We Know It’s Only Rock N’ Roll But We Like It

PLEASE DON’T FEED: Panda Bear, First Unitarian Church, Last Night

BY JONATHAN VALANIA FOR THE INQUIRER The great advantage of our shiny white iPod-abetted Information Age, where the far-flung chaos of recorded music has been organized and arranged into the orderly feng sui of alphabetized and easily-accessed mp3s, is that innovative music-makers like Panda Bear can connect the dots and create unexpected and stunning constellations of sound that cross the once un-breach-able barriers or time, space and genre. I can think of no better explanation, barring something being in the water, for the way that Panda Bear’s Person Pitch combines the woozy Smile-era chorales of the Beach Boys with the hypnotic loops of Steven Reich’s minimalist experiments and the effects-pedal-hopping of early 90s British dream-pop merchants My Bloody Valentine. Truly heady stuff, that.

Panda Bear, for those not in the know, is a member of Animal Collective, the extremely popular and utterly inscrutable experimental psychedelic folk band, noted for its reluctance to allow the faces of the band members to be photographed. As a result, they often don lurid Halloween masks for group photos which only adds to the music’s otherworldly mystique. In addition to the band’s six extant albums, various band members release solo and side projects, with Panda Bear’s Person Pitch, released this past spring, being the latest. Panda Bear’s performance at the First Unitarian Church — immortalized as hallowed indie-rock ground in a recent episode of The Gilmore Girls — sold out almost as soon as tickets went on sale.

Standing before a mixing console through which he fed and tweaked pre-recorded loops of sound, with a mesmerizing and constantly-morphing display of psychedelic fractals projected on the screen behind him, person-pitch.jpgPanda Bear — aka Noah Lennox — vocalized into a microphone drenched in reverb, echo and delay. The resulting sound mirrored the stunning sonics of Person Pitch with carefully calibrated, ultra-vivid fidelity — it was as if Panda Bear had caught lightning in a bottle and was slowly letting it out.


Back in college — which was longer ago than I care to admit, so let’s just say some time after the Earth cooled but before the Internet — I lived in an old Victorian house that the college owned and subdivided into separate apartments. It was a gathering house for all the freaks and geeks who didn’t quite blend in with the frat-boy-cheerleader-chug-a-lug-date-rape ethos of the main campus. Across the hall my neighbors had set up a de facto commune of 24/7 hacky-sack drum-circling and druggy bird-dogging. Most of the guys living there weren’t even enrolled. They all had sophomoric stoner-rific nicknames — Andy Crack, Stinker, Wild Bill, Blee — and they all looked like they lived underwater.

Almost nobody knew how to play an instrument, but these guys were gonna start a band. “Whatever you say, Hippie Pants,” I thought to myself. They were gonna call themselves the Gooney Birds after the sheet of primo blotter they’d scored at a recent Dead show. While I went to classes, these guys woodshedded day and night, nourished only by an Evian bottle filled to the brim with liquid LSD.

By the end of the semester the bottle was empty and these guys were making some of the most jaw-droppingly mesmerizing folk-based psych I’d ever heard. They sounded like the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey looks. Fuck me, I thought. It’s like they mutated a couple steps up the food chain.

I can’t help but think something similar happened to the men of Animal Collective during their formative years.animalcollect2.jpg They’ve known each other since high school. They all have stoner-rific nicknames: Panda Bear, Avey Tare, Geologist, Deaken. From the sound of things, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn they too had a private stock of that Evian elixir when they first took up instruments.

Six albums into their career, Animal Collective have become a cause celebre among the freak-folk meritocracy, creating some of the most stunningly original and indescribably otherworldly music since, well, the acid hit the punk rock some time around the Meat Puppets‘ Up on the Sun and Husker Du’s Flip Your Wig.

When it comes to pedigree, Animal Collective cover their paw tracks with six degrees of sonic separation, mutating sound over and over again until it sounds quite ordinary-if you live on Neptune.

And they have two great tricks that can’t be easily dismissed: First, they somehow make music that continues to morph even when it’s set in stone on CD. (I’ve listened to Feels about 18 times, and I swear to God not one nanosecond of it ever sounds the same twice.) Second, their unwavering refusal to be serious is what makes them so profound.

[photo by JONATHAN VALANIA/illustration by ALEX FINE]

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