John Wray has written a very long NY Times piece on what he views as an important trend in indie rock: the computer-and-sampler-aided solo performer, along the lines of Final Fantasy, Panda Bear, and St. Vincent. Personally, I’m suspicious of any argument that claims to see a unifying or centrally important direction in indie music these days: tastes and practices are far too fragmented and divergent for any over-arching trend to emerge. Critical attempts at canon-making seem very much out of place in a musical culture that is so fundamentally de-centered.
That said, I do think Wray is on to something by calling attention to Panda Bear. If any active band actually is casting a relatively long shadow of influence over other indie musicians, it’s Animal Collective (of which Panda Bear is a member). In handful of years since Animal Collective came on the scene, there’s been a sudden preponderance of indie rock records employing naturalistic imagery, off-kilter rhythms, drum-circle percussion, and vocals mixing sweet singing with sharp shouting outbursts. (One recent example: the much-buzzed-about Dodos—who aren’t half-bad, but definitely need to work on shaking off their influences.) Of course, there are also a far greater number of indie rock bands who aren’t doing anything of the sort—the genre has many leaders and many followers, and no stylistic center of gravity. But clearly other bands have been listening to Animal Collective, and have been impressed by what they’ve heard.
I’ve been impressed, too. For me, Animal Collective stands out in contemporary indie music on the combined strength of their songcraft, musicianship, and inventiveness. The band does not rely on typical indie tactics like collage artistry or crate-digging irony: you can point to a Beach Boys harmony here, a reggae-like melodic turn there, but doing so will help you very little in describing the band’s music. And though they pay an unusual amount of attention to the creation of strange (and sometimes unidentifiable) sounds, the band never sacrifices a tune for the sake of novelty in arrangement. Even their weirdest synth stabs and watery gurgles tend to serve a clear purpose in service of the songs: they both buffet and batter against the band’s often sweetly gorgeous melodies; they help establish the oddball rhythms, and also tug against them, and serve as points of transition for sometimes sudden and dramatic musical transformations.
Animal Collective’s latest release, the very brief between-albums EP Water Curses, has more than its share of strange beauty and surprising moments; closing track “Seal Eyes” is particularly striking, with its broken-down piano and sampler-altered vocals, which seem to both float and wobble, their exact shape and dimensions never quite discernible. Nothing on the has the weight and heft of the best material on Strawberry Jams or Feels, but that’s OK—Water Curses is enjoyable on its own small terms, and seems to exist mostly as a new lens for looking at the sound of their previous record before the band moves on to whatever they might do next.