MEMOS FROM A MUSIC FIEND
BY ALEJANDRO MAGAÑA
Animal Collective: Feels
Fat Cat Records, 2005
I once read that the name of this album was a homage to the Beach Boys’ unreleased legendary follow-up to Pet Sounds, “Smile.” While Wilson was working on the record, he’d call the random fragments of child-like dreamy music his “feels.” I can’t imagine a more appropriate title for this atmospheric wonderland of a record. For some, there is much to be desired when they hear the sort of amorphous swirls of found-sound, looped detuned instruments and disembodied voices which harmonize, splashing and swimming about like melodic chimerical serpents in an aural aquarium of cartoonish invention.
One of the knocks on AC by many musicians is how “a-musical,” “messy,” or “atonal” a lot of the songs can be. Yet the odd, screwy tuning is intentional, as they had tuned their guitars and loops recorded on mini-disc players to an out-of-tune piano they had recorded their initial ideas on. When they began recording at Scott Colburn’s (whose CV includes producing Sun City Girls, among others) studio in Seattle, they actually got a piano tuner to come out and tune the studio’s piano to the “perfectly out of tune” (according to the tuner when he was done) tuning with the samples, loops and guitars.
For me this album was a revelation, merging myriad strands of outsider music I’ve always been interested in to one strangely unified new world of their own making: full of epic, trance-like drones and ambient soundscapes, raucous noisy freak-outs and undulating aquatic atmosphere, the instrumentation of piano, guitar, violin, viola, and percussion is made to seem otherworldly because of the odd tuning and liberal use of delay and reverb, the vocals seem to cascade from everywhere in the mix, often with joyful sugary pop harmonies, sometimes slowed down or pitch-shifted to find alien resonance to express the impressionistic lyrics filled with the mystique of a child’s unspoiled wonder.
This music produced for me what I’d always heard Brian Wilson was trying to achieve with “Smile,” magical music to get lost in, a sonic Neverland. My appreciation for the music came from the most unguarded and innocent impulses within me; by taking away points of reference, shifting textures, deconstructing the anatomy of pop, and disorienting the listener with such a dizzying array of phantasmagorical psychedelia, music felt new to me and even in my personal life I was no longer satisfied with more traditional aspects of musical composition, and improvisational music became the standard for what made me feel alive and new again. In a weird way it reiterated the most simple of punk tenets to me, not fast and furious hardcore, but the thing that made The Minutemen and Sonic Youth also punk as fuck: just pick up instruments or any kind of junk that makes sound and bang away until you make some interesting shit.
It’s been 15 years since this record was released and it appears that the prime of this particular band of noise-niks has come and gone. Once seemingly the toast of indie kids, art-damaged record geeks, sound collagists, and drone-freaks, it feels as though the backlash has run roughshod, and if they hadn’t already such underground bona-fides and scene cred (they’d been together since the late ’90s as part of Brooklyn’s noisy art scene), they might be relegated to “former fad that we’re glad is over” status. They shouldn’t be disregarded because of the crap they influenced that came after. A million shitty bands came after Black Flag but there is only one Black Flag (in all its permutations). As the members of Animal Collective have said, they’ve been making sounds together for longer than many of their favorite bands existed. These guys were and are truly unique, love them or hate them, and this is their finest moment, a psychedelic noise pop masterpiece.