Nothing frustrates a music critic more than a band that refuses categorization. Lots of bands, intoxicated with their own creativity, might make the claim. Not many, after a few records, resist a formula or a style that isn’t easily pigeonholed in a pithy phrase or two.
On the basis of last year’s critically acclaimed, acoustically based fifth album, “Sung Tongs,” the four-piece Animal Collective was lumped into the “freak folk” category with the likes of singer-songwriter Devendra Banhardt and, to a lesser extent, harpist/singer Joanna Newsome. Listen to the preceding four records — noisier, rawer, and much more electronic — and that label is questionable.
“Feels,” their poppy and expansive sixth album, released last month, jumps in another direction entirely. The opener, “Did You See the Words,” rushes forward, propelled by a simple galloping rhythm, a burbling piano (courtesy of mum’s Kristin Anna Valtysdottir) and electronica, all seamlessly weaved together into something that resembles a pop song — minus the usual pop-song tropes.
“The Purple Bottle” has that same poppy giddiness rounded out by contorted Beach Boys-style vocal arrangements. “Banshee Beat” meanders into electronic washes a la Aphex Twin albeit with acoustic guitars and heartfelt vocals. Those critics who until recently had been putting the band in the songwriting tradition of “Americana” probably went scampering for their dictionaries upon hearing the new album.
“We were never into the Americana things, though many people assume that we are,” says the group’s electronics maestro Brian Weitz on the phone from Italy where the band is currently touring.
“Folk music is not really properly [categorized] by the media. Punk rock is really folk music. The fact that we write about our lives could make it folk music. But the media is generally trying to say that we are part of a singer-songwriter tradition that we don’t feel a part of.”
This is not to say that there is nothing holding together the AC oeuvre. Underlying each album — whether it be the harsher dissonance of “Here Comes the Indian,” the autistic folk of “Sung Tongs” or the expansive pop of “Feels” — is an exuberant, almost primal excitement, about sound and what can be done with it. Animal Collective began as a bunch of kids playing music in their parents’ basement and they have hung onto that sense of wonder ever since.
“Once we were all in New York and began to play shows, it was important to us to let people know that playing music was like the way a child first experiences everything: new or exciting,” says Weitz.
“There is no over-thinking.
“In the mid-’90s, the [music] scene had this academic atmosphere, especially coming out of Chicago and the Thrill Jockey post-rock scene. And we just didn’t understand this. Those people just didn’t look like they were having fun.
“We were very much into the same things they were — Steve Reich and minimalism and contemporary classical stuff — but we didn’t think about it in these academic terms like, ‘Wow, isn’t that chordal structure interesting.’ When we listened to Stockhausen or musique concrete, it was like ‘That’s a really fun noise.’ “
The childlike label has also been prompted by the band’s tendency to play in masks (animal masks, of course) and their insistence, until recently, of being identified only by pseudonyms: the Geologist for Weitz; Avey Tare for vocalist and guitarist Dave Porter; Panda Bear for drummer Noah Lennox and Deaken for guitarist Josh Dibb.
With band members currently residing in Brooklyn, Baltimore and Lisbon, Portugal, these roles are necessarily fluid at best. Dibb and Weitz didn’t even play on “Sung Tongs” and some earlier albums now identified under the Animal Collective moniker were in fact released under the names of various individuals when they first came out.
Yet the AC identity as a group and, most importantly, a group of friends is another brick in the foundations that underlie Animal Collective’s disparate albums. Much of the brightness of “Feels” comes from the comfort of a long friendship in which many of the kinks have been finally ironed out.
“It was a very healthy time,” says Weitz of the album’s six-week recording session in Seattle.
“It was maybe the best place we’ve ever been in terms of being a band and friends at the same time. I’m not sure how it is reflected in the sound except that we play well together whereas on the last record we all did [as a full band] — ‘Here Comes the Indian’ — the instrumentation conflicts, with a lot of noise and things butting up against each other. There was a lot of aggression funneling through the music toward each other.”
The band’s somewhat internalized focus bleeds into their live shows as well. At their one show in Tokyo two years ago, before the release of “Sung Tongs,” Lennox and Dibb, representing the group, sported their requisite animal masks and coaxed an array of strange and wonderful sounds out of the their guitars in gleeful obliviousness to their audience. Indeed, the group’s cacophonous and expansive music often sounds improvised live.
The band’s increasing popularity, though, has forced them to make one or two concession along the way. Now, they include older material in their sets, compared to previous tours when AC would perform only unreleased material. Thus Tokyo fans should be able to hear one or two cuts from “Sung Tongs” or “Feels” on the group’s upcoming Japan tour early next year.
“We joked about having an iPod on a table and if people requested an old song we would just press play and go back stage,” says Weitz.
“We have played some of the ‘Feels’ songs for so long is it hard to know if you still feel them or not. I prefer playing the new material. I don’t really care if the audience is listening to these songs because I am feeling so strongly about them. To me, I am just playing with three of my friends.”