Was 2007 a good year for music? Perhaps for some people. It certainly was for fans of keyboard-infused indie pop, who had two phenomenal albums to take in: Of Montreal
's flamboyant synthpop
creation Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?
, and Animal Collective
's Strawberry Jam
. Can I justify saying 2007 was good for music while citing only two examples? I don't know, I didn't even hear either of these albums until a few months ago, after the year in question was dead and gone. Some people sit for years at their kitchen table, staring at an empty cereal box and waiting for their favourite artist to put something out. Fans of both Animal Collective and Of Montreal
were satiated to say the least. Never mind the fact that except for 2000, Of Montreal has put out an an album every year. Hissing Fauna is gold.
Strawberry Jam was my introduction to Animal Collective. When the band's name is brought up I think of certain words, not the least of which are "hipster," and "
Pitchforkmedia.com." This isn't a fallacy; to me it's apparent that most hipster-attracting bands fulfill two conditions: unknown to the mainstream and not immediately accessible. I'm all for music that sounds awful for the first listen and awesome for the fourth, but unlike hipsters I don't pretend to like it because I don't get it and I know most people don't either. Or maybe the hipsters really do like it, and everyone is being really unfair to them? Nah.
When getting into a band for the first time, there are a lot of routes you can take on the road to familiarizing yourself. You can go with
a) their most recent release, to immerse yourself within the hype while it exists
b) the most popular album (usually a good bet for something obviously likable)
c) chronological investigation, pretending that it's 1997 again and you are setting the trends rather than reading about them in outdated history books.
I usually use the first method if the album just came out, so I can discuss it with people and get a loose idea of the band so far. If I like it, I go chronologically. If I don't, I opt for the easily accessible one. For Strawberry Jam, it was both their most accessible and their most recent, so I was in luck and you may be too.
I don't think anyone, whether they like them or not, think Animal Collective is unoriginal. Their music of guitar samples, silly meaningless lyrics, and whirling, quasi-tribal electronic soundscapes may grate on some people's nerves, but very few bands are doing this well and none reach the pure world-crafting power Animal Collective wields. Strawberry Jam marks a change in sound, slightly. It's got the same quality of Feels
, but without any soft-spoken ambient parts. Rather, the whole ride is loud and boisterous, and closer to classic pop than Sung Tongs
ever was. However, Animal Collective should not actually be considered normal, at least not yet.
It was instantly obvious to me, hearing the first track, "Peacebone", for the first time that this album was going to be a lot of fun as well as catchy as hell. "Peacebone" opens with a flood of sound: little colourful bits of glitchy confetti disposed on my lawn by dump truck. There is a structure to it, though slight, and eventually it becomes more obvious and rigid as the vocals kick in. Singer Avey Tare's delivery on this album is something delightful to hear. Each line is delivered with earnest joy and the curious sense that he is telling you something very interesting and important. This is an odd thing to consider when you listen to the lyrics, which are like bundles of polaroids depicting psychedelic, crayon-scrawled cities and people made of leaves and pipe cleaners. There is a very strong presence of childlike whimsy, but not in the way a band like múm presents it. This is more like adults who, having lost their childhoods, stole some new ones from the neighbourhood kids and ran around the suburbs, spinning around and climbing on roofs. And it's not remotely sad. The album does not allow you to ruminate on your lost childhood, but in fact lends some of it back to you for 45 minutes, not counting possible afterglow.
Having spent more time with Strawberry Jam than with Feels or Sung Tongs put together, I've had a lot of time to decide whether I love it or not, and whether it is a great album. I would say yes on the second one, with a tentative yes (complete with small hesitation) on the first. A great album doesn't have to please everyone, as surely no album ever could. Some people argue that perfection cannot exist: it is an unattainable absolute. That seems very likely, but for people in the world who like this kind of music, Strawberry Jam comes as close as anything.
Not a single song can be considered filler, and that is a near-guarantee of a great album. You know when you put on an album just to hear that one song? You can do that with every song here. And you know when you put on a album you love, but skip that one song that in your opinion just ruins the whole experience? That doesn't happen. Some tracks are better than others, I'll concede that, but none can be charged with interfering with the album and its particular, peculiar sound. "Peacebone"'s pulsing beat and too-high-to-be-taken-seriously vocals on the chorus makes it a great opener, especially with the eightbit-robot-locust-swarm intro. "Chores" is made up of a very strange rhythm and the voice alternates from cheerful to a drawn-out slow-motion style, but remains true to the mood for the entire time. "Fireworks" quickly became a fan favourite, but there's nothing to say about it other than it takes the best aspects of the album (that is, upbeat vocals and infectious rhythm) and makes them shine. Track six, the misnomer "#1", has a bright electronic sample like a 1970's sci-fi supercomputer gleefully beeping, and over that lies a comical digitally-altered voice recalling Christopher Walken. It's odd but at the same time totally expected and natural, especially by this point in the album. Here is a full track list:
1. Peacebone (5:13)
2. Unsolved Mysteries (4:25)
3. Chores (4:30)
4. For Reverend Green (6:34)
6. #1 (4:32)
7. Winter Wonder Land (2:44)
8. Cuckoo Cuckoo (5:42)
9. Derek (3:01)
Fans of old Animal Collective may not like this one as much as the other albums, but I'd say it's impossible that they won't like it entirely. Newcomers are advised to listen to Strawberry Jam first. If it's too weird for you, bad news: this is as normal as it gets. If you like it but wish it wasn't so damn excitable, try Feels instead for something more gentle. If you are in fact entranced, I would suggest getting the other albums, but be warned that they take a bit more effort to like and "get". If Strawberry Jam is any indication of where Animal Collective is heading, then I'm really looking forward to Merriweather Post Pavilion.
Strawberry Jam - Animal Collective - 2007 - Domino Records