by Matt Meade
Thanks to everyone who checked in on my 7 part list of records that are overrated, emperors in the nude, or simply constructs that I do not understand. Believe it or not, I have found my own negativity to be exhausting and I can’t wait to follow this up with a platinum level, tongue scraping of a palette cleanse by offering up a list of guilty pleasure songs, super fun dance-pop tunes, or artists that I simply can’t live without. Until then…
7. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion (2009)
This article is about the 2009 record Merriweather Post Pavilion. But I cannot talk about that record, without first talking about 2004’s Sung Tongs.
It feels like Sung Tongs has been a part of my life for a long time. I know it is not possible, but I think I used to put “Kids on Holiday” on mix tapes when I was in middle school. I distinctly remember listening to Sung Tongs on the way home from seeing Being John Malkovich in the theater in 1999. I have no idea where I even acquired Sung Tongs. Downloaded in and attempt to hear every record on Pitchfork’s list of Top 100 Albums of 2000-2004 during a fit of late night completism? A CD given to me by someone with far better taste in music than I? Bequeathed to me by the ghost of Mike Love? It sort of feels like maybe the playlist for Sung Tongs came pre-loaded on my Windows Media Player alongside Beethoven and that smooth jazz song, “Highway Blues” that every Windows XP product used to be shipped with. (This reminds me. Has anyone ever listened to that awful David Byrne song all the way through? For all I know, it coulda ended with the coordinates for where Hoffa’s body was buried, cuz as much as I tried, I could never listen to more than a few bars before I tapped out.)
That is what Sung Tongs does to you if you use it right. It kind of seeps into your brain and into your memories and it plays little card tricks with your awareness. Wherever the songs of Sung Tongs came from, it sort of feels like those tracks with those inane titles have always looked back at me from behind that 100 X 100 pixel jpg that I am pretty sure is two robots dressed like Slim Goodbody. I am not sure where I was temporally when I pressed play on “Leaf House,” but I do remember that first whiff of sound.
Like the rest of the record, the sound of the opening song is pretty, but also handmade and simple. There is something authentic and spontaneous inside the pops and cracks that sizzle through the below average recording equipment of Sung Tongs. There is a stoned kind of innocence and abandon to the chirps and squeals, but there are also shades of melancholy to the thumping drums and those weird, paranoid chants. It feels like you are really listening to a performance, not a take that has been rehearsed until it is bloodless and frozen by rigor. More importantly, every single sound and bleep and bloop does not have its own dedicated track so there is some real mystery to these recordings. There is an obscenity to the act of recording every single sound and angle to perfection, and then laying the tracks on top of each other one after the other. It is a sound that has become ubiquitous, and it hints at a phoniness that I think we have all started to accept as normal. The unrehearsed sounds of Sung Tongs are so much richer than the plastic sounding pornography that is usually being hocked on the homepage of the iTunes store.
Here the harmonies and the instrumentation feel ad hoc, but necessary, like the guys who made the record (guys with forgivably silly names like Avey Tare, and Panda Bear) did it by shouting to each other: “Hey you! Play the drums. You. Yeah you with the hippie dreads: Sing along…” And they do such a good job ripping off the Beach Boys that it is less a theft, and more some kind of spell or conjuring.
The impromptu feel adds a satisfying levity to moments like the one at the end of “Leaf House” when some guy (cuz the record is structured in such a way that there is an anonymity to the contributions) yells out “Kitties” and then meows. Meows! Can you believe how puerile? There is no more substance to any of the lyrics on the record, actually, but somehow this is a good thing. Somehow this works.The fact that the songs have no lyrical agenda is somehow freeing and it lifts some kind of weight off of me. They are telling me, “It’s ok. You can let go. You can just enjoy it.”
Most of the record, the spinning bike spokes, the clapping, the banging of pots and pans, and the creaking and slamming of doors, all sound like a musical version of one of those dioramas you would make in second grade. You know the assignment. It’s the one where you use cotton balls, construction paper and popsicle sticks to depict Washington crossing the Delaware, or plants in the Mesozoic era. That crappy mish-mash is exactly what is fun about the record. It creates the same kind of vibe as that apartment of those stoners you knew in highschool who got a place together once they (pretty much) graduated. And it was so cool to go over there, remember? There was a sense that things won’t always be so chill, but for now there is more than enough weed, no one has a girlfriend but people are getting laid every once in a while, and everyone eats cool ranch Doritos for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Songs like “The Softest Voice” kind of float out there and never seems to come back. It is light and one of the many songs on the record that, on its own, might be almost forgettable. But in the context of the record, it serves a purpose. In the context of the record this song and “Who Could Win a Rabbit,” get us to a point where we are ready to listen to a tune as perfect as “Winters Love.”
And I loves me some “Winters Love.” I love the intro and, without fail I am always pleased and surprised when the song stops and picks back up again with those gorgeous melodies. It is one of many perfect, little moments. One of many perfect, little musical haikus.
On the intro to “Visiting Friends” the guitars effervesce over a background of found sound and back-masking. The guitars stand in relief of all that weirdness, and then they switch and they sort of double helix back and forth drawing your attention to one sound or another. (Buy some headphones for god’s sake). And so what if that song alone is longer than an episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. By this point in the record, it’s too late. By this point, you don’t care anymore.
It all feels like so much fun. I hesitate to call it “improvised,” and align it with jazz masters such as John Coltrane, because that would be inaccurate. It feels more, unscripted. This unscripted vibe makes it feel like all the messy parts were left in on purpose. “We Tigers” is a good example of this. The drummer is counting out his beats and he seems to be discovering the coolest way to bang this huge drum while everyone else kind of chants this crazy song about tigers. I love that these guys recorded that and said, “That is a song.” The wild yelping doesn’t hurt either. It feels like they really just wanted to do something fun.
Full disclosure: I usually never quite get around to listening to the last two songs and I sort of feel like “Mouth Wooed Her” is a fitting finale.
And maybe if they had thought about it a little more they would have made that song the finale. But that is just the point, isn’t it? Not too much thought seems to have gone into these decisions. It seems most of the songs emerge from instincts, most of the track ordering from gut reaction. It all feels, to me, like the whole record was recorded during one weird long weekend where everyone found out a lot of weird shit about each other, and maybe got mad at each other, but made up in the end, and in the process everyone made some pretty frigging strange, and pretty frigging cool songs. This record feels like a scrapbook from that weekend.
And perhaps it is because of those feelings of euphoria and catharsis that I achieved while listening to Sung Tongs that my expectations were raised so high for 2008’s Merriweather Post Pavilion. From the very first moment I had heard Sung Tongs, I worried that it was some kind of fluke. Some happy accident that could not be repeated even if the same conditions were replicated exactly. Or maybe my distaste for Merriweather Post Pavilion is due to the incessant, year long hype leading up to the release of the record. Or maybe it is the uproarious ovation the internet gave the record once it did come out, an ovation that seemed to crackle through every Ethernet cable of anyone with a sweet mustache, or an ironically bad sweater. Maybe it’s that old story of feeling like something secret and special is all of a sudden public and thus somehow changed, or ruined.
Or maybe Merriweather Post Pavilion is simply not a very good record.
The washing machine pump of a song called “In the Flowers” begins the effort. The song is meant to be some sort of pre-amble, or overture. Some kind of statement of purpose. Much like “Leaf House,” the sound effects hint at a pot clouded no where space, but it only takes a few seconds for the forced weirdness to reveal itself. A few seconds more reveals that the record is about to reexamine a lot of the same musical ideas explored previously by the band. I really knew things were bad though, when the handclaps started.
Handclaps are such an important part of so many great songs, from the relentless soul clap of Archie Bell and The Drells’ “Tighten Up”, to the loose pops of Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl”, to the crisp call and response of Arcade Fire’s “Rebellion (Lies).” Handclaps’ place in pop music is as relevant and firmly established in rock and roll lore as Charles Manson T-shirts, and snorting piles of cocaine off of a grand piano. Sung Tongs extends that tradition by employing handclaps in a raggedly inept way that comes closer to the applause of an audience than having anything to do with percussion. But here, on Merriweather Post Pavilion, all the handclaps are uniform and they snap perfectly along with the beat. They don’t sound like people clapping hands at all. They sound like a computer program responding to commands. Those handclaps turn out to be the beginning of an unfortunate trend. The songs of Merriweather Post Pavilion are so well constructed that they sound like they have run over straight from an Amazon Kindle commercial. There is nothing messy to wade through, no smoke to wave away, no magic trick to try to figure out.
The program continues with a song that feels somewhat affected. That “My Girls” hints at the theme song to 321 Contact feels particularly contrived, and designed to manipulate me into some kind of fucking bullshit nostalgia for the late 70s or early 80s. The attempt to introduce modernity to this nostalgia with the Timbaland style drum and bass blasts, and atmosphere with the circularly arpeggiated piano, results in a crushing failure of a mash up. Even the shouts of joy don’t sound weird, or necessary, but compliant, or perfunctory in some way. Like the band (made up of guys with unforgivably stupid names like Avey Tare, and Panda Bear) had collected data on us, their listeners, and plugged us all into an algorithm and this soulless equation was what it chugged out. It all feels designed to release certain chemicals from my brain and even when it is successful, I feel like I am watching my self undergo what Merriweather Post Pavilion is trying making me feel, the same way the score to a sappy movie can make me experience emotions of melancholy, or triumph, in some way, without me having to really feel anything.
And once the smell of contrivance gets in the air, even the whimsical sound of a voice distorted by someone hitting on the singer’s back in the middle of “Summer Clothes” seems intentionally precious and played for effect. The song pulses away like the lights of a commercial sign flickering away compulsively in the distance, devoid of fun or joy. It sounds like the kind of thing children raised on cheap toys that blink and chirp away meaninglessly would vomit. But please believe that music like this can be infused with some kind of beauty or purpose. Just listen to Dan Deacon. He’s been repurposing these bright, high pitched sounds and collaging them into wild, brain-scan fits in a really compelling way over the course of many albums. It’s not just the shimmering studio sheen. Nothing here seems particularly impromptu, or organic. What I loved about Animal Collective from the beginning is gone and what is left is clinical and synthetic. I am left with an album that makes me feel strangely unfulfilled, and weirdly heartbroken.
And so I return to Sung Tongs, though every time I do, I do so with grave apprehension. I have this irrational fear that, like some sort of musical version of the Polar Express, the songs will lose their magic one day and one day I will not longer hear what I once found so beautiful. Thankfully it hasn’t happened yet. Thus far it has always been fresh and new and weird, but also familiar and comforting. It is always like crawling back into a dream after having been abruptly awoken, or like having coffee with old friends.
Maybe that is why Sung Tongs is so important to me. It creates this atmosphere, this whole world that I feel like I can fall into. A world where the dudes making the music are not overthinking, and their abandon gives me permission to not have to think so much either. It’s a world where I can just give in to the stripped down percussion and the vocals that reverberate and sound like they are floating away like a balloon released into the sky. It is precisely because they don’t have any big crescendo, any big agenda that I want to walk into the fort they have made of their own bedsheets. On Merriweather Post Pavilion I can see what they are trying to do. But on Sung Tongs, no one can tell what they are attempting, because even the guys in the band have no idea.
The whole record is saturated in a real spirit of gonzo joy and happiness. When I hear the chanting, it makes me think of weirdo friends I have had and weirdo experiences I had when I was a kid. And I want to go back there. I want to go back to those feelings that percolated in me when I first listened to Sung Tongs, because that record made me feel great. But mostly I want to go back there to get away from Merriweather Post Pavilion. Because it doesn’t make me feel great. It makes me feel sad, and manipulated and alone. It makes me feel like I know exactly where the record came from and exactly what it wants to be, pornographically displayed on the home page of iTunes.
Song I would listen to if you held a gun to my head: “Daily Routine” is the only song that comes close to conjuring the weird kind of magic I found deep in the muck of Sung Tongs. But that song’s echoes and calls and harks, and who goes theres, can’t quite move me. And it makes me sad. And it makes me long for those feelings.
Listen to this Instead: Have you tried listening to Prefuse 73’s songs… Just kidding. Sung Tongs obviously.