Vocal hocketing is a musical technique in which singers share melodies by alternating notes at measure, word or even syllable frequency. I define it here because this technique exists all over the experimental psych-synth-(insert trendy genre tag here) Animal Collective’s newest LP, Painting With, released 2/19 via Domino. In fact, there are a lot of techniques that show up all over Painting With, centering the album around a glossy, gold-colored central concept both lyrically and musically. Considering that previous AnCo albums have been about as cohesive as a Jackson Pollock print, this choice to pare their sound down to focused, poppy three to four minute songs comes as something of a surprise for this landmark tenth (!) full length release that finds the group at perhaps the most critical crossroads of their musical career.
The period from 2004 to 2009 saw a run of four LPs in which the band continuously pushed their sound in more ambitious directions while plotting an unchartable course from acoustic freak-folk (2004’s Sung Tongs) to wild, high energy neo-psychedelia (2007’s Strawberry Jam) to slowly building arpeggios bulwarked by lush harmonization on their 2009 magnum opus, Merriweather Post Pavilion. But the release of 2012’s chaotic, messy Centipede Hz divided critics and fans alike, and thus after the longest hiatus of the band’s career, the scene seems set for AnCo to either: a) release a boring rehash of their genre-defining sound that doesn’t stand up to today’s best sonic architects, or b) explode into new musical territory that befalls the rumors that grown men with wives and children can’t recreate the novelty that existed on their earliest releases.
So what did we get? Unsurprisingly, something in between. Painting With contains 12 tracks (a career high) and clocks in at 41:21 (a career low), evidence that the band has at least temporarily done away with long, droning build ups and landscape-like experimentation. Instead we get the cleanest, most polished and straightforward AnCo release ever, an album that makes extensive use of harmony, hocketing, gurgling synth bass and tribal, rhythmic drumming and combines them to produce some honest-to-goodness pop songs from what is perhaps the most avant-garde festival headliner this side of Beck. Sure, there are occasional distractions- alien phasers and bubbling tremolo poking in from all sides, pitched down vocals, intense syllable level hocketing, for example- but strip away the cosmic sheen and you’re left with a group of songs focused on the singular goal of flourishing within this fast-paced romp through the minds of three extremely talented musicians who are still trying to stretch themselves into new directions even as their sound becomes more singular and refined.
Three tracks in particular tower over the others and may hold up as all time great AnCo songs. Opener “Floridada” features the strongest harmonies between vocalists Avey Tare and Panda Bear ever and is the album’s shining example of where hocketing can go so right as the pair interweave colorful singlets embodying dadaism as applied to the geography of our inhabited world. The chorus is also a likely candidate for the most singalongable stretch of melody ever to appear in an Animal Collective song. “Golden Girl” features the best Bea Arthur sample in recent memory and builds a self-strengthening narrative around a jarring, bass heavy beat that blossoms via the shining choral harmony (“Golden Gal!”) painted over in glitter by the more sonorous vocalist, Panda Bear (though sequencing it as the penultimate track is suspect). And “On Delay” is secretly a gorgeous piano ballad with the tempo cranked up to dance floor levels masked by spades of vocal harmonies that sound like Brian Wilson’s Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys took MDMA and splattered each other with complementary colors.
Not every shot at accessibility hits the mark, however. While none of the other tracks are even close to bad, some are individually forgettable or seem to blend into one another. Take for example the two tracks immediately following the opener, “Hocus Pocus” and “Vertical.” Although each serves as a further example of Painting With’s unifying motif of wonderful harmonies and interesting melodic interplay, both begin with unwelcome vocal samples, prod along at the same tempo and feature the same warbling synth bass. Back to back on side A, “The Burglars” and “Natural Selection” are the two fastest paced tracks on the record and both reside in a higher, more treble-based synth territory. And although the astute listener may discern the transition from side B’s “Spilling Guts” into “Summer the Wretch,” the tracks occupy such similar sonic territory that they almost seem to exist as each other’s remixes.
“Burglars” is still a standout for its manic vocal lines and dynamic drumming, but this melding of one track into another invites the record to be taken as a monolithic expression of music rather than a collection of thematically linked but otherwise distinct songs. My biggest gripe comes with album closer “Recycling”, which seems to somehow simultaneously exist as the least similar but also least memorable track on the album- and as a closing statement no less!
Lyrically, Painting With is a collage of themes centered around the less spontaneous but more contemplative adult life its protagonists have come to lead. Most lyrics are far from discernible due to heavy vocal modulation and hocketing, but lines about detaching oneself from materialism and consumerism, embracing natural beauty, seeking out new experiences, looking critically at establishment and attempting self-betterment through relationships and community offer a shallower but more halcyon digest than the worries regarding fatherhood and attempts to make sense of familial death presented on recent releases.
Alas, the production and arrangement of every track is professional, interesting, occasionally unexpected, and more full and refined than all but the best synth-based music coming out these days. The harmonies and use of vocals as not only the human half of the band but also as an additional tool in crafting detailed electronic orchestrations has never been as strong. If anyone tells you AnCo got ‘boring’, it’s only because they formerly occupied the position of ‘most interesting yet still awesome band out there’ for over half a decade. And now? If nothing else, Painting With signifies a sea change toward a more refined sound that sees the band poised to plunge headfirst into the newest chapter of their colorful history.
Written by HR Huber-Rodriguez