From their 2000 debut Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished to the release of the seminal Merriweather Post Pavillion and excellent Fall Be Kind EP in 2009, Animal Collective were a force to be reckoned with. The band released one fantastic record after another, each with a unique ever-evolving take on psychedelia. From the freak-folk meanderings of Sung Tongs to the eclectic, glitchy, psych-pop of Strawberry Jam, Animal Collective’s distinctive brand of psychedelia was always on point. That is, until 2012’s polarizing, and, in my opinion, disappointing Centipede Hz. Centipede, more than any other Animal Collective record, had songs that were forgettable. The hooks were duller, the instrumentals muddier, and with the exception of a few stand out tracks, the record was, all in all, forgettable. Centipede Hz was hardly painful to listen to; it was simply a mediocre record. But when a band known for their greatness, innovation, and universal acclaim puts out a record that is met by a lukewarm reception, uncertainty hangs in the air.
Painting With is Animal Collective’s tenth studio record, and the follow up to Centipede Hz. Animal Collective has not been totally silent since 2012, however. Dave Portner, better know as Avey Tare, released his Slasher Flicks project in 2014, and 2015 saw the release of Panda Bear’s fifth studio record, the Sonic Boom produced Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, as well as the Crosswords EP. Given the direction Panda and Avey went with these respective project, the sound of Painting With is not shocking. Painting With is Animal Collective’s most stripped back record in recent memory. There are no droning, ambient, or spacey passages on the record. Rather than their usual brand of drawn out, slow burning, atmospheric jams lathered in layers of effects, the band present twelve short, succinct, synth driven pop songs. As far as I’m aware, this is the first Animal Collective record without a track reaching the five-minute mark. Guitarist and most-of-the-time AC member Deakin is also absent from the record, which like on Merriweather, results in a record sans guitar. As a result, Painting With is Animal Collective’s most by the books pop record to date.
The album kicks off with “FloriDada”, which would not seem out of place as a Strawberry Jam outtake. The bouncing groove to this track, Avey and Panda’s vocal harmonies, and gently swelling synths on this track recall AnCo of old, at least to some degree. The track is infectiously catchy, danceable, and well arranged. The less energetic “Hocus Pocus” follows, and features Panda Bear on vocals. As on PBVSGR, Panda Bear delivers stuttering, hocketed vocals. John Cale is featured on this track as well, providing a viola drone low in the mix on this track. The synth swells and jabs on this track work in unison with Panda’s bouncing vocals. Avey Tare sings in double time on most “The Burglars”, with Panda coming in on the back half of the track to harmonize with Avey, resulting in one of the best vocal performances on the whole record. The short but sweet “Bagels in Kiev” has a brief droning intro, which subsides to reveal shimmering synths and a danceable drumbeat.
The record’s two best tracks are the final two on the record. “Golden Gal” features the distorted synth bass that is ubiquitous on the record, but with the pulsing synth lead, the galloping percussion and the Avey Tare’s excellent vocal performance carry the track. By far, “Golden Gal” has the best vocal melody of any track on the record. The track has brief stop time in the middle, and features some of the lushest and strangest instrumentation on the record. The lysergic closer, “Recycling”, features Panda Bear’s bouncing vocal delivery, and is instrumentally the most dissonant song on the record, which is not saying much. This is not the In addition to gently modulating chord progression, some high frequency synth jabs and swells, and wonky, modulated notes over a punctual xylophone melody are among the most lavish and strange effects on the record.
Still, the record’s shortcomings are hard to ignore. First of all, Panda Bear’s hocketed vocals, which work well on tracks like “Hocus Pocus” and “Recycling”, on tracks like “Summing the Wretch”, “Lying in the Grass” and “Natural Selection” become redundant and, for lack of a better word, boring. “Natural Selection” especially indulges in this vocal style, to the tracks detriment. This vocal technique was extensively used by Panda Bear on Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, rendering many of these tracks annoyingly similar to the more forgettable tracks on that record. The instrumentals on these tracks do not stand out among the other songs on the record, and with out any hooks or infectiously catchy melodies, these tracks are almost instantly forgettable. So many tracks on the record have the same squelchy distorted synth bass, and on songs like “On Delay”, “Lying in the Grass” and “Natural Selection” this synth base is overpowering, and the bass melodies are homogenous from track to track. For trying to make a more simplistic pop record, Animal Collective’s hooks are underdeveloped or all together lacking on too many tracks. So many tracks, especially in the middle of the record, fail to stand out. Not that these tracks are terrible; they simply feel underdeveloped, rushed, or otherwise uninspired. On prior records, Animal Collective has always had the ability to write songs that are infectiously catchy while maintaining an experimental nature. On this record, Animal Collective has massively toned down their usual experimental tendencies, resulting in several tracks that, at the end of the day, are lackluster and highly forgettable.
When a band that’s been around for as long as Animal Collective puts out a record or two that don’t meet their usual standard of excellence, it is easy to write them off as past their prime, as some have already done. However, I think there are enough excellent moments on Painting With to make the possibility of another excellent Animal Collective record seem plausible at least. More so than Centipede Hz, the stand out tracks on Painting With are enough to convince me that Animal Collective is far from done. Animal Collective has never been a band to linger on one sound for long, so it is nearly impossible to speculate where they’ll go next. But Painting With presents just enough excellence to keep me optimistic.