Review Summary: Animal Collective release one strictly for the fans, but that doesn't mean it's completely impenetrable. Hidden gems abound.
For some listeners (including me), on first listen, Animal Collective's 2009 live box set Animal Crack Box
isn't even listenable until the seventh song. Up until then, the collection is the Animal Collective you always feared: the dissonant, murky textures of Danse Manatee
, the frighteningly visceral rhythms of Hollinndagain
, the more feedback-loop-drenched sonics of their debut Spirit They're Gone, Spirit They've Vanished
; it's all here. These first six songs are unrelentingly raw examples of a band that hasn't quite worked out what it does best, instead opting for the childish chants and sloppy drum rolls that make their early music just a little bit scary. On their respective albums (for the ones that were even on
albums, that is) these songs were rough and unpolished; here they're even more coarse, most of them being performed well before their release on an album (such as Side A's "Jimmy Raven" (known as "The Living Toys" on Danse Manatee
) and "Ahhh Good Country", both being performed in 2000, a year before their debut on Danse
). Which begs the question: why would any knowledgeable fan, most of who would stray away from early works like Danse
, want to grab this limited-release collection, which contains even more noise and dissonance"
The answer partly lies in the fact that many fans of albums like Merriweather Post Pavilion
want to experience this album. Probably the farthest cry from material like "My Girls" in their whole discography, the majority of Animal Crack Box
is eerie, discordant, and, really, a huge mess. But it's a fascinating mess. If you've explored the depth of their later works and want to see the band's growth in progress, there's really no better way to do it then to pick up this live set. Spanning around three years, it consists of twenty hand-picked recordings, all from a live setting, assembled in a way so that the listener can enjoy various "stages" of the band all together in one place. If you feel like listening to Danse
-esque ditties of drum rolls and hoots, then Side A would be your best bet. If Campfire Songs
particularly appealed to you, then Side C, with its calm brushstrokes of melodies and guitar strums, is the way to go. What about the full-band psych-rock of Here Comes the Indian
" Side E is there for you. Of course, instead of listening to it one side at a time, the box is also fascinating as a whole: it's the only comprehensive package to give a look into the band's evolution, one album after another. Animal Crack Box
is essentially the equivalent of cutting the band's first few releases (from Danse Manatee
up to Here Comes the Indian
) into bite-sized collections of live pieces.
That the album was recorded entirely in a live setting is significant: the band has always been one that are known for their live shows, and it's evident that the early studio albums replicated their live performances, and not the other way around. The band saw live shows as an opportunity to test out songs that they weren't quite sure were ready to be on albums yet, and play around with ideas that would be shunned elsewhere. Of course, it wasn't all just playing around: Side C, which kicks off with "Jungle Heat", is particularly calm and beautiful, being much more reminiscent of Campfire Songs
than the tribal stomp of Danse
. "Jungle Heat" itself is excellent, showing just how much of a left turn their acoustic works really were. Relying on a two-note motif, it stays relatively the same throughout its three-and-a-half minute length, but isn't ever boring. Following "Jungle Heat", "Hey Friend" intriguingly brings together two rhythms that don't quite fit together, but it still sounds genuinely pretty. The side climaxes with Campfire Songs
' "De Soto De Son", a masterpiece in its studio form and almost as good here. As opposed to the album version, here it seems less whispery, more focused, and perhaps a little less magical. Though it seems a little less spontaneous, it still includes many of the detours that made the Campfire Songs
version so intriguing, culminating with Avey Tare's "I know that she's leavin'" line, performed with an emotional intensity not found anywhere else on the set.
Despite its dynamic beauty, Side C's three songs seems like a warm-up to Sides D and E, some of the most intense and texturally complicated music of their early career. Side D kicks off powerfully with "Oh Sweet", which almost sounds like the band's warped version of noise rock, including ferociously echoing guitars and oscillating synths. At almost seven-and-a-half minutes, the song slightly overstays its welcome, but this is remedied by the short (and sweet) "Young Prayer #2" (as you can probably tell, the second track from Panda Bear's album "Young Prayer"). Similar to the tracks on Side C, it's the band's acoustic beauty at its best. "Young Prayer #2" soon segues into "Do the Nurse", which is not unlike "Oh Sweet" in terms of texture and structure. However, all of these seem to culminate with Side E's "Ice Cream Factory", one of the more brilliant unreleased tracks on the album. Not only does it contain one of the most catchy melodies on the box, but it also perfects their use of abrasive sonics and tribal rhythms, coming out as an easy standout. Awesomely, it leads into a version of Here Comes the Indian
's "Hey Light", even more intense than the album version (and slightly more sloppy).
Animal Crack Box
ends brilliantly. Many refer to Sung Tongs
as the point where Animal Collective became "the band" to look out for. Fittingly, Side F's five songs are right around the era where the band truly started to refine their songwriting to freak-folk perfection (three of Side F's tracks would later appear on Sung Tongs
). Even the ones that didn't find a home on the album are excellent. "Don't Believe the Pilot", with its slowly increasing tempo, is awesomely quirky Animal Collective. Containing a catchy melody, nonsensical lyrics, and what seems to be an impression of a plane engine, the song could have easily fit with "Who Could Win a Rabbit" or "We Tigers" on their 2004 album. "Covered in Frogs" is also special, consisting of a single strummed chord and hazy vocals a la "Visiting Friends" or "Baleen Sample". The set ends with an completely awful recording of "We Tigers", as if the band is poking fun at its listeners. Just about every sound is clipped on the song, rendering it nearly unlistenable. What the band's intentions were placing the song at the end of the whole box is unknown, but the end result is absolutely hilarious.
As "We Tigers" shows, Animal Crack Box
is not perfect. Not even close. In fact, those who find the band's early work too difficult should probably stay the hell away. However, it has a place in the band's repertoire, as a little curio that exemplifies the band's growth throughout its years. If this means a handful of skippable tracks, so be it. This one's strictly for the fans. Before the seemingly trashy version of "We Tigers" fades out, you hear one last thing: the crowd cheering the band on like mad.