Label: Paw Tracks
Released bit by bit through a series of digital downloads and singles over the past year, the reputation of Tomboy precedes itself. The fourth solo outing for Noah Lennox (alias Panda Bear) away from Animal Collective, the first piece of the puzzle that is Tomboy was heralded widely in the music press after its appearance in July of last year: the eponymous single, featuring a B-side of “Slow Motion,” both finding their homes on the full length record. Then, in September, “You Can Count On Me” and “Alsatian Darn” arrived, followed by two more releases, “Last Night at the Jetty” in December and “Surfers Hymn” at the end of last month, respectively. Altogether, they comprise more than half the album — its entire first (and better) half, really. So it should come as no surprise that any review of Tomboy as incarnated as an LP today is mostly a game of catch-up and rehash. Moreover, it makes release dates basically moot. Nevertheless, as intentionally spoiled as we were by Panda Bear’s various sneak peeks, Tomboy is serious headphone candy.
With 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion and the Fall Be Kind EP, Animal Collective tore into new territory, shedding some of the unbridled, abrasive and acoustic energy of their earlier work, such as Feels and Sung Tongs, in favor of a “controlled burn” approach, utilizing a heavy amount of sequencers and samplers in the process, to often spectacularly freaky — and jaw-dropping — results. Capitalizing on and extending the gains made by his main band after their two most recent releases, Lennox makes Tomboy this movement’s second act, picking up on the increasing influence that the Orb and IDM, Afrobeat and Arthur Russell obviously exude on the group’s individual members, and adding to it a fat hip-hop hook (“Slow Motion”) and reggae dub tones (“Last Night at the Jetty”).
All things considered, though, Brian Wilson remains Panda Bear’s keystone. Elements of all of Panda Bear’s records so far, including Tomboy, bear a balancing act between idyllic harmonies, excitable melodies and repetitive noise. The dynamic existing between Lennox’s pantheistic innocence and his quasi-religious solemnity make comparisons to the Beach Boys’ “teenage symphony to God,” Pet Sounds, often most salient, and this is no more evident than on 2007’s Person Pitch, heavily Wilson-informed, Tomboy’s immediate predecessor and its most accessible foil. The choral arrangements, with Lennox acting as his own Mike Love, lilt, flutter and soar the same way, and many tracks on the album, below the haze of thickened guitar, ambient hops and hisses, handclaps and complex sequences, are pop constructs.
Unlike on Person Pitch, Lennox, Wilson harmonies in hand, exchanges the slow-as-molasses approach for a more spirited, still often trance-inducingly repetitive one more in line with the recent musical direction of AC and the mode he has veered into lyrically. Lennox also offers up nuggets of veiled inspiration and stoner philosophy such as, “When there are hard times, I’ll step it up/ When there are dangerous times I’ll spot them up/ …Out on the water a rider can get ready/ Though waves comes crashing a good board can steady.” The result is tempestuous, stirring and tidal music; he stretches harmonies like taffy, hits the listener with boss-level waves of sound, and calls a shimmering satellite down from orbit on closer “Benfica” (named for the second largest soccer franchise in Portugal, Lennox’s adopted home). Panda Bear can feel free to insist, as he does on “Slow Motion,” “It’s what they don’t say that’s what counts,” but what Lennox says and does on Tomboy counts, whether he wants it to or not.