Tuesday, August 9, 2011
Panda Bear - Tomboy
01. You Can Count On Me
03. Slow Motion
04. Surfers Hymn
05. Last Night At The Jetty
07. Alsatian Darn
09. Friendship Bracelet
Noah Lennox's Panda Bear project has always been about making "difficult" music scan as almost radio-friendly, to translate experimental moves to a broad audience with little interest in such things. It's a strategy he learned, at least in part, from sonic forebears like Arthur Russell and Brian Wilson, along with the avant-techno types he reveres. Like those disparate influences, Lennox has used potentially off-putting compositional and textural ideas to craft some of the most inviting music of his era. In turn, he's inspired more of his own followers in the last four years than anyone might have guessed. Lennox has found himself the unwitting king of the chillwave nation, hero to a whole generation of underground kids drawn to his mix of heavy reverb, sun-woozy synths, droning kraut-surf-ambient-pop songs, high childlike voice, and psychedelic-cum-nostalgic sleeve art.
Tomboy, Lennox's fourth solo album as Panda Bear, was mixed with Pete "Sonic Boom" Kember of Spectrum/Spacemen 3. And again, in a way there's little here that's any further out-there than the blissful psychedelia and dream-pop Spacemen 3 and their peers were playing in the late 1980s, a lineage that stretches right back to stuff we now consider classic rock. With its angelic choirboy harmonies over an unchanging synth buzz, even "Drone", the album's roughest song, is a dead-ringer for the way Spacemen 3 songs like "Ecstasy Symphony" merged the pop high of Beach Boys with the woozy downer feel of the Velvet Underground.
But despite Tomboy's shorter songs and more conventional structures-- especially compared to the loose percussive jams of Lennox's 2007 solo breakthrough Person Pitch-- he's still committed to pushing his music to strange places. And few of his chilled-to-the-point-of-entropy acolytes can match Lennox for warped hooks. Forget comparing his gorgeous voice to their mumbling. Unlike many chillwave and dream-pop artists (and Spacemen 3), Lennox is blessed with the ability to actually sing, and he knows enough about crafting harmonies to do more than vaguely nod in the direction of 60s pop. So Tomboy is a pretty singular mix of the eerie and the inviting.
Despite the murk and terror and noise of Animal Collective's earliest music, there's never been anything particularly ugly about Lennox's mature solo work, starting with 2004's Young Prayer. But even then, he wasn't comfortable playing the laid-back hippie stereotype that's been laid on A.C. by detractors in recent years. Young Prayer might still be the most emotionally wrenching album in the Collective's catalog, an album written by a young man wrestling with some heavy shit. Lennox's father was dying of brain cancer while Young Prayer was being written. "[My father] got to read the lyrics, which was the most important thing to me," he told me in 2005; Young Prayer was a last attempt at confirming the good his father had done for him.
Musically, the album was the least bleak, least difficult thing an Animal Collective member had recorded to that point. But the unembellished recording-- you could almost hear the empty rooms in which it was recorded-- only heightened the fragility of the songs. "I didn't want to spend a lot of time producing it or thinking about how I wanted to get it to sound," Lennox said in that same interview. "I just wanted to get it out quickly." Tomboy is a much more considered record, with thickly layered psych-style production. There's also another heavy dose of dub, the most studio-bound and effects-driven music of the last 50 years, with the kind of extreme echo that plays like an overt tribute to the very different Jamaican psychedelia of King Tubby and Lee Perry.
But Tomboy's also something of a return to the simplicity, if not the emotionally blasted vibe, of Young Prayer after the ornate structures and epic lengths of Person Pitch. Instead of a Young Prayer we now have a "Surfer's Hymn". Instead of a naked guitar and a lot of blank space in the recording we get a wall-of-sound rush and percussion that's like Steve Reich by way of IDM. But the spare droning quality and devotional feeling of the music remains. There was plenty of church music in the Beach Boys and Arthur Russell, too, and Tomboy has a similar quality of embracing both summer fun and hushed spirituality.
The trouble with recording a ramshackle epic like Person Pitch is that you set up a portion of your audience to expect the next album to be at least as grand in both scope and design. There are certainly no obvious peaks on Tomboy like "Bros" or "Good Girl/Carrots", where the 12-minute lengths announced them as attention-demanding stand-outs. So Tomboy's smoothness will likely be mildly divisive among Lennox's fans. Many might have hoped that Lennox would have recorded something less accessible to separate him from the beach-obsessed glut of bedroom pop. But the scaling back on Tomboy in no way represents a scaling back of ambition on Lennox's part. In a way, what he's pulled off here is even more difficult. He's condensed the sprawl and stylistic shifts of Person Pitch into seemingly tidy songs. The fact that he's able to make music that's both otherworldly and familiar-on-first-listen is something that all of his followers would like to achieve, and very few have the chops or inventiveness to pull off...www.pitchfork.com