Musicianship in the Digital Age: A Review of Animal Collective, Centipede Hz
Posted October 5, 2012on:
In an age fixated on data and on a quest to outsource human capabilities to computers—from painting to music criticism to consciousness itself—Animal Collective’s musical intelligence and inspired, whimsical wackiness stakes a claim for human creativity’s greater power. Even as they fully embrace technology’s expanded sound palette and power to execute ideas, the best songs on Centipede HZ, the new release, embrace traditional ideas of musicianship that value skilful attention to meter, form, and tone. And, though music has increasingly become a commodity, the success of Animal Collective – who are playing Williamsburg tonight (10/5)— seems to be more a product of their desire to convincingly express, delight, challenge, and entertain, rather than to sell product.
From the first chords of opener “Moonjock,” AC makes good on its reputation for challenging our assumptions. If you try tapping your foot (and if you pay attention) you’ll notice you’re quickly thrown off—unless you catch that the beats are grouped in uneven threes: two short and one long (technically speaking, this is 7/8 time, counted quickly as “ONE-two, ONE-two, ONE-two-three, with the “ONE” being where you tap your foot). This is rare in pop/rock songs, and hard to pull off without calling attention to itself. Moonjock’s iteration is so crisp and driving, most of us won’t notice something is “off” until perhaps a minute later, when it shifts briefly to a familiar 4/4 groove we didn’t know we were missing (“There’s no way to remind me”). The song’s continuing shifts between 7/8 and 4/4 create satisfying tension and release, and an air of unpredictability in what is otherwise an emotionally accessible, sweet-harmonied reminiscence of a family car trip. The final release into an extended 4/4 is like being unleashed onto the open road.
Which is a nice set up for the aggressive ¾ time and passionate vocals of the “Today’s Supernatural,” another tightly constructed song. Like many songs on the album (“Pulleys,” “Amanita”), it varies the meter to mix things up. Along with “Moonjock,” “Today’s Super Natural” opens the album with a one-two punch.
“Rosie Oh” eases up energetically and sounds, more than anything on Merriweather Post Pavillion, like a solo Panda Bear project. It also switches up the meter and throws in a harmonic turn around the circle of fifths (“I’d like to embrace it”) that’s straight out of a jazz standard—or Bach. It’s nice to listen to, but to my ears it doesn’t add up to much.
“Apple Sauce,” on the other hand is more than the sum of its parts. The lyrics ponder fruit as a metaphor for spiritual wisdom and impermanence (“ripe and whole, we can look outside us”), but with lines like “what if I should crack my eyes and find dudes on the street waiting in lines or scrounging for berries?” it never takes itself too seriously. In fact, the frequent two-part phrases, where the second half is always the same (“I feel like a little honey can roll”), and the manically lilting melodies, feel a lot like a children’s song on steroids. The play with meter is also in overdrive –and made for a nice lesson on compound meter yesterday, for my high school students.
Let’s take a closer look. As the rhythm kicks in at the beginning of the “Apple Sauce,” try tapping your foot again and you’ll notice a beat subdivided into threes (listen to the rolling background arpeggios). This swinging feel, common to jigs and reels (and known as 6/8 time) underlies all of “Apple Sauce”. But a contrasting, quicker beat, subdivided by two, appears periodically in various forms and adds syncopated tension. At “A farmer makes a good thing,” for example, you can hear both beats happening simultaneously, like this (count fast—about three numbers per second):
|Keyboard Arpeggios Rhythm:||ONE||two||three||ONE||two||Three|
There’s nothing revolutionary about this, but it’s used to good effect. The rhythmic tension of the opposing beats builds throughout the song (perhaps as a metaphor for the psychic tension in the lyrics) until it drops out altogether, adding to the impression of a tempo change, for the song’s austere but triumphal culmination: “One the Eagle, Two the Noble, Three the Lizard, Four the Soul.” I can’t say I understand the meaning, but it’s set up so well and sung with such conviction, and so open-ended, I believe in it anyway.
Considering Animal Collective’s complex musical structures, not to mention heavy handed reverb and processed vocal sounds, it can be easy to ignore their lyrics. But I find them generally fun, probing, and mysterious. Take their penchant for repeating seemingly random phrases over and over (“a big, big raven,” “mind it grows”). The lyrics function less to tell stories here than as mantra or koan–or Dada. Whatever the case, they’re sung as if they mean something, and usually evocative enough to draw me in. What kind of world grows “Pulleys and Vines” and “Trees who said their smarts aren’t in the books they wrote?” (Not one concerned with selling itself).
The songs on Centipede HZ have Animal Collective’s familiar, richly layered rhythms and electronic atmospherics, but overall are more tightly structured, accessible, and down to earth than on Merriwether Post Pavillion. The most unusual effects are used more to punctuate the beginnings and endings of songs rather than as their core. For example, there’s nothing here that approaches the glorious spaciousness of the second half of MPP’s “Daily Routine.” Still, the rhythmic grooves are irresistible, the melodic vocals and harmonies emotionally rich, and the lyrics evocative and challenging. Centipede HZ’s best songs are simply fun and satisfying, and they transcend whatever a parsing analysis might reveal.
Most of all, I respect the expressive power of Animal Collective’s musicianship and what seems like their artistic honesty. I’d love to see them try their hand at something completely different. Can you imagine an analog AC composition for Percussion Ensemble and Chorus that could be performed by high school students? Just a thought. Just a thought. Just a thought.
Chris Landriau is a musician and teacher who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn. His previous pieces for Frontier Psychiatrist include a review of Panda Bear’s solo album Tomboy. His high school chorus performed a cover of “My Girls.”