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Animal Collective
Centipede Hz - DOMINO
FILTER Grade: 86%

By Marty Sartini Garner; photo by Atiba Jefferson (@atibaphoto) on September 5, 2012

 

Animal Collective

Nostalgia and sentimentality have never been far from the heart of Animal Collective. 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion was named for the suburban Baltimore amphitheater that band members Noah Lennox (Panda Bear), Dave Portner (Avey Tare), Brian Weitz (Geologist) and Josh Dibb (Deakin) grew up patronizing, and that record’s biggest and brightest moments simultaneously celebrated and feared the sick sweetnesses of childhood and marriage. The group’s early guiding lights—four-part shouts over campfire guitars—and the Darger-esque artwork that covered 2005’s Feels split the difference between a past that is equal parts welcoming and horrifying, and that might only be expressed or reenacted in some kind of primal scream.

So it seems strange (and yet not strange at all) that Centipede Hz works out like a backwards trot through Animal Collective’s discography. If Merriweather Post Pavilion was the culmination and perfect refinement of the sound towards which the group had been pushing since their formation, Centipede Hz takes its time sorting through the hundreds of limbs that were amputated in the process. Recorded and manipulated radio static winds its way through the album, collecting and integrating scattered voices and serving as a kind of wet mortar placed between the proper songs, the whirrs and crackles it makes as it dries mimicking the sound of a radio changing from one station to another, of the group moving from sound to frantic sound.

On first spin, Centipede Hz seems to be far and away Animal Collective’s most chaotic record (and, boy, is that saying something). Opener “Moonjock” organizes itself around a banging power chord, but with a handclap and a drum snap, it falls into a headphone-dizzying squiggle of synths, processed bass, phasers being shot from ear to ear, other records being played backwards and (of course) harmonic singing. But where years ago the group would have been happy allowing the disparate noises to find their own path into and out of the song, here the group chisel them into a bouncing beat and what could be their most traditionally “pop” song.

Dibb, who has returned from the hiatus that sidelined him through much of Merriweather’s recording and touring, contributes his first-ever solo vocal take on the floating “Wide Eyed,” while Lennox’s “Rosie Oh” and “New Town Burnout” infect the moodiness of his solo Tomboy with big beach bass. But Centipede Hz belongs first and foremost to Portner. Beginning at some point around the recording of Panda Bear’s 2007 solo LP Person Pitch and finding its apex in Merriweather’s “My Girls” and “Brother Sport,” Lennox scaled a creative peak so high that its shadow eclipsed the fact that the emotional core of Animal Collective’s music largely mirrors that of its most prolific writer. Simply put, Portner is running at a different pace on Centipede Hz. Recently relocated to Los Angeles from the East Coast following his divorce from musician Kría Brekkan, Portner builds up terrifying, earth-shaking songs here, flirting with catharsis before giving in and crashing the bounce collage of “Monkey Riches” into a pileup of a coda that scrapes itself off of the neatly braided rhythms of Merriweather’s “In the Flowers.”

As usual, though, the group are at their best when trying to come to terms with grace and beauty. “Father Time” does its best to repress the prettiness of its own landscape, squirting distorted bass and sampled vocals over its pastoral foundation while Portner struggles in the chorus to decide whether or not love is real. The impressionistic chords that form the song’s base persist to the end, but so too does the singer’s uncertainty. “Applesauce,” meanwhile, giggles over a grocery list of tropical fruits and a rotting cherry tree. One of Merriweather’s major joys came in hearing a group sing so honestly and intelligently about their desire for maturity, and while nothing on Centipede Hz matches the emotional clarity of that record (as “Applesauce” leads Portner’s la-di-da’d melody into a banging, shouting mess punctuated by lurching bass and bashing cymbals), the feeling of fear and loss and longing is no less real for not being well defined.

It’s tempting to say that Centipede Hz ultimately has more in common with the frightened, emotional chaos of Strawberry Jam and Here Comes the Indian than with the blissed-out singles of Merriweather Post Pavilion and Feels. But what it shares with that latter set of records is a still-shocking devotion to traditional songcraft. The further afield of traditional instrumentation Animal Collective get, the tighter they rein in their compositional excesses. Hearing them play pop music is like hearing the French speak English: their tongues are carved in ways too nuanced by their native language to form all of the words correctly. And yet, we still hear what they have to say. 

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