Review Summary: Strawberry Jam, being one of Animal Collective's most varied release, is also one of their most accessible: there's something for everyone here.Strawberry Jam
is somewhat of an enigma in the Animal Collective canon. As any fan will attest to, each album has a certain "place" relative to the rest. Feels
is their "experimental rock" record, one that uses stripped-down sonics and utilizes them to make catchy, deceptively simple pop songs (with just a twist of insane thrown in). Sung Tongs
is the "freak folk" record, with both freak (samples of children playing, chants of "meow" ending songs, a trio of formless songs closing the album) and folk (guitar-based tunes, simple structures, chanting harmonies) in equal measure. Merriweather Post Pavilion
is where they broke free of stereotypes and made blissful electronic pop, devoid of pretensions. So where does 2007's Strawberry Jam
fit into this equation? To tell you the truth, it's a little tough to figure out. Strawberry Jam
is more like a sampler of latter-day Animal Collective; a record to listen to when you're not exactly sure what you want to listen to. For this reason, it's both one of their most varied and least immediately engaging records. With a record that manages to pack in so many sounds, you're bound to be fond of some and a little less accepting of others, but Strawberry Jam
has something for everyone.
Being a huge fan of the immaculate yet slightly warped pop displayed on Merriweather Post Pavilion
, lead-off track "Peacebone" was the first I immediately warmed to. Starting off with a robot voice intoning the iconic "bonefish", it then sets off into a contorted, arrhythmic synth pattern. However, the band quickly show their knack for turning even the most alien of concepts into something approachable (or even danceable) when the pattern slowly falls into a stomping rhythm. The song is one of the band's most catchy to date, launching into a romping pop track, done Animal Collective style (complete with nonsensical lyrics and insane screaming in its midsection).
Save for this track, though, the rest of the album took a little time for me to truly grow familiar (and enamored) with its every nook and cranny. Next to the rousing "Peacebone", second track "Unsolved Mysteries" seemed a little slight. Sure, it's catchy, but where's the climax? Why isn't it bursting out? Combine that with the annoyingly repetitious "Chores", and you have a somewhat underwhelmed listener. Day in, day out, I asked myself: why wasn't I pleased? The tunes were there (arguably more so than on any previous release), the quirky screams and off-kilter lyrics were left intact, and they had grown in their range of instruments. Subsequent listens of the album revealed the answer: I was expecting too much (or, perhaps, not enough). The band were trying to prove that they could be a band that changed its routine every release, a band that evolved
, and I (and, I must assume, many others) shut them out, expecting another Feels
(or, for those who found the album by working backwards, another Merriweather
Still, today, I still don't have much interest in the one-two punch of "Unsolved Mysteries" and "Chores"; both are some of the most blink-and-you'll-miss-it tracks in Animal Collective's whole discography, simply not holding my attention next to "Peacebone" and "For Reverend Green". However, the weakness of these two tracks is soon remedied by the strength of the album's two beasts, the aforementioned "For Reverend Green" and "Fireworks". The former, featuring stuttering guitars and a thumping bass drum, feels introspective and reflective, moving at the speed of life. "Fireworks", however, is much more celebratory and aimed outward. Both songs are complicated in their own right, but it's "Fireworks" that feels especially complex, with its howling vocal lines, which sometimes coincide with and sometimes respond to its piano line. Seemingly everything is going on during the song. Two drum lines (one a constant pattering beat, EQ'd so that it sounds intentionally flat, the other a tribal and polyrhythmic pattern) play with each other while Avey Tare sings about last night's party, the unaffecting conversations he trudges through daily, psychedelic visions: just about everything. However, instead of overflowing, the track feels triumphant (even more so if you see it live (hint: see it live)).
However, if there's a real grower, it's the almost intentionally difficult "#1". The song starts off with a nod to minimalist composers like Steve Reich and Terry Riley: two descending synth lines, playing at slightly different speeds, slowly grow away from each other and then back into each other, replicating the effect of pieces like Reich's "Come Out" and "It's Gonna Rain". The song then incorporates a rhythm and drops one of the synth lines, but something's still off: the beat and the synth line don't fit with each other, instead allowing you to see the effects of two seemingly random patterns on each other. From there, it's a psychedelic freak-out: Panda Bear's vocals keep a sense of normality throughout the song, but Avey Tare employs a vocal effect so bizarre that it will easily polarize any listeners not prepared (proven when the band performed the song, free of expectations, on "Conan O'Brien"). There's the thing, though: I still sing along. The song's melody is unforgettable, smooth, and actually, yes, catchy. The song has the brilliant effect of making more and more sense as it goes on, and it emerges as one of the band's best songs.
Is there more? Yes. Strawberry Jam
is a record so varied and tough to pin down that it's hard to talk about the album as a whole, and easier to simply go for a track-by-track breakdown. However, I'll just let you keep this in mind: this album is, after the inevitable suggestion of Merriweather Post Pavilion
, a good place to start with the band. It creates an experience where the listener can pick out what they do and don't like, and make a decision based from there. For me, "#1", "Winter Wonder Land" and "Peacebone" still reign supreme, but for some, the visceral screams of "For Reverend Green" will lead them to Feels
(and, specifically "Grass"). Or perhaps the celebratory nature of "Fireworks" will show them that "epic" still has a place in electronic pop. Or maybe they'll explore Panda's solo works because "Derek" simply can't be topped. All that matters is that Strawberry Jam
truly feels like the first of records in Animal Collective's discography that doesn't belong purely to them. It's an album for us.