Review Summary: A duo, knee deep in experimental folk, making waves.
In 2000 'Spirit They've Gone, Spirit They've Vanished' was released by 'Avey Tare and Panda Bear' (aka David Portner and Noah Lennox respectively). Originally to be released under the Avey Tare name only, Portner decided to credit Lennox equally on the album, after being duly impressed by Lennox's contribution to the percussion, so upon its first release the artist name for the album was 'Avey Tare and Panda Bear'. 'Spirit' went under the name Animal Collective upon its re-release in 2003, as by the band's fourth album they were working as a foursome, and so for convenience's sake decided to call the collaborative work done together as being part of the band Animal Collective.
When talking about later Animal Collective albums it is usually of interest to look back and see how far they've come, and just how the sound has changed with a particular release. With this album it makes sense to take the briefest of glances forward. Whereas bands such as Radiohead have had a successful musical career marked by a clear 'revolution' in the form of Kid A, Animal Collective have furthered their sound by clear 'evolutions'. This could mislead some into thinking that 'Spirit' only looks to mark the beginnings of something great. In fact what we have here is an album that in no way sounds like tentative first steps. On the contrary it is a release that stands well on its own feet, and only occasionally is it lost it its own naivety. The style of music on this album mixes guitar led romps and haunting piano melodies in a synth setting that sounds like something borrowed from 'The Clangers', or for those looking for a more modern cultural reference, 'Garth Marenghi's Darkplace', aka 70s - 80s space synths. The guitar often does no more than lead the way for the synths and piano. This is a shame as it is often when all other sounds die down, and all that is left is the guitar and Avey's voice, we eventually begin to see the bare bones of melody, rhythm, and lyricism, and just how beautifully crafted they are in their most basic form. These moments are well shown in songs such as 'April and the Phantom' and 'Chocolate Girl', where Avey lets his voice dance over the very natural beat provided by the guitar, and this contrasts wonderfully with the very ethereal sounds surrounding the album in the whole. This realisation however can highlight the weaker parts of the album, those parts where Avey's vocals take a back seat, like in 'Someday I'll Grow To Be As Tall As The Giant', or where the singing happens to be particularly uninspired, such as the start of 'Bat You'll Fly'.
Avey's singing is often thoroughly pleasant here, but at times, and to the record's weakness, frustratingly inoffensive. When 'Penny Dreadfuls' reaches its climax, it isn't so much the sound of Avey unleashing himself, but a glimpse of just how much promise he has, managing to strike the perfect balance between power and emotion with his voice. Throughout the album the vocals work well, only faltering in that as of yet it seems Avey has not fully the cojones to make the hair on the back of your neck stand up, but that's not to say that your ears won't prick up delightfully at times. 'Penny Dreadfuls' is a fantastical example of experimental folk, as it demands your attention for just under eight minutes and sounds like what could have been had Billy Corgan been abducted by aliens and taught how to play their instrument made out of stars, around the time of 'Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness'. This song is one of the album's highlights, and Avey could easily have embraced excessive grandeur with it, but in the end manages to pull off what starts as an unconventional slab of ambience rock and turn it into the sound of releasing one's worries and problems to a cold and star-filled night.
The songs themselves are all unique and manage to bring something different to the album without ever feeling out of place or uncomfortable. The untitled third track, which is born straight after the pleasant Beatles-esque romp of 'April and the Phantom', seems to highlight just what Animal Collective are trying to achieve on this album as we have the screeching of electronica playing over a mixture of falling triplets and shifting chords on the piano which develops a haunting atmosphere. The 'alienating' tones of electronica only serve to accentuate the piano as it takes us from the safe world of folk into something that may be a lot darker but definitely a lot more exciting. April and the Phantom manages to mix almost perfectly the dizzying sounds of synths with the playful melodies of guitar whilst Avey lets his voice dart around the stratosphere. The album closer 'Alvin Row' changes direction several times through its twelve minute plus journey, and we are buoyed along with it. Leaving something so ambitious this late in the album feels like we are being told this band has a lot more to them than is on display here. 'Chocolate Girl' is a soft and delicately constructed song with the trio of piano, synth and guitar, all taking their turns at giving the song their best. In it Avey sings 'I'll take you for walks on the ocean' and it truly feels that this is where we are being led by Animal Collective on 'Spirit'; we are in a place that can be cold, dark, and contain the 'unknown', but the guides at our side want us to know that the 'unknown' is as pleasant as the conch shell you held to your ear when you were a child, just a little louder.
'La Rapet', 'Bat You'll Fly', and 'Someday I'll Grow to Be as Tall as the Giant' don't seem to exalt the same excitement the previous tracks on the album do, and unfortunately bring the album to a halt in that respect. It's not that the songs confuse, or go too 'out there' in terms of what they demand of the listener, they simply decide to not strike the same balance the earlier tracks do of melody and the disjointing of the norm. It would be easy to write this album off as a promising start, and nothing more. The first six tracks excite and startle with their vivacity, and some moments in the later songs sparkle with freshness also, especially the closer, 'Alvin Row'. The latter half of the album just doesn't retain the same sense of discovery, unfortunately. The feeling of treading on an undiscovered, sacred land, which the first half manages to capture exceptionally doesn't seem to have any relevance in the second half. It's as if we glimpse upon something amazing at first, and as 'Everyone Whistling' fades out, this then marks the end of this part of our experience, as what once was amazing becomes regular afterwards. There is certainly very little doubt by the end of this album that Animal Collective are already more than competent at flexing their creative muscles with beautiful results, but the feeling that they could be let down by an occasional lapse in their own sense of direction is something that cannot be shaken. In truth, they have created an excellent album, and as guides to this peculiar land, you'd want no others.