Saturday, February 12, 2011

Animal Collective--Merriweather Post Pavilion

The time: December 2010.  The place: Colgate University.  The situation: it's the Saturday night before finals week, and I have a 12-page paper due the next day.  In typical form, I have been slacking consistently for the past few weeks, and I've left this paper to the last minute.  Usually, my paper-writing technique is very methodical: I sit down in the library, take copious amounts of notes on my sources, and write the paper from the notes.  However, this tedious process was wholly unappealing to me on this particular Saturday night.  The last thing I wanted to do was sit in the library all night and write a paper on post-Civil War economic history.

     I resolved to write the paper straight from the sources, without prior notes, and do so at a breakneck pace.  To do this, I needed a few things.  First, I acquired an isolated seat in Cooley Science Library, which is not as crowded with socializing Greek types as the main library.  Second, despite my resolution to not drink soda, I needed some short-term energy in the form of multiple Dr. Peppers.  The isolation and frenetic caffeine buzz would allow me to write a boatload of pages in a short amount of time.

     For the most important speed-writing tool, I needed some music to put me in the proper writing mode.  Paper-writing music is a very tough thing to find.  I don't recommend writing to Katy Perry or Led Zeppelin.  Driving, hard-hitting rock and pop music draws your attention away from writing and forces you to focus all attention on listening.  I will sit for hours in the library and listen to Physical Graffiti, and I might write three sentences.  It's great music, but it's terrible paper-writing music.

     Jazz, particularly the greats like Miles and Coltrane, always provide an awesome choice for paper-writing music.  This music creates a wash of sound that soaks into the background in the wake of other activities.  While I can sit in a darkened room and hear every single note of Kind of Blue, I can write a paper to that album without ever noticing the music.  Indeed, Miles Davis and John Coltrane were two staples of my paper-writing soundtrack on that Saturday.  But I also wanted something more to listen to than the usual jazz fare.  Thus, after visiting a friend's apartment the night before, I decided to buy an album from a band that I had never heard or studied with more than a passing interest.  Three hours and seven-and-a-half pages, that album later, Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavilion became one of my favorite albums in modern music.

    The 'wash' effect that is so important for good 'writing music' defines Merriweather Post Pavilion.  Here, Animal Collective creates an aural landscape that runs unbroken from beginning to end.  The individual songs are almost indistinguishable from one another, but that makes the album all the more appealing.  There are no songs that stand out from the others, but there is no filler material either.  Each song contributes equally to a symphony of modern electronic music.  On MPP the whole is far greater than the sum of the parts, and the album is all the better for it.

     As a fan of traditional classic rock and blues, I find Animal Collective's music very strange.  The traditional rock instruments, sounds, and arrangements are nowhere to be found.  Instead, the band mixes limited guitar and keyboard parts with heavy synthesizers and electronics.  This process can result in a cold, industrial sound, but MPP is exactly the opposite.  The music here is warm and enveloping.  From the first swell of electronics, the listener gets sucked in to the album's sound and gets stuck there for the duration.  The vocals are distorted but soothing.  The music overwhelms, but it does overstimulate or create distress.  For the experimental and modern nature of the music, it is hard to imagine a more pleasant listening experience.

     Much of Animal Collective's success on MPP is due to their skill with modern electronic.  However, the album's warmness comes from the band's brilliant use of their musical influences.  Surf music is highly present throughout the album.  Song titles like "My Girls" and "Summertime Clothes" evoke the same emotions as the carefree surf culture of the early 1960s.  The group's sound owes much to Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound" concept that was presented most successfully in records like The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds and Brian Wilson's SMiLE.  The wall of sound and uplifting attitude that defined the best of surf music provided great roots for MPP.

     Animal Collective also pays tribute to the great psychedelic groups of past and present.  The album title is the name of a concert venue in Columbia, Maryland that often hosts psychedelic rock acts, most importantly the Grateful Dead.  The title is an homage to the Dead, whose laid-back, experimental music is very influential for A.C.  After the release of MPP, Animal Collective further honored the Grateful Dead by becoming the first band to legally sample a Dead song.  The song "What Would I Want? Sky," from the band's Fall Be Kind EP, samples "Unbroken Chain," a little-known Phil Lesh tune off Grateful Dead From Mars Hotel.  The influence of the Grateful Dead and other psychedelic acts on Animal Collective cannot be underestimated.

     Many publications named Merriweather Post Pavilion one of the best albums of 2009, and I see the reasons why it is so highly praised.  It's the type of album where the listener cannot get hung up on individual notes and songs.  You simply need to dive in and experience a brilliant array of sounds and emotions.  Whether you need to write a paper, kick the depression of the winter months, or just escape from real world for a while, MPP will do the trick.  As I've written before, the best music picks you up when you're down and inspires you to move forward.  Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavilion does that as well as any album in today's music.

Grade: A

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