Jane / Animal Collective and Vashti Bunyan
Berserker / Prospect Hummer EP
2005 / 2005
C+ / B+
he musical shapeshifting of the Animal Collective over the last five or so years has been like milk on glass: captivating and unpredictable, each new extension changing the overall picture. What’s made this compelling is that they’ve maintained an essence, some unspeakable signature on their changing faces, from the hopped-up hi-frequency synth-laden pop freakouts on their earliest records into the chugging porch mantras of Campfire Songs, through the dark, abrasive digital scree of Here Comes the Indian out into the sunny psychedelic polyrhythms of last year’s largely acoustic Sung Tongs. It seems fit to pair the release of Jane’s Berserker, which features the electronic-oriented work of Noah Lennox (Panda Bear) and friend/DJ Scott Mou, with the Collective’s recent high-profile-in-a-small-small-world collaboration with cult British folksinger Vashti Bunyan; it’s simply two more pieces in their stylistic puzzle, a demonstration of a healthy restlessness and versatility.
For a band occasionally and clumsily folded into the glossies’ contrived neo-psych folk scene with barefoot dreamcatchers like Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom, Prospect Hummer is really the most folk-oriented release the band has produced yet. It’s not entirely surprising though, considering it serves as both a new Animal Collective offering and a quietly exciting return of Vashti Bunyan, a singer whose verdant 1971 wood-sprite Olympics Just Another Diamond Day was re-released in 2000 and again in 2004, and whose heretofore cult audience has expanded over the last few years in the midst of newer musicians following in her delicate, soft-footed imprints. Her voice sounds almost no different than it did 30 years ago, a remarkably serene coo, playful, but tempered by a delicate solemnity.
“It’s You” is smack in the middle of the road of their aesthetics; arrhythmic winds of several acoustic guitars tease piles of leaves into fluid sculptures swirling around her voice, while she slowly awakens, each time enveloped by a larger, fuller sound. She plays call-and-response, slowly wondering “what’s going on?” eluded by her own voice quivering in and out the mix, only to be echoed by the same question. Finally, the answer: “it’s you,” a melody that lowers itself into the pillowy comforts of emerging murmurs, wandering piano, and swathes of strumming. The blissed-out half-jig half-stoned cuddliness of “Prospect Hummer” is ridiculously summer-ready, employing a shuffle beat that equally suggests some recent German electronic pop music and the syncopated stutter of reggae drumming, with a choir of gleeful voices wailing in a sun-stoked languor. The song unravels several times over, its beat yielding to a drawling, smiley chorus that pinches maybe a little too much from Brian Wilson, each time growing slightly more fragile and tenuous until finally collapsing on itself. Electronics misfit Geologist only shows up for “Baleen Sample,” a slice of maritime ambience that serves as an abstract respite to the other material on the EP, with echoes of steel drums dissolving into salty air and waves of delicate guitar. The set concludes with the regal prettiness of “I Remember Learning How To Dive,” whose awkward cadences and off-kilter phrasing mirror the songs lyrics, gathering the hesitancy of the first time on the diving board into poise and composure before the jump. As a whole, Prospect Hummer is really only a tidbit, and it’s hardly ground-breaking, but it fits nicely into AC’s catalog and will also likely introduce Vashti’s voice to many of a newer generation.
Panda Bear is clearly capable of making compelling music aside from Animal Collective, as evidenced by the lovely simplicity of last year’s Young Prayer, but Berserker sparks the frustrations of watching talented, creatively effusive people at work—everything they touch, no matter how lightly, seems decent enough, so calling it “unambitious” doesn’t really hold up as a full critique. To its credit, the collaboration with Mou has an unusual feel for an AC-related release. Its lo-fi drones and keyboard patterns are an urban counterpart to the Animal Collective’s overwhelmingly “rural” feel; Jane seems more concerned with creating a space of solace for an urban environment, to distill the hums of the city into fluttering tapestries of sound. Lennox weaves wordless moans through tactile keyboard loops and the soft fizzle of electronics and drum machines for about an hour, making gentle, quasi-ambient living room dance music—nothing more. Ultimately, it’s really pleasant but somewhat bland and unobtrusive, save the 24 minute “Swan,” which meanders sourly and is, above all, a little trying. The weird, lurking problem with Berserker though, is that it casts a pall over the Animal Collective’s Paw-Tracks records. I’m hearing the digital winds whispering “vanity project” out of their enchanted forest; if Paw-Tracks just starts unloading Jane CDRs it will invariably dilute the quality and reputation of their releases, which has been otherwise high. The material on Berserker was nice as a floating rarity, but tossing it out as an official release feels a little lazy.