Wednesday, September 22, 2010

ODDSAC (Animal Collective/Danny Perez)

The idea of a “visual album” isn't a new one though it remains a novelty. I'm sure the history can be traced back further, but Autechre's Gantz Graf EP is the earliest example I can think of for music and visuals being developed to complement each other. Having never seen/listened to it, though, my experience with something like a visual album is limited to Drum's Not Dead by Liars, the deluxe edition of The Information by Beck, and Beach House's recent Teen Dream; all of these came with a DVD of videos for every song. They don't precisely fit the idea of a visual album because they were created as music first and only later were visuals added. As far as I'm aware, then, ODDSAC is the most fleshed out and fully realized hybrid of music and visuals outside of art installations.

I would love to tell you that ODDSAC is a revolutionary leap that proves the validity of a new hybrid artform for a mass market, but it works only slightly more often than it doesn't. The music and visuals share a kind of mutually complementary/antagonistic see-saw: when lovely musical moments of pastoral acoustic or syrupy electronic bliss are tweaking your lobes, sudden stabs of noise and visual interruptions will eventually intrude in. Most of the segues between songs/scenes are pulled off with some finesse and have a taking-a-nap-while-stoned flow, but the more violent flailings give this visual album a quixotic, if not schizophrenic, feeling. Taken as whole, ODDSAC is either the worst set of dreams I've ever had or the best set of nightmares. Or a bit a both.

I suspect the visual aspect—presumably the one most attributable to Danny Perez, though the band no doubt helped—will not be the thing that draws most people to this project. Which is a fair expectation since it's easily the least compelling half of ODDSAC's hybrid form. Even though it's meant to be judged as a whole, I think that its visual side actually fails to be more than just a bunch of weird stuff that gives you something to look at while music plays. It only occasionally seems to relate to the music or interact with it in an effective way that makes you forget you're not just listening to an album with a DVD of videos. This, of course, is the question at the heart of most music video concepts: how much should it reflect the music, if at all? Should it supplant the music to the point where it's arguably successful even without music, or should it play second fiddle? Perhaps visualizers—from iTunes's built-in one to Milk Drop to even something like the Electric Sheep screensaver—are more of a relevant point of reference, since a good chunk of ODDSAC is spent congealing and melting through highly abstract globs, fractals, and polymorphs of color, light, and texture. In fact, it's the scenes where people are featured and some narrative is unfolding that the visuals really falter. There are some entrancing images, particularly in the use of bright colored lighting in night settings, but just as often you get what feels like ten repetitive minutes of a vampire sneaking up on a woman who's wringing the water out of the same piece of cloth over and over.

The music, then, is what most people will care about. Indeed, there are already rips of only the music floating around online. I have to wonder what their reaction will be, and I don't wonder this simply because it was meant as a visual album and not just an album. I suspect the people who have only listened to Animal Collective's last few albums will hate most of what ODDSAC has to offer, since those pastoral/syrupy sections I spoke of earlier are few and far between. It's helpful to remember what the early Animal Collective sounded like and adjust expectations accordingly. Those first few albums were experimental beasts, utilizing noise loops, thunderous drumming, and improvisational dalliances to craft music that was more about the total effect and the moments contained therein than traditional 'songs' or gripping melodies. As this visual album was four years in the making, the band would have begun working on it during the Feels/Strawberry Jam time frame, which was well into their modern song/melody focused era that began with Sung Tongs. Well, so what? So, theorists might posit that ODDSAC was the place where their wilder material went, allowing their pop chops to be honed until the honeyed peak of Merriweather Post-Pavilion. But I don't believe that for a second. The music of ODDSAC is more analogous to the modern Animal Collective's take on the older style, effectively throwing their entire discography into a pan and seeing what kind of gumbo results.

I hope it's no dig on Danny Perez or ODDSAC as a whole that I think it's better as an experimental album with visuals instead of a visual album. That's simply because the visuals aren't always great and don't always properly fit the music. The times where the visuals seem to be dictating the music is always to the detriment of the latter. The sudden stabs of noise I spoke of earlier are the worst offenders, their only purpose to startle you or rouse you from sleep, but there's also the random samples of people talking/laughing when characters pop up on screen that serve no purpose at all. It feels arbitrarily shoved in to echo the people appearing onscreen instead of the much more naturalistic way Boards Of Canada uses vocal samples. But as with other experiments in new art forms, maybe that's the point: trying to discover how this thing is going to work and work best by not sticking to the tropes of music or film. Just as trying to piece together a sensible plot to ODDSAC isn't the point, wanting the music to not be affected by what's going on in the visuals is also an incorrect desire. But no amount of doubling back over myself will change the fact that ODDSAC isn't the home run, proof of concept for the visual album art form that many have wanted it to be or many will go on to insist it is. What it is, though, is pretty damn cool, and a success at being visually and musically experimental without feeling forced or aimless. Fans who wish the band would record something like Danse Manatee or Hollinndagain would do well to track down a copy, not to mention a healthy amount of their substance of choice.

4 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

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