Animal Collective's Centipede Hz: A First Listen
I'm not an Animal Collective fan. I like Strawberry Jam a lot, and I cherish a few individual songs elsewhere, particularly "Summertime Clothes" (not least because it sounds just like the theme from Snoopy Come Home, which I loved as a kid). But their rhythms are so clumpy, melodies so soupy, and "innovations" so overpraised (they sampled the Dead and Frankie Knuckles! Eclectic!), that I can't wait for them to at least plunge from their outrageously high indie perch -- either that or make a truly great album. Two of the last releases from their camp, Avey Tare's (usually my pick songwise) Down There and the whole group's Fall Be Kind are two of the worst records I've ever heard in my life.
Judging by the hideous title, cover and single, Centipede Hz may well be the moment people realize these dorks don't know what they're doing. So watch if I end up loving the stupid thing and defending it for the rest of the year. (For the rest of today, you can stream the album here and see what you think.) Now let's have a listen.
Album kicks off with big horror-movie-cum-LL Cool J stabs in an odd time signature, which develop a metallic feel. Just as abruptly, Avey Tare's moaning singsong kicks in. This has more than Animal Collective songs typically do. More words stuffed in, more chords changing, more beats -- it all sounds like it's coming from inside a trash compactor. Speeds up and gets real psychedelic halfway through -- albeit in that annoying Of Montreal way. This should be epic, but it comes off a bit strung together. By the finish they're ad-libbing hummed noises and it's the catchiest part of the track. Might be their fastest song, though I'm not downloading Animal Crack Box to check. Interesting. Not much of a song, but interesting.
The single's full of words, with a circling Turkish melody that sounds like it was arranged for an Nintendo game's title screen. All sorts of trap doors open, tablas bound and bong, lasers squirt, and the closest thing to a melody is a stuttering la-la-la hook that starts each verse. Kind of exciting without being much of anything. Not sure what to make of this album so far, but it seems like the funhouse arcade their old albums were too lethargic to puke up.
Where'd they steal this acid-drill backdrop from, the Flaming Lips? Train whistles and mellotron zip and bonk every which way, but this is the first track to sort of harmonize like old. The lack of harmonies was doing them good, though; it forced Avey Tare to be a frontman. It's surprising how aggressive these songs are without having much of a melody, or much in the way of verse/chorus/verse.
All right, this one's a little slower, a woozy power-waltz, with a hugely annoying melody for people who thought Merriweather Post Pavilion's "Brothersport" needed vocal interjections. For the catchiest thing so far, this one gets truly tuneless as it goes on. But soon enough "Applesauce" develops a galloping rhythm and jittery vocal to sound like some kind of children's play or product jingle. This one sounds like "classical" Animal Collective, like those drum circle things circa Sung Tongs beefed up with their new machines and maybe some speedballs?
What's truly impressing me about this album is how much it's fulfilling my personal checklist of wishes for this band -- faster tunes, heavier beats, unceasing cogent singing -- yet making me wish for the old stuff anyway. They can't write melodies at this pace, inventive though their bricolage attack may be. On "Wide Eyed," long-lost fourth member Deakin finally sings, exactly like XTC's Andy Partridge it turns out. And suddenly I realize this album sounds like XTC as their twistiest. But that just makes me long for cleverer auteurs. And it just makes me want to hear Skylarking.
At least Centipede Hz is going fast you know? Now about halfway through and not too painfully. Still wowed by the tempo, still shocked at the complete forgetability of the melodies. But since this is the first Animal Collective album to resemble rock 'n' roll, this one's its first "ballad" (did they have identifiable "rockers" and "ballads" before?) which really just means tangerine dreams and marmalade skies. But everything's so secondhand (didn't that impressively overstuffed Yeasayer album beat them to these sonic junkpiles?) that it registers more like Lucy in half-midair with cubic zirconias.