Animal Collective has always been a crowd skewing band. That isn’t to say the Baltimore trio haven’t developed a devout following over the years–but if you’ve ever played, say, Strawberry Jam, for a friend who’s never heard it before, their reaction ranges from giddy enthusiasm to cringing terror. That’s because, while there are a lot of bands that effuse the notion of experimentalism, Animal Collective doesn’t just talk the talk; they walk that groovy, psychedelic, freak folk walk as well. But even the long listed footnote of genres that they eagerly dip into isn’t enough to adequately describe the grossly underrated compositions of the band’s extensive discography–their audacious use of unique instrumentation and cacophonously rhythmic productions has earned their work comparisons to horror film soundtracks (not by accident either).
Yet, while 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion may have been their most pop album to date, it had fallen upon the shoulders of this year’s Painting With to usurp that title–and with the reunion of David Portner (Avery Tare), Noah Lennox (Panda Bear), and Brian Weitz (Geologist), usurp it has. Self-described by Weitz as their “Ramones album,” the entire LP is a momentously brief exertion of brash energy that clocks in barely above forty-one minutes. Unlike Merriweather, Animal Collective’s tenth studio release is absent of many of their timeless idiosyncrasies that fans have come to expect; from the gentle ambient crescendos that escalated into nothingness, to the dousing of reverb that their droning tones always received.
Right from the get-go, Painting With hits the gas and propels you through a dizzying array of unrecognizable warbles, primal percussion, and layered vocalizations on the sublime intro track “ForiDada.” Rarely slowing-down, even the spotty transmissions in “Hocus Pocus” are kept afloat by shimmering synthesizers, while the buzzing, decrescendo hum of a haunting string in the background features the appearance of The Velvet Underground’s own John Cale. Out of that fade emerges the repetitive intonations of “Vertical,” a head-bobbing arrangement of existential wails that bounces forward on the band’s quirky percussiveness. Eventually, it becomes impossible to discern between Portner’s and Lennox’s yelps, but any attempt to understand the warped congeniality of Painting With’s sonically kaleidoscopic nature is a futile one.
From its psychedelically mind-boggling moments in “Lying in the Grass,” fraught with overwhelmingly bewildering percussion notes and eerie instrumentation, to the insanely nimble-lipped, overlapping vocalizations and whining synth twittering of “The Burglars”; every second is injected with a galvanized ecstasy. As you push through the middle of Painting With, where the songs clock just under three minutes in length, the rapidness of Animal Collective’s transitions between one funky bass line to another is enough to leave you breathless–but the saturated groove of “Bagels in Kiev” is a definite highlight halfway through the album. About as slow as Animal Collective seems willing to go, the track alternates between Portner/Lennox’s briskly addictive lyricisms (You’ll be humming “I wasn’t there when Moses parted the sea, I wasn’t there with your grandpa back in Kiev,” for weeks) and suave string undertones.
The latter half of Painting With, while at times resembling a 90’s video-game soundtrack with its synthetic hums and glittering blips and beeps of stumbling vocals (“Spilling Guts”), distorts the lines between pop and jumbled electronica entirely. As you dive further down the rabbit hole, songs like “Summing the Wretch” continue the album’s unwavering concern with mildly-unintelligible, but sumptuously rhythmic krautrock-echoes–even here the ambient moments are long and far between. It isn’t until the merry acoustics of “Golden Gal” (which opens with a sample from the beloved sitcom Golden Girls) that the existence of samples on Painting With seems woefully lacking–but the momentary presence of Bea Arthur’s character Dorothy Zbornak is enough to earn our forgiveness. It’s also the most coherent song on the album, its rhythmic fumbling between harmonized vocalizations and subdued synths offering up a refreshing 80’s stylized pop piece.
The album ends fittingly enough without any fanfare or strained grasps at something ethereal; instead, the trio completes the album with “Recycle,” filled with the circular humdrum of dreamy synth warbles and their sleepy trills. It’s a finale that’ll sooner put you to sleep than get you moving, but seeing as how Painting With leaves you feeling like you’ve just snorted twenty Splenda sugar packets and pumped full of adrenaline, the last thing you need is a song to keep you on your high. Undoubtedly, like many of Animal Collective’s albums, Painting With requires multiple listens to even begin to make sense of it. In the right atmosphere, the album’s bold heedlessness for conventional rhythmics and exaggerated agility has resulted in a rich bonanza of otherworldly sounds and colors that are as alarmingly perplexing as the sci-fi and horror films the band borrowed the instruments to make them from.
Words: Steven Ward