Everyone Loves Animal Collective, But You Should Hear Them Anyway

It’s been about a week now since U2’s new single, “Get On Your Boots,” was released. And it’s taken me this long to conclude that I really don’t like it.

The song is the first taste of the new record, called No Line on the Horizon. I’ve been unaccountably excited about this album for a while now – I liked the last two U2 offerings quite a bit, pulsing as they did with the blood of a revitalized band, but this one seemed from the start like a new beast. The last few years have felt like U2 proving themselves again, after their flirtations with irony and trashy pop in the ‘90s, and now that they have, they’re free to stretch out and try some new things. What would this venerated band come up with?

Well, “Get On Your Boots” sounds like “Vertigo” as remixed by Depeche Mode. Really. It explodes to life on Larry Mullen’s drums, but the riff sounds like “rawk mode” U2 on autopilot, and the “sexy boots, get on your boots” refrain is just silly. I admire the chorus more than like it – it doesn’t exactly stick in your head. Sonically, it’s kind of awesome, especially the drum break section, but as a song, the whole thing just sits there. It doesn’t exactly bode well.

But then, I’ve hated most of U2’s singles, and enjoyed the albums anyway. I am still looking forward to No Line on the Horizon, even with song titles like “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” and “Fez – Being Born.” It’s out March 3, but you can hear “Get On Your Boots” for free here.

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I am not sure how to review Merriweather Post Pavilion.

Let me clarify that. I know how to do it – I’ve heard these 11 songs a few times now, I’ve formulated some thoughts about them, and I can easily just type those thoughts down. What I mean is, I’m not sure how to review this without sounding like I’m just adding to the deafening chorus of hype. Ordinarily, I don’t care, but in this case, the thought has me all but paralyzed.

Merriweather, the ninth album from Baltimore’s Animal Collective, has been praised up and down by pretty much everybody. I almost feel bad for the band – this album has been caught up in a hypestorm they had nothing to do with. Chicago’s own Greg Kot called it 2009’s first great album, and several critics have suggested that you won’t hear anything better this year. (Seriously, guys, it’s January. Calm down.) It is clearly the new year’s first Big Deal.

So here is my dilemma. Is this album as good as everyone says it is? Of course not. But it is very, very good, and under normal circumstances, I’d be happy to list off all the things I like about it, all the reasons I expect to keep coming back to it over the next few months. This is the first Animal Collective album I have liked, let alone liked this much, and it deserves all the positive things I’m going to say about it. Unfortunately, I’m feeling this bizarre need to temper my enthusiasm, to let you, dear reader, know that while I like Merriweather Post Pavilion, I don’t think it’s the second coming of Pet Sounds or anything.

You may laugh at the old-guy analogy, but if there’s one touchstone that keeps coming up throughout Merriweather, it’s Brian Wilson. Like every Animal Collective record, this one is drenched in reverb, coated in odd effects, and endlessly sonically manipulated. But at its core, this is sunshine pop – exuberant, tuneful, floating on lush harmonies, just happy to be alive. It’s California pop refracted through a broken, fucked-up prism.

This is not a million miles from the material Animal Collective has given us before, so why does this one work so well? A couple of reasons. First, they reined in their tendency to smear everything they do with ugly noise. There’s still plenty of digital slop on this album, but it’s all useful noise, if that makes any sense. Every element of this album adds to the overall feeling – the droning keyboards, the tape effects, the unutterably bizarre sounds, they all serve to propel this collection down the trippiest of tunnels. Honestly, this is quite the studio production – it will strike your ear as massive and occasionally dissonant, but never cluttered or murky. Well, except when it’s murky on purpose.

The big reason, though, is the songs. These are the most melodic, most – dare I say it – accessible songs of the band’s career. They are tightly arranged, even danceable things, and the choruses bring Brian Wilson to mind more than once. Just about everything is sung in harmony, and when the trio lays on the soaring vocals, it’s pretty magical. Collective member Panda Bear approached this kind of thing on his solo album, Person Pitch, but he wrote drones instead of songs. These, these are songs. You could play “Summertime Clothes” with just an acoustic guitar, and it would still be a good song.

Of course, they never strip things down that far. Or at all, really. Merriweather Post Pavilion maintains a consistent tone throughout, and that tone is huge. Occasionally, you can hear a piano (as on the very Beach Boys “Guys Eyes”) or an acoustic guitar anchoring things, but most of this record is both submerged in and enveloped by pure, beautiful sound. Keyboards, effects, strange bits, samples, loops, drones, and general weirdness abound, and the vocals, intertwining and spinning skyward, fill in all of the nooks and crannies left. It is one of the strangest-sounding records I’ve heard in a while, and yet, it all works.

Are there problems with it? Of course. Some of the songs in the second half drag a little – the buzzing drone in “Lion in a Coma” doesn’t do the threadbare melody any favors, and “No More Runnin’” doesn’t seem to know where it’s going for the majority of its running time. But these minor issues are easily forgiven when the band can come up with something as consistently thrilling as the closing track, “Brother Sport.” It’s like a campfire round in South Africa, backed by a chorus of computers, percussion pounding as the voices climb higher and higher. It’s simply splendid.

You see where I’m struggling, though? I like Merriweather Post Pavilion a lot, but everything I’ve said here sounds like that tsunami of hype swirling ever closer. I want to reach the people who, like me, are naturally averse to that kind of noise – who don’t, as the man once said, believe the hype. I want to reach those people and get them to try this record, not because I think it’s the Best Album Ever, but because it’s actually a unique and interesting disc.

Hype has a way of turning people off, and Merriweather Post Pavilion is good enough that it would be a shame to oversell it. That ship has probably sailed, but it’s worth a try anyway. This is a very good album that should be given a chance to breathe and connect with people. Ignore the noise, tune out the buzz, and just listen.

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I somehow missed Bon Iver’s terrific debut, For Emma, Forever Ago last year.

It’s not that strange for me to miss something, but this record was such a conversation piece for so many months, and on so many people’s best-of lists, that I feel pretty dumb for not having picked it up sooner. It’s everything people say it is – a gorgeous, snow-capped paean to loneliness and despair that somehow avoids every cliché it should fall into.

By now you probably know the story, but here’s a recap in case, like me, you missed out on this. Songwriter Justin Vernon saw his band and his relationship evaporate, and came down with some kind of liver disease at the same time. Broken, he moved into his father’s cabin in Wisconsin, and spent the next few months alone, writing and recording songs. He called his new project Bon Iver, a bastardization of a French phrase meaning “good winter.”

The resulting album was For Emma, performed entirely by Vernon. While this is a sparse collection of folk songs, it’s not some bare-bones affair – Vernon overdubbed himself a hundred different times, giving his little tunes a vast, yet intimate scope. The record bleeds heartbreak, but it never sounds mopey or contrived. It just sounds real.

Almost from the moment For Emma came out, though, people have been asking The Question. For artists with any ambition at all, there’s only one: “What’s next?” But for Vernon, The Question takes on new meaning – without For Emma’s backstory and legend, would another Bon Iver album connect the same way with people?

He’s gone some distance towards answering The Question with a new Bon Iver EP, Blood Bank, out last week. The good news is, these are new songs, mostly divorced from the For Emma project. The bad news is, there are only four of them, and one of them comes from the Emma sessions. This is a step forward for Vernon, but not a big one – he still needs that proper follow-up.

But for now, this is what’s next, and it’s very good. The title track is first, and this is the one that hails from the previous album sessions. As you might expect, it retains the same sound – strummed acoustics, oceans of harmonies, lyrics about devotion and loss. One gets the sense that this is Vernon holding his audience’s hand, leading them away from For Emma and into new worlds.

And from there, Vernon does start exploring. “Beach Baby” is the kind of unadorned acoustic piece he’s largely stayed away from, but the results are so pretty, it makes you wonder why. Vernon’s voice is high and fragile here, a singular instrument. “Babys” is a complete turnaround, comprised of mantra-like pianos tumbling into one another while the stacked harmonies carry it forward. Halfway through the vocals encounter a deep valley of nothing, and it’s a breathtaking moment.

And then there is “Woods,” which will shock you like nothing else here. It’s a four-line poem, repeated over and over, entirely a capella – Vernon starts off warping his voice through a vocoder, Kanye style, and then adds layer after layer of that voice, through half a dozen different effects. The result is mesmerizing and unforgettable – it sounds so thoroughly wrong that it’s exactly right, and it’s as haunting as anything he’s made, if not more.

There isn’t quite enough music here to determine just what kind of artist Justin Vernon is going to be, now that he’s past his For Emma stage. But the risks he takes, especially on the last two tracks, bode well for the future. I’m more curious than ever to hear the next Bon Iver album, but the baby step forward that is Blood Bank will do for now.

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And now, the first installment of a new semi-regular feature called Stuff I Missed.

There’s a lot of music out there – dozens of albums come out each week. And while I try to hear as much as time and finances will allow, sometimes, well… I miss stuff. So here’s where I try to catch up, reviewing the records from years past that I just didn’t hear in time.

The first Stuff I Missed is dedicated to Dr. Tony Shore, one of my most faithful friends and musical compatriots. Tony runs ObviousPop, a blog-slash-podcast all about new pop music. He loves big choruses, sweeping backing vocals, and (yes, I will say the word) quirky production. If you like the Beatles, Jellyfish, Ben Folds or They Might Be Giants, you’ll find a lot to love on Tony’s site. I’ve known him long enough to know not only what he likes, but that I will most often like the same things, so I rarely regret taking one of Dr. Shore’s recommendations.

If you click over to his site, you’ll notice he’s listed his favorite albums of 2008 over on the left hand side. And you’ll see a strange choice at number one – an unknown band from Ann Arbor, Michigan called Tally Hall. Who the hell are Tally Hall?

For some reason, I took way too long answering that question for myself. Who are Tally Hall? One of the oddest, funniest pop bands to come along in ages. If you remember Moxy Fruvous, you’ve got the idea – they’re five guys who sing like a barbershop quartet, but play a hundred different kinds of pop music, mostly with wry, ironic smiles on their faces.

Yes, Tally Hall is a gimmick band – they wear matching white shirts with individually-colored ties, and refer to each other by those colors. (“Green’s got keys,” for instance, or “Give Blue the bass.”) And yes, the title of their debut album is seriously Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum. And you really have to see the detailed cartoon artwork that graces their cover. They’ve made it a little too easy to dismiss them as a joke band, a novelty act.

But man, these boys can play. And sing! I could tell just from the first few moments of breathtaking harmony on opening track “Good Day” why Dr. Shore loves this band. The song starts as a simple piano number, but quickly blossoms into a massive pop wonderama. It’s deceptive – the theatrical aspects overshadow the strong melody at first, but given time, you can hear just how well-written this song is.

No one song is big enough to hold Tally Hall, though. Their album is bursting at the seams with variety, like an old-school Queen record, and while that naturally leads to a lack of consistency, the trade-off is a wild ride of a listening experience. The ground drops away beneath your feet again and again on Marvin, and by the end, you’ll scarcely believe this is all the work of the same five guys.

They follow “Good Day” with “Greener,” a Barenaked Ladies-style pop-rocker that could almost be described as normal, but one track later, they hit you with their tongue-in-cheek ode to themselves, “Welcome to Tally Hall.” If the rest of the album weren’t so strong, this song would fall flat on its face – it’s a mock rap over lounge-style pianos that really reminds me of Fruvous. I’m especially fond of the verse rapped in an awful British accent: “I might rap like an English chap, take you by the knickers and I’ll bum your slap!” I bet this is a riot live.

But, you see? They make it easy to dismiss them, when the next few tracks show undeniably why they should not be dismissed. “Taken For a Ride” is like the welcome return of the Buggles, until the crazy horns come in, and the band breaks down into a Polyphonic Spree-style sunshine chorus. “The Bidding” is a brief but memorable flirtation with dub-style funk, while “Be Born” is an unironic folk ballad with a sweet refrain.

And on it goes. There are silly novelty tracks like the ukelele-fueled “Banana Man” and the creepy-yet-so-very-funny “Two Wuv,” a love letter to the Olsen Twins. (Both of them. At once.) But then there are genuinely terrific pop songs like “Just Apathy” and the kind-of-astonishing “Spring and a Storm.” And then there are seriously clever ditties like “Haiku,” in which every verse is an attempt at… you guessed it. But the song is about the songwriter’s inability to write a haiku for the woman he loves – despite nearly managing it in every single verse, he finally settles on “Lah dah dee diddum, Lah dah dah dum doo ditto, Dum doo lah de doh.”

The members of Tally Hall shoot themselves in the foot as often as they hit the target, but the result is a crazy patchwork of pop goodness – it’s not a masterpiece, but it is a lot of fun, and it’s crafted with great skill. I’m interested to see where they go from here, and whether they can balance out their silly and serious tendencies. I’m glad I finally heard this, and although it wouldn’t have made my top 10 list, I can see why it made Tony Shore’s. Thanks for the recommendation, Doc.

Next week, Duncan Sheik and Franz Ferdinand. Hey, for all you potheads out there, this is column number 420! Sweet! Or something.

See you in line Tuesday morning.