Animal Collective are iconoclasts who have made a career of sidestepping expectations, playfully manoeuvering just to the left of what it is we think we desire, only to sneak around and tap us on the shoulder, beaming from ear to ear and asking for a hug. Their core line-up morphs and grows older, wizened with experience, as does their sound and technical presentation. But what keeps them intriguing and vital is and undeniable heart pumping blood through each project.
After the sparse, mysterious cadavers of sound that were Campfire Songs and Here Comes The Indian, the former an ashy acoustic night of friendship and the latter a meditative look at the remains of said campfire alienated in synthetic ambience, AC released a slew of full-length indie classics throughout the aughts. Sung Tongs showcases the chaotically harmonized babbling of Avey Tare and Panda Bear with acoustic guitars in a stunningly refreshing take on young adulthood. Feels and Strawberry Jam expand the sonic palette, building songs to grander proportions and bubbling at times into anthemic freak pop, all culminating in 2009’s critically acclaimed Merriweather Post Pavilion, one of those albums that every early 20-year-old of the time either guiltily or otherwise claims as speaking to their emotional growth directly.
The allure of AC has seemed to slightly fade in the indie consciousness over the past several years, due in part to the successful development of Tare and Panda Bear as individual artists, leaving their last couple of releases, Centipede Hz and Painting With, to gather some dust, as the first doesn’t quite live up to the grandeur of Pavilion and the second teeters dangerously on the brink of polyphonic annoyance that the group often plays with.
However, it is worth noting the consistent conceptual boundaries that have been pushed by the collective even in their years of lesser, albeit still significant, status as alternative idols. Centipede Hz is conceived, and successfully presented, as one long radio program, and the pop cacophony of Painting With is an ode to dadaism.
Tangerine Reef is no exception to the rules of the Animal Collective canon. Panda Bear is notably absent on this record, giving more room for Avey Tare, alongside Geologist and Deakin, to explore their more left-field, murky and off-kilter sensibilities, without so many blooming sing-alongs that Panda Bear uses to tug at the heart-strings. The subterranean feel of much of this record is intentional, as it is a collaborative audiovisual album to commemorate the 2018 International Year of the Reef. Because you can’t quite make this up, I’ll quote, “Tangerine Reef is a visual tone poem consisting of time-lapse and slow pans across surreal aquascapes of naturally fluorescent coral and cameos by alien-like reef creatures.” I wouldn’t have been able to describe it better myself, the album is beautifully conceived, and works great as a listen in one sitting. Close your eyes and let the uncanny yet strangely funny sea creatures flit around.
Though high-concept, the album still contains excellent stand-alone numbers, particular the first two tracks “Hair Cutter” and “Buffalo Tomato”, tracks in relative motion in comparison to the floating “aquascapes” like “Buxom” or “Coral By Numbers”, whose main purpose is an attention to the various textural details pulsing in and out and around Avey’s at times incoherent crooning.
Animal Collective has always been about awe. Gazing with wonder at the world around you, at the people you know and love and lose, and astonishment at the changes you recognize mirrored in yourself. Tangerine Reef is an abstract record, both in concept and sound, combining elements of Here Comes the Indian with the more downbeat moments of Feels (think “Banshee Beat” and “Daffy Duck”). But that abstraction outward to the colorful waters folds back in on itself; the record forces you to dive deep into introspection, to first hear, then see the subtle fragments of sound, and afterwards impose your own movements and meaning into the waters. Anthropomorphize.
review by Andy Resto