Sunday, May 19, 2013

Animal Collective- Centipede Hz

There are so many factors going on with Centipede Hz that I could have spent the months since its release hitting one topic at a time and still not be out of talking points. It's an album that's worthy of an exhaustive, in-depth examination at some point, but this is not that time. I still don't have a complete grasp on everything about this album, and the mixed reviews it received from others only underscores my uncertainty. For instance, all and/or any of the following statements have felt true to me at one time or another:
  1. Centipede Hz is neither a misunderstood masterpiece, nor is it an unmitigated disaster,
  2. It has the most unique production style, songwriting, and overall structure of any Animal Collective album,
  3. It has the most accurate cover art of any album in recent memory, because it sounds like it looks: a druggy, borderline-amateurish mess with way too many layers,
  4. Centipede Hz is overlong, overproduced, and overwritten,
  5. Some of these songs are almost as good as the band's past high water marks,
  6. Most of these songs are muddled and forgettable

Centipede Hz frustrates me the most because it doesn't neatly fit into the usual slots. It's not great, it's not shit, and yet it's also not average or middling. It's a mess, and I don't mean that in a positive or negative way. It just is a mess. Perhaps the best explanation is that Centipede Hz feels like if a band made polished studio versions of formless demos without allowing themselves any editing or re-writing. In terms of overall sound, you can tell they spent a lot of time and effort making this record, but in terms of overall feel, it comes off like something thrown together over the course of a long weekend with too many drugs and not enough sleep. And then, in the end, they kind of gave up and put out whatever they had done without listening to it while sober and well-rested. For example, 'Wide Eyed', sung (badly) by guitarist Deakin, is like a joke of what someone imagines Merriweather Post Pavilion sounds like; clearer heads and more honest egos would have snipped it from the tracklisting. Yet the production details and transitions into and out of it from its neighboring songs are part of what makes Centipede Hz such an interesting record, and so in a sense it's one of the essential pieces of the Centipede mess.

Much has been made of the fact that this is Animal Collective returning to their experimental roots. On the surface that is true but it's also a lazy, ill-fitting conceit to explain what this record sounds like. After all, it's not the sound the band uses but what they shape that sound into that matters--adding some feedback to Loaded wouldn't make it White Light/White Heat. To put it another way, Feels and Strawberry Jam can be just as abrasive and “experimental” as their first few records, but the accessible framework that supports those sounds/textures makes the songs enjoyable. Centipede Hz tries to have it both ways and fails miserably. An experimental take on their modern sound without the noise and unexpected elements is boring, while enjoyable melodies without compelling, addictive songwriting is even more boring. Even the best tracks, 'Pulleys' and 'Today's Supernatural', sound like they're trying to cram all the sonic details and detritus of Strawberry Jam into four or five minutes and they're almost ruined as a result. Performed live, with layers stripped away, they could be classics.

So I have to ask: is Centipede Hz a live album trying to be a studio album? After all, the simplified hooks and melodies, planted inside a swampy electro-psychedelic production that does them only some favors, seem more fit for energetic performance and sing-a-longs than concentrated headphone listening. All of the songs run together and kind of sound the same, something Animal Collective have always purposefully done in concerts to make the transitions between old songs and newer material less jarring. As such, Centipede Hz is worth a listen just for how very dense the layers are, how the whole album's production gives it a unified flow, and how the songs play off each other. This focus on atmosphere, flow, and production reveals the band as being at a crossroads in their evolution. Having progressed as far as they could as songwriters and emotive vocalists, they're returning to the world of ideas and textures that they sprang from. The issue is that Centipede Hz didn't end up sounding very good when the ideas went from paper to product...which just goes to show you that while you can focus on ideas and textures, you can't use those tricks to make up for weak, half-finished songwriting.

After accusing them of that, it may seem strange to say that the songs of Centipede Hz are, if anything, overwritten. Wait, how can they be both half-finished and overwritten? Well, this comes down to one of the chief flaws of the record: the vocals. Not only have the band taken significant steps backward as songwriters, their vocals have suffered, too. Avey Tare still hasn't shaken the bummer vibes of his Down There album, and Panda Bear seems barely invested in the proceedings at all because (pick your favorite theory):

  1. He used all his good ideas on Tomboy,
  1. He forgot he was more than the drummer,
  1. He was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome during the recording sessions. 

This is all compounded by the fact that there are constant vocals going on during every song. When there are breaks, as on 'Monkey Riches' or during the transitions between songs, all it does is remind you of similar, much better moments from the past. Anyway, adding in one or two 'breathing room' instrumentals would make a huge difference because Centipede Hz comes off as the album version of that friend you have who dominates every conversation. You know the one: he or she has so many ideas and thoughts that they can't say things fast enough, and they don't give you a chance to respond or process. But I digress.

Radiohead's King Of Limbs continually comes to mind when thinking about, but not listening to, Centipede Hz. It, too, is a confusing, half-finished-sounding record from a band with an otherwise excellent winning streak. It, too, is going to be that album in the band's discography that is talked about much more than listened to, by turns savaged and shrugged off by critics and fans alike. As with Limbs, Centipede Hz (regardless of its band's pedigree) is interesting enough to prevent an outright dismissal.

But just barely.

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