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Animal Collective

Merriweather Post Pavilion

Rating: 4.5

Label: Domino

Animal Collective’s newest album, Merriweather Post Pavilion, arrives on a wave of anticipation that is the largest of their short, but jam-packed career. Whether this will benefit the band or create a skeptical backlash remains to be seen. With barely a week gone in the New Year, some have already hailed it as the album to beat in 2009, which seems to be an unnecessary overstatement and indicative of some critics’ weakness for hyperbole. The prolific (this is their 9th album, not including side projects and EPs), band’s profile is steadily increasing, including a recent New Yorker article, and they are building on 2007’s one-two punch of Strawberry Jam and Panda Bear’s Person Pitch.

Merriweather Post Pavilion, which takes its name from a Maryland concert venue, carries on the work of their previous two albums, 2005’s Feels and Jam, both of which were more focused than earlier albums and reconciled their pop instincts with their experimental tendencies. Strawberry Jam burst out of the gate with one of their best songs- the surging, hummable, ecstatic “Peacebone.” MPP doesn’t grab the listener quite as quickly; the first song “In the Flowers” sounds like it’s bubbling to the surface and slowly builds with sci-fi keyboards and waver-y, faraway vocals before the drums hit. It segues nicely into “My Girls,” which feels like a continuation of rather than a division from the first song.

The album really hits its stride with the buoyant “Summertime Clothes.” Opening with the sound of children’s voices, it is a perfect pop song, full of clattering drums, dynamic Beach Boys vocals and buzzing melodies. It’s a summertime anthem, expressing one of the oldest sentiments in music (“And I want to walk around with you.”), and though it’s pop for them, it’s a pop song on their terms, which means it’s 10 times more inventive and active than anything you’d hear on the radio. Unfortunately, this standout is followed by the album’s weakest song, “Daily Routine,” which is, well, a little bit routine, and though full of interesting sounds, is a little meandering and slows the album’s momentum.

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As with other innovative and idiosyncratic acts, such as TV on the Radio, Sigur Ros and Bjork, one of the immediate pleasures of an Animal Collective album is the vocals. They are blessed with not one, but two distinctive vocalists (sort of like a bohemian, world music Sleater-Kinney), Panda Bear and Avey Tare, and the heart of many of their best songs is the interplay between the two. There is both an innocence to their singing and a dense, layered quality, which is refreshing after so many years of half-assed indie rock singers. There’s no irony to their singing and they can sound like unhinged primitives or like cherubic choir boys; sometimes they resort to shouts, yelps, and odd sounds, all without coming off as precious or mannered.

While lyrics can be beside the point with them, certain lines stick out like mantras: “Am I really all the things that are outside of me?” “Open up your throat.” “This wilderness up in my head.” The latter could stand as modus operandi.; while they are experimental, they are also one of the few indie bands who seem rooted in nature and conjure up images of flowing streams, open fields and furry animals running thorough the forest. Animal Collective finds a middle ground between the organic and the electronic. And this may be why some resort to gushing praise; that which defies description about Animal Collective is also one of their best qualities. It’s too easy to resort to words like “psychedelic,” “trippy,” or “freaky,” but there is something child-like and naïve about them, right down to the band name and their alter egos. There is a wide-eyed, un-cynical sense of wonder to their best work, which is very hard to pull off without seeming coy or like silly hippies, but they do with verve and style.

MPP concludes exceptionally well with three great, varied songs. The exuberant “Lion in a Coma” features a-no joke- didgeridoo and before you go leaping to images of coffeehouse open mics and dingoes eating babies, it works; creating a pulsating, danceable rhythm bed for the rich vocals and deliriously repeated refrain. “No More Runnin'” slows things down and has a nocturnal, campfire feel to it and ambient vocals that gently rise and fall. It seems like a fitting closer, but unpredictability is one of their assets, and they leave on a high note, with the swift, celebratory “Brother Sport,” which brims with energy, electronic sounds, and blissed out singing.

Even if it is not the greatest album of 2009 or even their greatest album (Strawberry Jam offers heavy competition), it could be Animal Collective’s breakout and reaffirms their status as one of the most adventurous bands in America. Like the trippy album cover, they are constantly in flux and never exactly what you think they are. Merriweather Post Pavilion is the epitome of what it means to become more accessible without abandoning eccentricities, exploration, and sheer weirdness.

[Illustration: Sarah Goodreau]

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