Animal Collective - Centipede Hz
Record Label - Domino
Release Date - September 4, 2012
In the parlance of the Flaming Lips, on Animal Collective's newest LP, "a spoonful weighs a ton." Of course as every amateur astronomer knows, the Lips were talking about the sun and I'm talking about a record. Centipede Hz is an unbelievably dense concoction of odds and ends, squelching sounds, and fuzzed out riffs piled atop one another and stitched together with a grimy rhythm and the group's clairvoyant, melodic vocals.
I wouldn't be surprised if someone found this album utterly unlistenable only to find the person standing next to them declare it to be the album of the year. It's one of the most unlistenable listenable albums I've heard. The record's first single "Today's Supernatural" begins its chorus with a stuttered "C'mon Let-t-t-t-t it go" before a baroque riff tears away. The psyched out video that accompanied the track left just about everyone wondering what the hell they were letting go of. Sanity or reality seemed to be less than a foothold and as for that stuttered phrase, it was about as jarring and infectious as you could get.
For a band that spiked the folk punch with ecstasy, brought back a 70s one-album wonder, and afro-popped their most mainstream record, Merriweather Post Pavilion, I suppose that Centipede Hz is a natural progression. If Animal Collective decided to make music on the moon, I don't think I'd be surprised. And while you need a flashlight and ADHD to follow every musical twist and turn, this album is, if nothing else, proof that these guys are some of the best music-makers going today. What's so confounding is that they put themselves in these circumstances. Whatever happened to the straightforward song? Even something as seemingly straightforward as "Who Could Win a Rabbit?" And, what makes them able to get away with this?
To answer the second question first, at the root of the band seems to be an uncanny commitment to lyrics and even a kind of sentimentality that few indie bands (cynics that many of us are) can muster. Check this lyrical flourish from "Applesauce":
When a farmer picks a good thing (when you think you don't know you don't know what comes next) Then a kid he picks a good thing (When you think you don't know you don't know what comes next)
Then a chef she makes a good thing (When you think you don't know you don't know what comes next)Then a mayor eats a good thing (When you think you don't know you don't know what comes next) Ripe and whole we can move outside us
Thanks to lyrics007.com for that one, because it would've taken me days to figure out what they're saying. The sentiment in that song (and the whole album for that matter) is so naïve, so innocent, that it feels picked (pun intended) from an Andrews Sisters tune. It's a tune they've trafficked in for a while -- who doesn't want adobe slabs for their girl? The following track, "Wide Eyed," sounds like John Lennon in space, melodic and blissed out. It's hard to suspect that Animal Collective are taking their lyrical motifs ironically. More than most of their albums, you can hear the strain of singing on their voices. And in the thicket of sounds, the vocal work operates as the strongest of melodic-bearing instruments providing a backbone for Collective to drape their sounds around. Sonically, the antithesis of this album would be Lower Dens' Nootropics from earlier this year. While Hunter gives space for the audience's mind to cover between notes, Tare, Bare, Geologist and Deakin seem to be actively trying to start hallucination by providing external stimuli which you may or may not already have in your system while listening to this.
Though the sonic structure does seem to settle down a bit after the first few tracks particularly on "New Town Burnout" and "Monkey Riches," the psych riff blares on. Psychedelia seems to be the currency of this record what the Collective is trying to transvalue and turn on its head as they seem to do for every record. While psychedelia relied on caterwauls and the wa wa pedal, Animal Collective psychs us out with rhythm that seems to start and stop and re start again. It's the experience of drugs, it feels like, all over again. Only this time, instead of seeing visions, we're being given an alternate experience through the music. It's only logical then that closing track "Amanita" starts with something that sounds like it came out of a Thai record studio in the 1970s. There seems to be little area uncovered by this record and all of it is re-digested and thrown back out you.
The question which this record seems to draw up for me most is why are we having this move toward unlistenable music. And I don't want you to get me wrong here, I'm not bashing Animal Collective by any stretch of the imagination. In fact to make sure that I'm perfectly clear: I like this album. Despite the scatterbrained feeling at times and the tugs and turns of all the different songwriters in Animal Collective seemingly battling over one another, it feels like a sort of icon of contemporary independent music. Why are we making music like this?
Some years ago, I was giving a paper in graduate school, ironically enough, on Fugazi. I'm not sure what I was doing in the panel or at the conference and neither did the host of the panel as she tossed me a pity question after the other people on the panel had answered their fair share of hard-hitting academic discourse -- "what will punk rock look like in the future?" She asked. My initial response was that punk would get further and further out there that the song structures themselves would become so foreign that punk, as an anti-mainstream stance, would be incorruptible and unsellable to the culture industry. I mean, who wants to see Lightning Bolt in a Taco Bell commercial?
Animal Collective, though not a punk band, seems to be able to reset much of music on the wildly creative outbursts that result in these albums (as well as the 7" Honeycomb/Gotham and the new track, "Crimson"). In other words, they seem able to sum up everything that's going on in one huge album. As the independent music world seeks to remain independent, we're turning to weirder and weirder stuff to make that happen. This is becoming how we are defining ourselves in this large community where we rest. The more esoteric and difficult = the more rep and the more authentic. My fear is that this can lead to excess without substance and a whole group of us listening to something so complex and out there that there's no there there. Centipede Hz creeps up to this line without crossing it. This is a true tribute to the folks of Animal Collective. They have, as the song says, "let it go." Now, how far do you want to go?