Review Summary: I believe in happiness, do you?
Before Strawberry Jam
was released, precursors stood alert, ready to peg Animal Collective's seventh full-length album as their electronic release. "Peacebone," the disc's first single, showed samples and electronic battering playing like a circuit, while a bass drum crescendoed until it transformed the unreasonably catchy loop into an even more infectious sixties-pop experiment. Panda Bear (a.k.a. Noah Lennox) even admitted that the sequencer-savvy Person Pitch
was a dive into dance, and their previous works had always been incorporating sonic textures and cantankerous loops into their songs. Perhaps the move was inevitable.
Dig deeper, though. Dig past the near-Amphetamine Beat poetry and dig through the childlike vocal ethic. It seems that again, Animal Collective are throwing the conventions of "cool" right out the window; again they are challenging what music may "mean," while remaining as catchy as ever the whole way through. They're still putting emphasis on their collective immaturity, using their charming naïvete to their advantage, making the record far more whimsical and far more fun than it would be without it. It's a fairy-tale winter wonderland with it, but without it, a flop.
There aren't any bad tracks on the album, but you can tell that the identity the album takes on makes the record what it is, instead of fading into obscurity. It's not something to criticize, though, for it makes Animal Collective's talent all the more obvious. You can tell that the African-pop "Chores" wouldn't work if it hadn't been Lennox and Avery Tare behind the music. Their specific timing, subtle nuances, and relatively innovative take on pop music is a hard one to craft, one which requires talent in order to transform it from a novel concept into a charming and entertaining result.
"Winter Wonderland" shows this theory best - conceptually, just another electro-world-indie song, but performed like an inviting pop track. Another example is the explosive "Cuckoo Cuckoo," which constantly escalates in terms of intensity, featuring oscillating pitch-and-buzz, thunderous percussion, piano fills, and loud guitar chords. It's a track with special needs, like the constant barrage of hooks, the "new" twang, and a healthy dose of diversity, and Animal Collective provides it all.
The hooks come from all sorts of places, like gut-wrenching "vomit noises" and ironical ooohh-aaahhhhs. Tare's octave-leaps wouldn't sit well on many other releases, but the childlike innocence that Animal Collective endows their music with makes it appropriate, if not desired. Panda Bear (Lennox), is still a creature of honesty, his tone aching with a diverse range of emotions, but does it come across as a cheap theatric? Hell no, this is Broadway. Similarly, synths and other electronics bounce off walls, only to later fold into themselves, switching from chipper bleeps and bloops into muddled fuzz. Ambient tricks surround the album, causing "For Reverend Green" to spiral into its conceptually similar successor, but don't think that hard knobs and rubber pegs aren't making pretty pop melodies for a second. They follow the album around every step of the way, highlighting the seventies-pastiche that is "#1," as well as the folk-meets-West African closer, "Derek." It's an interesting feat, seeing the austere guitar chords slowly changing into a world-conscious refrain, and it's confounding when you realize how the group manages to do this while staying inviting and accessible.
does this though and it does it well. It treads experimental waters, but shines through as a completely accessible listen, combining wild lyrical antics ("you're processing letters that you use to cook your broccoli," really?), a quaint vocal synthesis, and numerous creatively catchy refrains without breaking a sweat. It seems like a little piece of whimsy, conceived in the realm of fairy-tales and sugar creatures, but still able to adapt somehow in our parallel universe. Sure, the results spiral from sugary pop to psychotic noise along the way, but both styles are infectious and memorable, if not utterly engrossing.