2004; Paw Tracks
Q: What do acid and campfire sing-a-longs have in common?
A: Animal Collective.
I hate the fact that I have to make allusions to LSD and Kumbaya to describe Animal Collective because I’m certain twelve dozen music reviewers have turned the same trick before me. Nuts to originality for a moment, though. It’s simply the easiest way to convey what exactly is going on with Animal Collective. Sung Tongs, the latest release by New Yorkers Avey Tare, Panda Bear, Geologist, and Deaken, continues the tradition of spastic acoustic rambling, noisy freak-outs, wispy crooning and percussive insanity the group is fondly associated with.
While most easily clumped with the growing crop of indie folk invaders, Animal Collective established a unique sound early on. The music can reference Brian Wilson’s soaring vocal harmonies, kraut-rock rhythmic jams or atmospheric washes not unlike the works of Brian Eno. Like the latter Brian, Animal Collective also harbor an apparent affection for world music. Often times, the band can sound like a violent witch doctor set loose to terrorize Brooklyn. This attack endures on Sung Tongs but when compared to the previous release, Here Comes the Indian, the outbursts heard here feel more restrained and focused.
Although there are slight stylistic alterations, Sung Tongs elicits many familiar adjectives to Here Comes the Indian and other past outings. Psychedelic, acid-drenched, twisted and flipped-out could easily describe quite a few songs but phrases like spacey and ambient are ever-growing in Animal Collective’s vocabulary. The first duo of songs, “Leaf House" and “Who Could Win a Rabbit" easily fit within the realm of the first attributes. A massive tom plods just behind flickering acoustics and yelping vocals on “Leaf House," a driving opener with mostly undecipherable lyrics. Despite the fact that 80% of the lyrics are up for debate, the vocals steal the spotlight which seems common on the most successful tracks on Sung Tongs. “Who Could Win a Rabbit" features coherent singing this time around and a similar ***-whomping tribal beat to “Leaf House." Singing along to these songs is cathartic in the same way campfire songs are and exemplify the constant reference the band gets; it feels like a release of primal nonsense for nonsense sake. The quality of both of these songs is real high but it’s frustrating. Five minutes into the album, you can’t help but feel like Sung Tongs already peaked.
None of the songs after “Leaf House" and “Who Could win a Rabbit" really recapture the same energy. “Winters Love" comes close with it’s swirling vocalizing. After an opening interlude, the song bursts out with the trademark frantic strumming as distinct voices play off each other wonderfully. “Mouth Wooed Her," the appropriately titled, “The Softest Voice" and the epic “Visiting Friends" all draw on the same hypnotic drone that is probably the most prevalent theme on Sung Tongs. The delicious “Kids on Holiday" sips from the same quiescent glass and is one of the standout tracks beyond the openers. The track is made of a simple convulsive thrum layered over electro-glitch fuzz and lyrics like, “So you’re feeling sleepy/Sympathize with the retard/Being held by his mother/She’s got spit in her napkin" and “There’s a boy who’s a Krishna/And he thinks you look pretty/Well, he’s eyeing your stockings." Or at least that’s what I hear. I don’t know what it means but it makes for a compelling listen.
“Sweet Road" and “College" make up some odd little divergence as does “We Tigers." “College" sounds like some lost Beach Boy’s track, featuring a simple statement of defiance: “You don’t have to go to college." Channeling the tribal fire of the first two tracks, “We Tigers" bring back the tom stomp, and up the ante with tambourines, a downright bizarre falsetto and the lovable chant of “Tiger! Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!" “Sweet Road" seems almost out of left field, which seems impossible given the band’s predilection with the unexpected. Quiet and jaunty, the flicking guitars and handclaps work without any explanation.
There’s not much to hate about Sung Tongs, that is if weirdness is a redeeming quality for the listener. Still, the unconventional aspects of Animal Collective can easily alienate the unsuspecting, despite the fact that this is probably the most concise and accessible the group has been yet far in their brief career. In the same vein, the relatively approachable Sung Tongs might appeal less to those who have grown accustomed to the more frantic aspects of Animal Collective. Sung Tongs retains enough punch to hold attention, despite the move towards delicate melodies and the deposition of more frenzied gushing.
As a whole, Sung Tongs is a remarkably singular release, there’s not much like it out there. Trying to be a happy medium between folk, noise and ambient music is a difficult path, after all. From the cover art to the aliases, down to the lyrics, there’s really something not quite right about these guys. Thank god.