I’m going to go out on a limb here, and say something that as a music journalist I’m hesitant to even consider in print: Strawberry Jam is the album destined to separate Animal Collective from the rest of the indie rock world. From hereon in, Panda Bear, Avery Tare, the Geologist, and Deakin are on their own track, making a go at becoming one of the decade’s most definitive bands.
Strawberry Jam is that kind of album: a rock record for the digital generation, where gleaming insights from expensive imports are only a download away and the entire world can be tapped for ideas. In a sound-file era, where most music is consumed through iPods and most bands readily fit into sub-sub-genres, few bands offer up albums as technically meticulous, as speaker pilfering, and as far-reaching as this anymore.
Part of it is career ambition, sure. But part of it is something else entirely. As Dave Portner (aka Avey Tare) puts it, the band has "never been that worried about trying to make money of music. Mostly it was because we worked so hard at it, that it just makes sense that something came of it. It’s a pastime that took up most of my time.”
This year, that pastime is paying off. Panda Bear’s Person Pitch album is already widely regarded among the strongest outings of 2007. They own a record label, Paw Tracks, which releases their mountain of solo projects, as well as other acts like Ariel Pink and Black Dice. Eight albums in, the Animal Collective have international critics in their pockets and draw sizeable cult fan-bases in almost every major city in the Western world.And yet back in 2000 when they first started playing shows around New York City, few would have banked on four kids from Baltimore getting this far. Those early Animal Collective recordings that came out between 2000 and 2003 — Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished (2000), Danse Manatee (2001) and Here Comes The Indian (2003) — too often sounded amused by their own overt weirdo status. The same has been levelled at the collective’s solo projects: Avey Tare’s collaborations with Black Dice’s Eric Copeland (as Terrestrial Tones) or his 2007 Pullhair Rubeye album with Mum’s Kria Brekkan; Panda Bear’s collaborations with Scott Mou (as Jane) or his first two solo albums. This is a band with a consistent track record that leans toward the kind of off-the-cuff experimentation most other people confine to their basements as fun to create but ultimately half-baked.
Nevertheless, for the members of Animal Collective the spirit of experimentation is in the risk, and the risk is in trusting your intuition. They’ve never deviated from that ethos. "There’s never been a push to have it be a certain type of music, or to have it reach a certain amount of people, or even to be accessible,” Dave Portner concedes about the band’s development over the last ten years. "It’s the same reasons behind why we started Animal Collective: to make music that makes us excited.”And excitement it has been, all the way. No matter what the final verdict ever was on the output, fans and critics alike could never fault the collective for their enthusiasm or their openness to trying things differently.
When Animal Collective first began to make serious waves in 2003, they found themselves in the middle of a New York City being reborn as a rock music capital after a decade’s slumber. The previous decade may have belonged to Seattle and Chicago, but by 2003, two years after the Strokes had re-inaugurated the city for a new generation of rock fans, Animal Collective found themselves rising to attention with a whole slew of bands — LCD Soundsystem, Black Dice, the Rapture, TV on the Radio — that were reinventing the boundaries of American rock by reinventing the musical canon that fed into it.
It was the kind of notoriety that both propelled and dogged that year’s release of Here Comes the Indian, and prompted the reissues of Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished and Danse Manatee. Animal Collective received a lot of ink, but it was sometimes difficult to consider the band’s accomplishments outside their connections to the larger movement underway.
Similarly their sixth album, Sung Tongs, got stuck with comparisons to 2004’s crop of freak-folk that trapped Animal Collective between the quiet melodies of Devendra Banhart and acid-jam collectives such as Sunburned Hand of the Man and No Neck Blues Band.
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