2004, 02-01 Animal Collective and The Arcade Fire

Animal Collective
The Arcade Fire
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Animal Collective: Sung Tongs

Here we are, at the top two albums of 2004. So don't take it too seriously if I seem a bit - underwhelmed. At number two, we have the Animal Collective, a band who seems to get a lot of its cred simply by being totally weird, man. The question I have when I listen to Animal Collective is basically, "what are these people on??" And not at all because they are weird - it's actually less trouble to be weird without drugs in my opinion. No, I ask this because on the Animal Collective - on the majority of their songs, at least - have an incredible amount of energy and pure focus into their music that they need to be taking some kind of mixture of Paxil and Red Bull. Animal Collective is a acoustic guitar/voice-as-instrument/miscellaneous band that plays schizophrenic tunes mixed up with a folk/jungle style that I'm told is reminiscient of XTC. Occasionally, you're also able to hear Kid A-inspired effects in their music.

The highs on this album are spectacular. The first track, "Leaf House" starts with a building melody based on vocals and acoustic guitar, culminating in a verse with background harmonies that work more as another instrument than vocals, and are so insistant that it reminds me of Les Savy Fav for some reason. The song chugs along, moving into a kind of chorus and ending on the climax of the song, followed by a particularly well-placed sample of a girl playing with "kitties." "Who Could Win A Rabbit" is just on the too-fast side of being a bizarre drinking song, and has some ferociously overcompressed acoustic guitar, excellently recorded handclaps (all handclaps on the album are amazing), and in another moment of amazing attention to detail, the singers' breath in the middle of a long passage is amplified and distorted.

The most surprising (and best) track, "Sweet Road", starts with a basic classical guitar playing a fast "look what I learned in guitar lessons" lick accompanied by calypso castenets, but it builds, joined by a choir out of nowhere that jumps in at just the right times with utterances and handclaps until it reaches its peak at one minute and goes right back to the beginning part and promptly ends. It's like those old folk songs that got faster and faster, except this does it without changing tempo and in just one minute. The other short track on the album completely encapsulates Kanye West's entire College Dropout album in only 53 seconds, with a surreal David Lynch style vocal line: "You don't have to go to college." Some might say this version is more poignant, brevity and wit and all that. The sound is so surreal, it almost seems subconscious. Maybe it works even better, and it'll hit the kid who needs to hear it like a fever dream.

But the lows are so low. At their very worst they are boring pieces that are way too long and sound like some kids just got ProTools and can't stop playing with the stupid plugins. Earlier I said that ProTools is the devil, and this is why: some people who would be making perfectly good music are now screwing their music up with too many overdubs or too many plugins. "The Softest Voice" and "Visiting Friends" take up about 18 minutes together and sound like an acoustic guitar loop covered in crazy sounding noise and plain, uninteresting vocals. "The Softest Voice" is especially annoying because it comes right on the heels of "Who Could Win A Rabbit" and is really a major buzzkill. Instead of being treated to more excellence, we get a mediocre attempt at being "pretty." Other parts are just not nearly as good as the rest. "Mouth Wooed Her" manages to capture the essence of a small pouting child. Also I should note that the singer's voice takes some getting used to when he does the arpeggios that characterize this album, because they aren't done quite so well. But if you get used to it, it's endearing, not grating.

So what to do with an album with such different personalities? Not put it at number 2, I think. That said, so many of the songs on here are better than the other music on the top 50. If you took just the good songs, Animal Collective is better than Fiery Furnaces, better than Espers, or any other comparable band on the list. So, in reality, I'd say you should buy the album and then burn the best tracks onto a CD and listen to that, which I suppose really adds up to a Burn+, much like the Iron and Wine CD.

The Animal Collective are favorites of mine. This is the album that got them mainstream attention for the first time, because you can actually listen to it all the way through without being assaulted by eardrum-piercing synth noise, and Avey Tare's trademark SCREAM is entirely absent. Remaining, though, is the AC squelch, a particular kind of moist frothy bubbling which pops up here and there to let you know instantly that you're dealing with people who are slightly...off. Their penchant for alternating manic, propulsive numbers with songs that drift and drone by for six or twelve minutes is very much in evidence, as well, which means that this album takes a certain amount of patience and poise to get through. I think it's worth it.

Although Sung Tongs bears the Animal Collective name, their noise-guitarist and sound-tweaker (Deakin and Geologist, for those keeping score) weren't involved in its construction. This is the work of Avey Tare and Panda Bear, which would be gaggingly cute if they weren't really fucking scary occasionally (see the Collective's previous album, "Here Comes The Indian".) Panda, normally the group's percussionist, has traded in his drum kit for a kettledrum and snare, some hand drums and what sounds on the startlingly awesome "Who Could Win A Rabbit" like either an autoharp or a bicycle. The effect this has leads me to the conclusion that more bands really oughta employ kettledrums. On "We Tigers", which is an indian war-whoop for urban freaks, that constant pounding ties together the song and drives it to heights of creepy, cathartic glory in a way that no other percussion could.

Those two songs are for me the highest points of the album, so I should probably describe them. "Who Could Win A Rabbit" is a bright, sunshiney sprint scored for acoustic guitar, bicycle/autoharp, handclaps, kettledrum, clicks that sound like taiko drummers bashing their sticks together, and layers of song, hooting and chanting, bookended by swooping reverse-recorded vocals and the aforementioned squelch. It goes past at a pitch and timbre that reminds one of Weird Al Yankovic, of all people, and it makes me smile. After the adrenaline rush of that song we're dumped immediately into "The Softest Voice", which sounds like a couple of guitarists imitating the wind chimes in a japanese garden (complete with the sound of meditation fountains as percussion), singing lovely slow harmonies, whilst around them creatures made of mud and sand growl and spit, occasionally rising to sing lugubrious harmonies of their own. And then it's right into "Winter's Love", a song that contains one of the lovelier melodies I've come across and which delivers it in a truly odd way -- it's established, floating ghostly and mixed back over clicking snare-edge and cunningly delayed guitar, until it floats away and the guitar rises to cover the mix. A new melody comes in, scored for yelping, mouth-noise and what sounds like faint sneezing-- and then the kettle comes in, and with it the main melody, reinvented from ethereal prettiness to campfire chant. The lyrics come in, and it's a stately, almost renaissance-era grammar that he uses, which rubs against the tribal percussion so perfectly...

I could go through and describe every song in this degree of detail, and that's what makes it a great album. "Kids On Holiday", through its use of choked-off wah guitar and overwhelming fuzz, evokes the nausea/excitement of waiting at the airport to go on a trip perfectly (although as a result it's not exactly the most pleasant listening experience.) "Sweet Road" is about as perfect a minute and fifteen seconds of music as I've ever heard, tripping along at a time signature which I can't quite get my head around, bubbling with chuckling and sampled kid's voices but held together with a truly wonderful melodic line.

At that point, though, we run into a problem: twelve minutes is a long time for rhythmless delayed strumming, even when it's shot through as it is on "Visiting Friends" with every weird effect known to man slathered on moaning, slithering, gasping vocals. The fact that this creates an overall friendly effect is kind of miraculous, but it's tough to get through. On the other hand, its presence on this album is a sign that the Collective really didn't care at this point about who was buying their albums or why, which is a slight problem with the more conventionally structured "Feels". (Stay tuned for that review.) The last three songs on the album, though, basically constitute another twelve-minute suite of pleasant formlessness. "Mouth Wooed Her" is the best of the three, with tension created by sudden tempo changes and hooks in the for-once-intelligible vocals, but the final pair mean that the album drifts off into exquisitely-textured limbo when it would've been nice to end with a catharsis.

I give up: I'm going to talk about every song on the album. The opener, "Leaf House", is fantastic, unique and propulsive, and ends with Avey squeaking "Kitties!" in a manner both charming and terrifying. "College" tells you everything you need to know about higher education in under a minute. And "We Tigers" makes you want to take your clothes off, smear yourself with war paint and take to the streets, singing along, which during Avey's insane whoop on the pre-chorus can make you sprain your throat.

This album isn't as consistent as "A Grand Don't Come For Free" (and is an entirely different organism in all sorts of other ways) but I think it belongs here at the top of the list. The sheer talent, creativity, originality and craftsmanship on display, along with a genuine gift for melody, sets it apart. Buy it.

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The Arcade Fire: Funeral

Again, don't think I don't like this album if I seem disappointed. It's just that being the best album of 2004, having their career launched by Pitchfork, and everyone online talking as if "Funeral" was some sort of epiphany for them, this album was a little disappointing. The Arcade Fire is part of the droning garage band movement, with other bands like The Walkmen and Interpol, to name a couple. That said, they manage to cover a surprising amount of ground with relatively little change in playing style. They throw in violins (that are often present in their much talked-about live show, which I'm told is absolutely amazing. The Arcade Fire is like a more sophisticated Interpol; a grungier Wilco.

The Arcade Fire really excels at incorporating melody and instrumentation into their music, and really have a good sense of composition and structure, which is why they remind me of Wilco. They manage to pack a great deal of song into very little conceptual space - their melodies seem restricted, and the songs are all full of a certain amount of analog haze that makes it seem like there's not a whole lot of complexity going on, but there is.

The four "Neighborhood" songs are all excellent, and the album starts off with its best piece, "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)" built on a simple, but unorthodox melody line, and covered with droning guitar. The song reaches its peaks due to the crooning of the lead singer as well as a well-placed tempo change. The next song, "Neighborhood #2 (Laika)" is just as good, with an accordian line which, against all logic, works in this indie rock context, as well as slidy-slippery violin lines and a vocal line that Modest Mouse and Interpol would both be envious of. "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)" is a hard-hitting guitar driven song straight from the 80s, or at least a modern indie rock fan's memory of the 80s. The final "Neighborhood" track, "7 Kettles", is a cleaner, slow, melodic piece that adds subtle electric guitar hits very tastefully. A violin section rolls in, but it's never sappy or overdone. It feels like a lot of restraint was exercised in making this track, and it makes it an excellent piece of composition.

Other high points include "Wake Up", a larger-than-life ballad composed around a simple guitar chugging powerchords. This track rivals "Neighborhood" for best song, except for the final half of the track, which turns into a moderate 50s twist beat that doesn't quite fit on the track. Other tracks I am ambivalent to, like "Une Annee Sans Lumiere", which is the most pop rock track on the album, but while it has a decent hook, the verse doesn't grab me nearly the way the better songs on the album do. However, it does end in a sped-up breakdown with a guitar down borrowed from the Futureheads, but on the other hand, it starts off promising and fails to deliver any real excitement. "Crown of Love" is another song that can go either way: it is a standard "please take me back" love waltz that sounds like an emo singer covering an old 50s standard and ends in another sped-up breakdown, but this time it is in complete disco-mode. Really, this song is wonderful or bad depending on how you feel about this kind of music.

There's a good amount of music here, but there are two basic problems with this album. First, the latter half of the album pales compared to the first half. The songs are dronier, and the hooks are less compelling. "Rebellion (Lies)" works pretty well, however, but it doesn't stand up to the beginning of the album. On any other album, though, it might well be the highlight of the album. Also, art of the problem of the second half is that the female singer is not as good, and her tracks are all at the end. The second problem is that this album is put together very well, and I can totally see the merit and display of raw compositional skill, but the album fails to grab me like any "Best Album of 2004" really should. I didn't really have the expected epiphany that everyone was telling me about when I heard this album -- but it did grow on me. On a personal level, I would have also preferred a less grungy production as well. Everything is dampened, like someone sucked all the treble out of the album. I would have preferred some more guitar than just pound pound pound or at the very least different guitar tones. Point is, this album makes me feel kind of gross when I listen to it, and not the good kind of gross when you watch a really good movie, but the depressed kind of feeling that creeps up on you at 3PM on Sunday, the long dark tea time of the soul.

Despite the Douglas Adams reference, this album is really quite good, so I think you should buy it. It's a very gray and dull album, but like some Japanese paintings, it's about as pretty as you can make gray and dull look.

This album shows tremendous promise, but is, I think, not the revelation that many critics claimed. It gets major points for being interesting music made by an actual rock band, in a list dominated by singer/songwriters, hip-hoppers, electronic artists and assorted freaks. And it has all the things that can make a rock band great -- the right energy, good lyrics with strong concepts behind them, genuine emotion in their delivery, a unified aesthetic, and just a drop of pretentiousness. But it's a little unsure of itself, a little inconsistent, and a little too obvious with its influences. Also one gets the impression that this album doesn't deliver everything the band is capable of. There are live videos on YouTube of them performing these songs that are stronger and better-orchestrated than the album versions by a ways.

The strongest songs on "Funeral" are very, very good. "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)" takes a samba line in the keyboards and whickering, muted guitar and turn it into a huge, stomping monster of a song, which describes a power outage during an ice storm in terms epic and apocalyptic. "Rebellion (Lies)" takes a simple four-note bass riff and expands it into a march which soars in the end into a melody that will get stock in your head for days afterward. Arcade Fire songs reward careful listening -- the enjoyment factor on "Rebellion" soars when the lyrics slot into place and you realize that Win Butler is encouraging you never to sleep, ever -- telling you that the need for sleep is a lie we've been told by our parents. Win is lyrically fixated on childhood and doom, fall and winter, darkness not for darkness' sake but as texture, the absence of light.

Take the first "Neighborhood" song, the album opener, "Tunnels." A jangly, walkmen-esque piano and massive, reverby guitar ushers in a churning riff (note here the use of the thudding toms on every beat, making the song's progression sound inevitable and a little bit frightening. These guys should totally get a kettledrum.) Win's thin, wobbly but tremendously expressive voice rises into the mix with a story of how he and an unnamed girl were snowed in and dug a tunnel between their houses before escaping to the forest, where they grew up. "And then we tried to name our babies, but we forgot all the names then, the names we used to know," he says -- and the song swells until it breaks open on the last verse, with the violins coming in, and in general it's a hell of a noise. The Arcade Fire are a six-ranging-to-eight-piece band, chock full of multi-instrumentalists and oddball instruments (I believe they currently have a french horn player among their active roster) and they can generate a tuneful racket of immense proportions. In general it's a great opener and cathartic. My first thought upon hearing Butler's ten-feet-away-from-the-mike-and-shouting vocals on number 2 ("Laika"), though, was "Where'd David Byrne come from?" Vocally and stylistically the fire owe a lot to the two big DBs of modern pop music (Byrne and Bowie) ... so does everyone else, of course, but it gets blatant now and again. But I quibble. It's a great song.

The major reason this album doesn't rank as classic in my book is that there are a number of songs that just leave me cold, where the tension and swelling seem bombastic rather than affecting and Butler's trembling just makes me want to smack 'im a few times. "Neighborhood #4" is a prime example of this-- the song fails to go anywhere, and the vocals don't keep you interested. "Crown Of Love" feels like a 50s dead-teen pop song, right down to the arpeggiated piano in the background, which is a brave stylistic decision, particularly given the super-angsty lyrical content. But I find the cheese bleeds through. A good third of the album feels like this to me, and normally that would be enough for me to call it a burn, but what is good on here is so good and the potential is so strong that I'm going to have to recommend that you be like everyone else and buy it anyway. Assuming they don't have a disastrous sophomore outing under all the pressure (and I bet they won't -- they bought a freakin' church to record the thing in) these guys could take over the world.

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