Listening to Animal Collective is a lot like visiting a modern art gallery. Some visitors may rave about everything they see, calling even the most abstract works “genius.” Others may be less impressed by what they see, not understanding how anyone could find them brilliant (especially without being on drugs) or perhaps just saying “…I don’t get it.” And some may be in between the two, finding beauty or real glimmers of talent in selected works while being entirely repelled by others. In other words, Animal Collective have never been the indie world’s most readily accessible band, and their music has always been at least a little divisive.
To their credit, Animal Collective have been around for over 15 years and are relative heavyweights in the indie scene, so they must be doing something right. They’re almost always described as “experimental,” which is essentially music that pushes boundaries of what fits in a particular genre or even music as a whole. And true to this ethos, a lot of Animal Collective’s earlier albums were them generally messing around with synthesizers, drums and guitars, with a lot of random noises thrown in. It wasn’t until their acoustic guitar-driven 2004 album Sung Tongs that they started to gain some prominence, which expanded further with Feels and Strawberry Jam during the next two years. However, their 2009 album Merriweather Post Pavilion really put the band in the limelight, making many “best of” lists and becoming their most commercially successful release to date. Not surprisingly, it was also their most accessible album, with catchy choruses on songs like “My Girls” and “Summertime Clothes.” The band then returned to their more experimental style in 2012 with Centipede Hz, but didn’t shake the pop influence entirely away.
This again seems to be the case on Painting With, which is neither too “out there” nor too pop-oriented, walking a fine line between the two. Take the album’s first single and opening track “FloriDada” – it has enough garbled synthesizers over pounding drums to give it an unconventional sound, yet is full of enough positive energy to be readily enjoyable and stick in your head. The chorus features singers Avey Tare (David Portner) and Panda Bear (Noah Lennox) in a call-and-response dynamic, and there’s even a sample of the laugh from the old surf tune “Wipe Out.”
Unfortunately, it’s all kind of downhill from there. The aforementioned garbled synthesizers reappear on every other track, but almost nothing else that makes “FloriDada” great does. The amount of electronic effects in play is nothing short of overwhelming, and on most tracks it all blends together into a low droning. On certain moments like “The Burglars,” “Bagels in Kiev,” and “Golden Gal” it sounds more like a malfunctioning arcade game than a drone, but that’s probably the most praise these synthesizer parts will get. This isn’t helped by the fact that most tracks just kind of shuffle along, with only “Natural Selection” and “On Delay” having a steady drum machine beat to move things at a less sluggish pace. Animal Collective may have been going for a kaleidoscope of colors to paint a collage with this album, but the outcome is more like when too many colors are mixed together, resulting in a dull shade of brown.
The muddled nature of Painting With isn’t helped by the album’s vocals, which are among the most chaotic they’ve ever been on an Animal Collective release. This somewhat surprising, given the singalong choruses on Merriweather Post Pavilion and the prominence given to the vocal parts on Centipede Hz. Avey Tare and Panda Bear spend most of Painting With singing in unison instead of trading off tracks, and it’s legitimately hard to tell who is singing when their voices momentarily break apart from one another. The result is interesting enough, but it doesn’t lend the tracks much in terms of distinction. There’s allegedly some lyrical depth here too – “FloriDada” was apparently inspired by people constantly mocking Florida for weirdness, and “Bagels in Kiev” is about Avey Tare wanting to connect with his Ukrainian family history. However, you probably wouldn’t pick this up since the lyrics are essentially incomprehensible on every track. The result is an album of a dozen tracks that largely blend together in their swirls of overlapping voices and droning synthesizers.
It should come as no surprise that a band that’s been around as long as Animal Collective would have some major changes over the years. What might be less apparent is how its members have changed outside of the band’s music. After appearing on Centipede Hz, occasional member Deakin (Josh Dibb) is absent on Painting With. Avery Tare has worked on three different side projects, including a solo effort, and lives across the country from the band’s sample-master Geologist (Brian Weitz). Panda Bear now has five solo albums under his belt, most of them critically acclaimed, and lives in Portugal. With this context, you get a sense that the band members are slowly moving past Animal Collective and essentially recorded Painting With like a jam session. With this in mind, it could have been a lot worse. Even if it’s not a very memorable album, it’s also still fairly innocuous, and “FloriDada” shows they still have good tricks up their sleeves. Yet if Painting With were a modern art gallery, you would not leave astounded nor perturbed, just kind of indifferent after seeing so many abstract canvases that somehow look the same.