Review Summary: An overlooked gem by one of the most rewarding bands on the scene today.
There's a point in Animal Collective's 2003 release Campfire Songs
where the band suddenly expands the context of their music and successfully blurs the line between refrain and ramble; harmony and heedlessness; the songs essentially transform from arbitrary acoustics into something much more. The album stops being mere "campfire songs" and suddenly presents the listener with a melody so charming and yet evidently premeditated that the listener immediately knows Animal Collective have become a band that have finally freed themselves from the impenetrable, flamboyant musical infantility of albums like 2001's Danse Manatee
(or, to a lesser extent, 2002's live set Hollinndagain
). This musical realization happens just about nine minutes into the ten-minute opener "Queen in My Pictures", when, instead of overzealously jumping to and from musical concepts one after another, the band realize that less is more, and apply this to their unique brand of psychedelic plainsongs, slowly speeding up repeated chords until second track "Doggy" (one of their best to date) finally takes over and introduces a melody, rhythms, and harmonies.
Which shows an important step in the band's career: they're finally making songs! "Doggy" itself blows right through its four-and-a-half minute length without any unnecessary detours or impulsive maneuvers, magnifying the strengths of the band and, if not getting rid of, simply tucking the weaknesses away under the sheets. Animal Collective are still an impulsive band on this album, but they finally feel like, well, a band
, instead of a group of college kids who absolutely refuse
to grow up in any way and feel the need to express this in their music. Not to say that it was all
bad before this album came around: the group's debut (at the time only consisting of two members) Spirit They're Gone, Spirit They've Vanished
showed their knack for writing pop songs buried under layers of noise and fuzz, but its lyrical content and song structures were often a little up-in-the-air for the casual listener and connecting personally with the record was a challenge. Luckily, Campfire Songs
is a more personal and intimate album, and, while their heads are still a little bit in the clouds, its lyrical content shows a scope far wider than the albums that preceded it. "Doggy" is one of the saddest songs the band has ever written, telling the heartbreaking story of a dog who breaks his neck falling from a tree. When the news is delivered that the dog will die ("He said 'Dave, hey, the doctor cannot save your dog'"), the listener truly feels sorry for the narrator (assumedly Dave Portner, a.k.a. Avey Tare of the band) and his situation.
But let's not kid ourselves here: Animal Collective are still a little freaky for the casual listener. Three of the album's five songs just about reach or surpass the 10-minute mark, slowly spinning melodies and musical motifs while gradually evolving into what some would call a "song". Sometimes, the songs (specifically "Moo Rah Rah Rain" and excellent album closer "De Soto De Son") prefer to get the melodies over with and leave the listener with a sense of slow degeneration, as if the song is slowly crumbling apart, the band doing the best they can to hold it together. The latter track has the most hummable melody on the album but also features some of the most nonsensical lyrics ("Color people say "oh no", 'cause they think it's contagious, marshmallow people say "oh yeah", 'cause they think it's a masterpiece"). One could potentially look into the lyrics as a meditation on different perspectives, but, given the band's history, it's very possible they're just singing about color and marshmallow people. Somehow, though, the song takes on an unexpected depth when one of the song's numerous detours ends as an intense full-band chant of "death...takes...time...". "Two Corvettes" also has an intense section of possessed vocals and flashing guitar strums, giving what is otherwise a pleasant, slightly boring track a piercing and slightly insane twist. And, as with "Two Corvettes", when the 11-minute beast "Moo Rah Rah Rain" chooses the path less travelled by, it makes all the difference, and for the better. By the time the 9-minute mark rolls by and the song seems to have overstayed its welcome, the band introduces a pastoral transition, with more chants, only this time the phrase is the up-for-interpretation "taking care of business".
The album as a whole keeps an effective atmospheric tension throughout its running length; its guitars-and-nature-sounds ambiance not only having a "pretty" tone to it, but also suggesting something slightly more menacing beneath the surface. The sound of trees rustling and rivers flowing adds to the effect, but it's in the airy guitars and laid back vocals that the album truly gets its atmosphere. So yes, Campfire Songs
is a lot like sitting around a campfire singing some songs with a bunch of friends (incredibly talented friends, too!). But the album still has another quality to it; it feels like an album that showed that Animal Collective truly could
be whatever they wanted to be. It wouldn't last all that long, but before they moved onto bigger things, the band were the best porch-sitting guitar strummers on the scene.