Delicate whispers and creepy crooning are a near-perfect match for such blissful and nocturnal music.
Dave Portner’s last album as Avey Tare, Eucalyptus, was one of his strongest solo efforts yet and one of the best Animal Collective-affiliated releases of the decade, a lengthy, inventive collection of folk music that captured his trademark absurdity and transformed it into a dreamy, nostalgic whole. Cows on Hourglass Pond, his newest, isn’t as sprawling or as experimental, but its directness is welcome. Instead of an hour-plus collection of half-songs and strange interludes interspersed between full-fledged compositions, this is just 10 tracks in 45 minutes. It feels more self-contained, and while the smaller proportions make the missteps stand out more, it’s another sign that Portner’s solo career is worth following.
Portner’s liberal use of electronics gives the album its distinct sound, with the majority of its timbres—especially percussive ones—either digital or pulled from antiquated analog gear, with the only counterpoints being Portner’s acoustic guitar and singing. Even the latter is often affected to the point of taking on new musical qualities. Opener “What’s the Goodside?” highlights this core contrast by placing a lo-fi house beat under Portner’s relatively straight-forward songwriting. What should be an uneven match is instead a strong introduction to this sonic world.
It’s easy to classify this as “folktronica,” but even that feels inadequate to describe the driving tension between the experimental production and performances and the pop sensibilities. Nonetheless, the album’s best moments occur when this stylistic divide lessens, leaving a new breed of styles in its place. Lead single “Saturdays (Again)” is an immediate standout. The mix between the underlying programmed elements and the rapid, sentimental strumming is seamless, with Portner’s lyrics mirroring the instrumental emotions. As always, he’s able to find meaning and struggle in the pleasant mundanities of life: “A person to thank and a push in the lake/ Things that I am hoping for you.” Closer “HORS_” resembles a nursery rhyme both in its title focus and the lilting, sing-song melody. Where other artists might flounder with this juvenilia, Portner is at home taking a perceived simplicity and turning it into a teary-eyed opus.
Not all the textures are so successful, as on “Taken Boy,” which feels a bit awkward with its lumbering drum machine beats and Portner’s listless, wandering melody. The momentum that defines the track’s more potent surroundings is missing, and the druggy atmosphere covering the whole album takes a turn for the droll here. The following track immediately redeems Portner as a balladeer, offering one of the album’s catchiest melodies atop a rigid beat and crunchy synth bass. Where “Taken Boy” felt lost, “Remember Mayan” is purposeful. Portner’s formidable, ghoulish singing marks the whole album, and only on “K. C. Yours,” an otherwise stellar, upbeat track, does he take a misguided step into Strawberry Jam-era screaming. The rest of his performances are delicate whispers and creepy crooning, a near-perfect match for such blissful and nocturnal music.