By Daniel Strawhun, A&E Editor
Animal Collective is a band that has built a reputation through constant reinvention. Since its inception in 2000, the Baltimore-based experimental pop group has been in a state of intentional flux, both in terms of its lineup and artistic vision. The band has existed as a duo, trio, and quartet at various points in time and has produced a diverse body of work spanning ten full-length studio albums, eight EPs, three live albums, and one visual album, which diverse body of work includes forays into psychedelic pop, ambient drone, dance, folk, field recordings, and noise rock.
For this reason, it may seem oxymoronic to call the amorphous collective’s new EP, “The Painters,” a return to form—but that is exactly what it is.
In recent years, Animal Collective has struggled to recover from the commercial success and critical acclaim of “Merriweather Post Pavilion,” the 2009 breakthrough album that helped deliver the group out of the obscurity of the avant-garde and into popular consciousness. The two studio albums that the band has since released—“Centipede Hz” and “Painting With”—have felt uninspired in comparison, lacking the ineffable “truth” that the earlier work expressed.
But that has all changed with “The Painters.” The four-song EP was released February 17 by Domino and features songs recorded during the “Painting With” studio sessions. But, though the songs were recorded during the same creative era as “Painting With” and are being billed as more or less an addendum to the album, they feel wholly different from it. Unlike those on “Painting With,” the songs on “The Painters” sound sincere and unrehearsed, conveying the kind of pure, unselfconscious emotion that the band captured on such albums as “Spirit They’ve Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished,” “Sung Tongs,” “Strawberry Jam,” and “Merriweather Post Pavilion.”
The band released the first track on the EP, “Kinda Bonkers,” as a lyric video teaser on Youtube on February 13. The song begins with a cross stick beat and a looped human-voice sample, leading into David Portner’s distinctive vocals. As is the case with most of Animal Collective’s songs, the lyrics in “Kinda Bonkers” take a secondary importance to the pure instrumental quality of Portner’s voice. He draws out syllables and swaps stresses, abstracting the once meaningful lyrics into pure, expressive sound.
“Peacemaker,” the next song on the EP, is by far the best of the four new songs. The track opens with a pulsing bass rhythm that guides the call-and-response style singing of bandmate Noah Lennox, a signature technique that fans of Animal Collective are already well-acquainted with. The production on the track is impeccable: It is clean, but not sterile. The song was obviously written by Lennox, who performs under the stage name Panda Bear and has released five studio albums of his own. It sounds stylistically similar to the work on Lennox’s latest album, “Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper,” yet it avoids falling into some of the musical pitfalls that songs on the album succumbed to, viz. repetition without sufficient evolution. “Peacemaker” is indeed repetitive, at least technically, but the song nevertheless seems to arrive at a destination altogether different than that whence it came.
Also included on “The Painters” is Animal Collective’s first ever studio cover, “Jimmy Mack,” originally performed by the Motown R&B trio Martha and the Vandellas. David Portner reimagines the phrasing of the song’s opening chorus, slowing it down considerably with his reverb-laden voice while a wall of digital noise and discordant drum fills surges in the background. This mounting tension is relieved by the sudden shift into the song’s first verse, at which point the song becomes a bouncing pop number that threatens at times to careen out of control.
“The Painters” EP is a welcome return to form for Animal Collective and is well worth owning. It is available in vinyl, CD, and digital formats through Domino Recording.