is that these folks dug this band so much in the first place.
Even fair-weather fans put off by the production values and songwriting of Feels should make a point of catching the band live this week. In the best psychedelic tradition, the atmosphere created by Animal Collective in concert is intoxicating and seductive. Though the group’s songs are not as improvisational as they seem, onstage even the familiar numbers seem new and alive, evoking different moods and energy than their recorded versions. The band also creates new sounds between songs, making its show seem more like one long cohesive composition than a traditional set. It all combines in a way that leads to one appellation some detractors attach to the band—one that, shockingly, does not offend Animal Collective.
“If people are like, ‘You’re a jam band,’ that’s fine,” says Weitz with a shrug. “We grew up listening to the Grateful Dead and seeing them play live. But, I mean, we can’t play guitar solos; none of us have that kind of musical capability. So to us, jamming is something totally different.”
“But,” the keyboardist adds, excluding one aquatic genus from this collective of animals. “We are not Phish.”
Animal Collective plays two shows at Logan Square Auditorium Saturday 25.