Although they’ve been operating in their own unique capacity for the better part of eighteen years, Animal Collective have slipped up several times. The most prominent instance of this would be 2016’s ill-advised return to being a “pop band,” Painting With. The record ended up being divisive among fans, and personally left me a bit frustrated at some of the stale arrangements, being maybe the only album of theirs I could describe as “average.” Thankfully though, their live show was just as wild as any of their sets have been praised for over the years (shoutout to them starting the final leg of their tour at the Music Farm!). However, it’s the work they’ve been releasing in the time since the record that’s quite astonishing. Since February of 2016, the members of the collective have released four records that somehow have landed on my favorite pieces of work from them. I’m going to cover each of the four now in detail, most particularly Avey Tare’s second solo record, Eucalyptus, in anticipation of his show at the Masonic Temple in Asheville this coming Friday.
Sleep Cycle by Deakin: Six years after originally setting out his plans for a solo debut with a Kickstarter towards a musical excursion to Africa, Deakin suddenly put out a short but powerful tape to the internet, finally delivering on his long-promised plans for a release. With four full length tracks displaying a prowess for songwriting unexpected from a member of the band who previously seemed to be playing second fiddle. The sincerity and heart of the album’s lyrical content comes through almost immediately with the opener “Golden Chords,” with the blend of artificial and natural instrumental textures holding perfectly throughout. In particular, the album’s single, “Just Am” and closer “Good House” display Deakin’s true talent as his own act, and certainly shows it’s all worth the wait that lead up to it.
The Painters EP by Animal Collective: This is probably the shortest release here, with only thirteen minutes of material (two tracks of which are outtakes from PW), but it still manages to bring out a depth from the style of Painting With that definitely wasn’t as present in the full album. In particular, “Kinda Bonkers” gives much-needed variety in the sound with its clever usage of sampling and controlled use of rhythm. Secondly, the band’s take on the Martha Reeves and the Vandellas song “Jimmy Mack” shows their jaw-dropping ability to take an already incredibly catchy song and turn it into an outright party jam with their own unique flair.
Meeting of the Waters by Avey Tare & Geologist: This album is a very sudden change in pace for the band, but has a very interesting backstory, originating from the two members of the band present here taking a trip down to the Amazon River for a Viceland documentary. The songs here are somewhat improvised material, with Avey only having two hours each day before playing to write new songs for the sessions. In particular, “Man of Oil” is an interesting piece, with most of the sounds originating from various samples taken throughout the area including a local tribal celebration and the clicks of a pod of dolphins. The album takes much more time to breathe and let its sounds bleed out into much spacier arrangements, making this very similar to something like their earlier record Campfire Songs, naturally constructing the ambience of the area into the songs in a way that makes the synthesizer sound just at home as any animal in the jungle. It’s a record of circumstance, that manages to feel like a throwback to their older works while still being unique. If it’s any indication of where they might go as a group in the future, it’s a path to certainly look forward to.
Eucalyptus by Avey Tare: Finally, there’s the latest Avey Tare solo record. The album was barely given any publicity, being quietly released in late July. Clocking in at over an hour, it’s easily the longest work here, but every minute of it is enthralling. There’s not many places where you can pick out individual tracks as standouts (although some manage to show the album’s positive qualities more obviously) due to it being a more holistic work, with every song tying nicely together into one greater package. It has an almost unnatural beauty about it, feeling crafted from the environments it seems to make inference to. For example, there are the breezy waves of “Coral Lords” or the stuttering, wide-open rhythms of the plains exhibited in “Ms. Secret.” The instrumentation here has a small pallet but manages to feel deeper than one would expect, with string orchestrations by collaborator Eyvind Kang fitting in snugly into some of the tracks here. Along with this, occasional use of sampling brings extra diversity of sound on songs such as “Lunch Out of Order.”
What makes this album stand out among the four releases here in particular is its pure vulnerability and emotion exuded in Avey’s lyrics throughout. Songs like “When You Left Me” portray his frailties in a light rarely seen on most group records. “PJ” has him singing in such a weak and restrained manner that it’s almost surprising this is coming from the same person who made songs like “Laughing Hieroglyphic” (off of his solo debut Down There) and “Peacebone” (from Strawberry Jam). All this comes together beautifully in what may be the best release associated with Animal Collective since Merriweather Post Pavilion. It’s a powerful work, and certainly a huge development for Avey as a solo artist. His show with Geologist takes place this Friday at the Masonic Temple in Asheville.