ollowing fast on the heels of last year’s fantastic Here Comes the Indian, the Animal Collective have returned with a new full-length that’s as much a progression and complete change from that LP as Indian was from the lo-fi pop of Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished and the tweaked experimentalism of Danse Manatee. This is a group that never seems to settle into a groove, and on Sung Tongs they’ve incorporated every nuance of their developing sound over the past few years into their most accessible and tightest record yet. Perhaps it’s because on this album the quartet that recorded Indian has been pared back down to the original duo of Avey Tare and Panda Bear, but Sung Tongs has a sparser, more intimate sound that traverses both the poppy tunes of Spirit and the campfire psychedelia of last year’s pseudonymous Campfire Songs album.
By leading with “Leaf House,” the disc’s most infectiously catchy cut, the group instantly establishes the direction they’ll be heading in here. As Avey Tare trades overdubbed vocals with himself in a complex overlapping stream of nonsensical sounds and snatches of childlike lyricism, the guitars and drums trace a simple and driving motif that pushes the vocals constantly forward into the unexpected coda (“there’s no one to say ‘meeeeee-owwww’... kitties!”). It’s all over so fast that I’m constantly tempted to turn it back and listen again, to deconstruct its seemingly simple structure and figure out what makes it tick. But examining these songs would be like trying to take apart a cuckoo clock to decipher its workings; once done it would be impossible to fit all the hidden springs and gears back beneath the deceptive surface. No, this song is best heard and enjoyed without any attempt at comprehension. Its workings are mysterious, and it feels utterly timeless, a ghost-child’s gentle plaything cast across the centuries.
Equally bewitching is “Winters Love,” which is built on a midway pivot that utterly changes the song’s mood and meaning. After a pastoral introduction of lightly strummed guitars and plaintive wordless singing, the guitars become more propulsive as Caribbean rhythms enter and Avey Tare engages in some more of the shimmering multi-tracked vocal interplay that makes this record so charming. The guitars are most reminiscent of the languid, meditative jamming on the Campfire Songs album, and on songs like “Kids on Holiday,” there’s a sense of tension that’s completely out of proportion to the subject matter (in this case, a lovingly detailed description of the preparations for a youthful vacation). The guitar on this track has a perpetually building quality to it; although it essentially stays the same throughout the song, it seems to be continually gathering intensity, culminating as Avey Tare is joined by an echo-laden children’s choir (or is it just more manipulated Avey Tare vox?) for shouts of “Holiday! Fun!”
On Sung Tongs, the group has deftly combined all the traces that ran through their earlier work into a vibrant and beautiful collage that flows as smoothly as Here Comes the Indian, with all the mood of Campfire Songs, and even more pop hooks than Spirit. The only thing they’ve cast off – perhaps wisely – is the more outré electronic experiments of Danse Manatee. “We Tigers” is the culmination of this approach, starting with a simple pounding rhythm accompanied by even-tempered vocals, exploding for the chorus, which sounds like it belongs on a commercial for a Bermuda travel bureau. As Avey Tare joyfully howls, he’s joined by a confused babble of voices (appropriately shouting “everybody’s talking”), appropriating the Caribbean fireside atmosphere that showed up briefly as a sample on Indian’s “Slippi.”
After this, the album slides gently into a trio of low-key tunes that allow the record to fade out in peaceful splendor. On “Good Lovin’ Outside,” field recordings of children playing and laughing bleed subtly into the gorgeously intricate guitar picking as bits of electronic sound burble up from the background. The album closes with the heavily processed vocals of “Whaddit I Done,” each reverberating guitar pluck sounding like the waves lapping out to sea along the white-sand Caribbean beach that so much of this disc aspires to.
As a whole, Sung Tongs is yet another inspired effort from these talented experimenters. By making an album that grows out of all their previous work—but without repeating themselves—this group has proven that they can continue to surprise and expand even after the seemingly insurmountable masterpiece that was Here Comes the Indian. Although this record may not quite top it, mostly because of the midway slump of the overly long “Visiting Friends,” the newly defined poppy style of these songs is a welcome and intriguing departure. With subtlety and grace, the Animal Collective have found a way to make their songs new once again—to continually reinvent themselves while moving along a curve of progression so fast that, should they keep up this pace, five years from now they’ll be the best band in the world. As it is, Sung Tongs is consistently fun and interesting, the perfect soundtrack as spring slowly floats into summer and the birdsong echoes these strange, timeless, indefinable tunes.
STLYUSMAGAZINE.COM'S CO-ALBUM OF THE WEEK - MAY 31 - JUNE 6, 2004
Reviewed by: Ed Howard
Reviewed on: 2004-06-01