Animal Collective – Spirit They’ve Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished, Danse Manatee (2000, 2001)

Animal Collective are the first group I considered giving up on after only one song.  I mean, I’m pretty good at quickly figuring out if something is “not my thing” but I’m always willing to stick it out for an entire album, just in case.  But I’m willing to make an exception for something that literally tries to make your ears fall off. Picture a teenager, lying in the grass, wistfully singing to the stars, while a hearing aid violently malfunctions in his ears.  That is what “Spirit They’ve Vanished” sounds like, and quite frankly I hated this band for it.  It was if they were trying to give me tinnitus, and on the first go-round they succeeded.

This is to say that I probably picked the wrong starting point for Animal Collective, but this 2-for-1 set featuring the band’s first two albums was just too tempting to pass up.  When a band has a reputation for changing things up on every album, I always like to go to the beginning, just to figure out where they’re coming from.  But even that is tricky for this group; they hadn’t settled on the Animal Collective moniker until 2003, and though they’ve since retrofitted their early work with that label, it’s tough to consider Spirit They’ve Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished as an AnCo record proper when it’s really an Avey Tare solo album with Panda on drums.  This explains what I’d call a general lack of checks and balances on this album, even if the songs are songs proper.

Now would probably be a good time to explain Animal Collective’s general approach to recording, which is, as the liner notes put it, an attempt to make “the music of childhood”.  I got that, given how often they remind me of a tape I made when I was 8 years old, with me shouting over the sound of my Dad playing piano while my brother whacked the cabinets with pencils.  There’s also a very psychedelic/”How high were they?” atmosphere to most of what they do, seemingly without the sober once-over to cull out the really weird stuff.  In fact one band that comes to mind when dealing with these early albums is Faust, part because there is a constant current of “what the hell is making that noise?”, part because they love to blur the lines between accessible and experimental.  Same as “It’s a Bit of Pain” punctuates an otherwise gorgeous tune with an abrasive buzzing sound, Animal Collective too love to sabotage their own music in allegedly profound ways.

As any other review will tell you, Spirit They’ve Gone is really a one-of-a-kind disc, which I think is down primarily to the willingness to use ultra-high frequencies, and the overall production (or lack thereof), which is paper-thin.  If you’re a fan, it’s “dreamy” or “surreal”…if not, it’s just a poorly produced record.  It was recorded in a living room and it almost seems like they’re trying not to disturb the neighbors – Avey’s vocals are often soft or whispered, and Panda plays exclusively with brushes.  With a general lack of low frequencies (either no kick drums, or you simply can’t hear them) it feels like everything is fighting for space, even though there really isn’t a whole lot going on – piano, tweety synths, aggressively strummed acoustic guitars, tippy-tappy drums, and of course the infernal noise machine, which thankfully starts to calm down after the third track.

In fact, after track three (which does not have a title), this turns into a somewhat normal psychedelic pop album, with more actual songs than you’ll find on any Animal Collective record until Merriweather Post Pavilion.  “Normal” is a relative term of course but they are tunes you could sit down and play at least.  They tend to be lengthier than they need to be – I’m never sure how “Chocolate Girl” tops eight minutes – but they’re so pleasant and sparkly that you probably won’t mind.  It’s hard to get enough of those oscillating, whistling keyboards, sounding like a merry-go-round from another planet.  But there is one particularly adventurous song on here – the closer, “Alvin Row”, which careens from one section to the next with rolling piano and explosive drum fills, and features some of the album’s best melodies.  Just as the first track convinced me these guys were full of shit, the last track convinced me there was something to it after all.

Danse Manatee is the group’s second album, this time as a three-piece, with all three members credited with “vocals, synthesizer, electronics, percussion, and mixing”.  So, that’s not a good sign.  If Danse Manatee can be credited with one thing it’s the fact that it makes its intentions clear – this is not a psych-pop album with left-field tendencies like Spirit, it’s experimental with a capital “mental”.  Twelve tracks worth of moaning over distended, glitchy electronic noise, songs that fall apart before they get started, and excursions in feedback.  Imagine “Augmn” as made by hyperactive preteens and you get a good idea of what Danse Manatee sounds like.  Look, I’m not adverse to stuff that dicks around, and I can definitely see what draws a young, drug-happy group to try such a thing.  But there’s a difference between trying to free yourself from convention and just not having any decent musical ideas.  For example, “The Living Toys” – nearly eight minutes of tuneless guitar strumming, high-pitched noise, shopping-cart percussion, and warbling.  Does that sound interesting to you?

The biggest problem with the album is that all three of the long tracks (“Meet the Light Child”, “The Living Toys”, “Ahh Good Country”) are aimless, and that’s half the album right there.  Some of the other tunes are a bit more intriguing, sometimes sounding like Raymond Scott-like electronic vignettes, other times like rock songs that lose all the rock.  There is one track worth saving, “Essplode”, which has a cool sort of falling-down-the-stairs groove to it, but otherwise I could go without hearing any of this again.  Animal Collective just lay on the irritation button way too damn hard, making this the sort of album where the ear-piercing moments are loud but the actual music is quiet.  Therefore you won’t really want to turn it up, if you value your hearing.

Anyway, Animal Collective (as you may have gathered by now) are very much in the ear of the beholder, and some people really like this album, including AnCo’s very own Geologist, who claims it’s their best work.  But many many more people do not like this album, so just know that before you dive in.  Really, you shouldn’t be starting with these albums anyway; I only did because I can be dumb like that sometimes.  Spirit is still a good, sometimes great disc, and for that I guess I’m glad I got into these guys.  You may have to wade through some rough passages, but there is always some brilliance there.

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