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Animal Collective - Strawberry Jam

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Artist: Animal Collective

Album: Strawberry Jam

Label: Domino

Review date: Sep. 6, 2007

It’s been a long while since the Animal Collective was shorn of its ramshackle mystique. Once a torch-bearer of post-millennial, outer borough curiosity, the Collective’s originally distinct brand of galloping, winsome psych-pop has become a nascent genre in and of itself. And as the years have passed, the group’s initial scattershot tendencies have coalesced rather gracefully – formerly a disproportionately overstuffed duo, the group has counted four full members for some time now, and each passing release has evidenced a noticeable growth into that frame.

Contrary to what one might think, the ringing clarity of 2005's Feels presented not a logical endgame for the Collective, but rather a new jump-off. Picking up where the more composed moments and deliberately plotted payoffs of that album left off, Strawberry Jam presents a renewed plunge into higher fidelity and seemingly traditional song structures, thanks in part to the continued work of engineer Scott Colburn. And while it makes for some of the Collective’s best recorded moments to date, there are enough awkward missteps scattered throughout to give a careful listener pause.

Strawberry Jam’s most striking aspect, surprisingly, is the vocals. Immediately foregrounded and generally left untouched, the words here assume the role of actual narratives instead of mere texture and tone. Sadly, this makes cutesy monologues, like the one on lead single “Peacebone,” altogether unbearable. But along with these recognizable voices comes more purposeful instrumentation, which time and again proves to be the album’s saving grace. The percussive thumps, crackling electronics, and subtle, echoing steel drums more than carry any dead weight.

Though the album starts slow, Strawberry Jam begins to pick itself up with “For Reverend Green,” a lengthy piece built around chiming and distorted guitars and simple drum strikes, one of the most transcendent moments in all of the Collective’s back catalogue. The same goes double for “Fireworks,” all drumrolls and reverb'd guitars fighting to keep pace with each other. Here the group rides an effortless crest, a beautiful stretch of time and song that dresses up the group’s disparate strands into taut, ebullient pop. And herein lies the strength of the Collective – an almost innate ability to conjure a sense of wonder and amazement and render it in pure sound.

There are times, though, when that same sense becomes problematic, creating an awe that feels forced. “Chores” wastes its first half on precociously fey screeds about housework alongside tumbling instrumentals, before giving over to a blissfully ambient closing passage that should have held the whole track. Similarly, “#1” and its overly effected vocals tend to cross the line into kitsch, almost too readily.

Coming on the heels of the oft-brilliant Sung Tongs and the more refined Feels, Strawberry Jam is a mixed proposition if ever there was one. To wit: How far into childish reverie can a bunch of guys in and around the age of 30 actually go? At what cost does the increased fidelity come for a group whose calling card was a gauzy haze? And, perhaps most importantly, how can a group with members responsible for one of the year’s best (Panda Bear’s Person Pitch) and worst (Avey Tare & Kria Brekkan’s Pullhair Rubeye) albums reconcile its own obvious aesthetic differences? If anything, the Animal Collective’s latest doesn’t present any immediate answers, and seems pretty unrepentant about holding off the inquisition for at least another album or two. Take that as you will, for although there’s enough material here to suggest these four still have plenty left in the pipeline, there’s an equal amount to suggest that a collapse could be imminent.

By Michael Crumsho

Other Reviews of Animal Collective

Here Comes the Indian

Spirit They're Gone, Spirit They've Vanished/Danse Manatee

Sung Tongs




Water Curses

Merriweather Post Pavilion

Fall Be Kind

Centipede Hz

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View all articles by Michael Crumsho

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