Panda Bear Person Pitch

[Paw Tracks; 2007]

Styles: forget everything you’ve learned about indie-rock
Others: Animal Collective, Avey and Kria, Ariel Pink, Our Brother The Native, Dutch Dub, Grizzly Bear

Only truly single-minded artists carry the chutzpah necessary to defy fans’ expectations time and time again. An even more difficult trick is to rotate one’s approach repeatedly without drawing the ire of a listening public that — once success of any kind has been procured and tasted — is essentially looking for reasons to knock their heroes down a peg. It’s only natural; maternal even. You, as a fervent underground listener, have steadfastly dedicated yourself to nurturing a life that few are paying any attention to. You give the little guy everything he could possibly want; you purchase new toys at an alarming rate (hand-designed tour CDs, for example) and show him to everyone you know like a shiny new pocketwatch. While this is happening, in the back of your mind, you’re thinking, “I helped make him what he is today; I had a role in this.” You take pride in that, and why shouldn’t you?

Then something happens that you didn’t plan: The little bastard starts growing up and doing what he wants to do. He ignores your advice and goes out for the track team instead of the football team, hangs with a crowd of local tuff e-nuffs you don’t approve of, and chooses not to go to college. (Oh, and he releases the godawful Danse Manatee.) This drives you batty, but hey, he’s your child, and you’re willing to support him in any way you can. Then others start to take notice, and he’s no longer your secret. Next thing you know, the baby you nursed from a sapling is bearded and being interviewed by some starch-shirted FUCKWIT from Entertainment Weekly who wants to write a piece on that “wacky freaka-deaka dingo-gringo folk band” people are talking so much about. You, the loyal parent, are wondering what the hell folk, and, for that matter, Entertainment Weekly, has to do with your favorite son.

Logically, from here it’s safe to assume that all kinds of problems will crop up. You’ll cut him off financially, disapprove of his choice of mate, stop filling his cupboards with Costco groceries; something’s gotta give, right? Not so much with Animal Collective, strangely, for while the group have presented quagmires aplenty during their life cycle, they’ve always proven themselves flexible enough to meet the many obstacles of humanity — and obsessive admirers — head-on. You, as a parent, appreciate that, and when you watch your ‘creation’ slip on a wet floor, you bide your time, knowing he will emerge stronger than ever once he finds his bearings. You don’t condone the avenues he explores or the choices he makes, for the most part, but he throws himself so completely into the projects he undertakes that you can’t help but be a proud, smiling parent when all is said and done.

Putting this by-now laborious allegory aside, AC are the quintessential problem child even the late John Ritter would have trouble turning a blind eye to. They sometimes use frequencies so high-pitched that the casual citizen will hear a track like “April and the Phantom” and get an instant headache. They experiment, tinker, dabble, sprinkle, taste, and curate a new approach for each coming album, often working out the material for future albums while people are just getting used to the latest concoction. Historically speaking, they spin their heels and bolt in the opposite direction whenever their fans get too comfortable, from the knobby, hobbly, wobbly-kneed kiddie synthonies of debut Spirit They’ve Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished to the more accomplished Feels, which hinted that the band may just pull the biggest bait-and-switch yet by becoming — ohhhh god, ohhhh god no — popular. The most vital aspect of the trajectory of the cult-fave quartet is how thoroughly they’ve invested themselves in each phase of their development, to the point where the long-abandoned strategy of renaming their band with every new album (2003’s Campfire Songs, for example, is technically a band and an album name) is as indicative of their aims as the actual music they’ve summoned.

As the glowing reviews pile up and “Sweet Road” soundtracks your favorite crayon commercial, a backlash would seem inevitable. However, a few different factors are holding back a wash of naysaying. For one, lending a song to a TV commercial — perhaps as a result of indie’s slow Death-Cab crawl into the mainstream or maybe just a natural solution to starving-artist woes — isn’t quite the harbinger of doom it once was, for better or worse. Secondly, the musicians of Animal Collective have proven extremely adaptable to change, which is fortunate because they’ve undertaken several aesthetic and structural transitions since issuing the first run of Spirit in 2000.

Almost as important as their adaptability is their knack for transporting the listener to new environs. If you likened 2003’s Here Comes the Indian to crackling campfires and deep-woods sprawl, you weren't alone (thankfully TMT [didn’t->,2453]) -- and you also missed the mark completely: Here Comes the Indian was recorded in downtown Brooklyn. But it’s not entirely your fault. That’s the power of the Collective: Whether they’re recording together on a back porch in Maryland or in a flat in NYC, the AC decal has always shone though, and, best of all, they look the listener in the ear; no pretensions, no patronizing.

Panda Bear, who has always written songs and played guitar, started out as Animal Collective’s drummer on Spirit They’ve Gone, after which he became more or less a ubiquitous presence, writing many of the collective’s best tunes on breakout album Sung Tongs. His first widely released solo album, Young Prayer, was as fascinating as it was limited in scope, but it was more of a critic’s album than a unit-mover. Your friendly local record-store clerk might have recommended it, as did cloisters of Animal Collective diehards, but its acoustic meanderings were criminally confined considering the work young Panda had done beforehand.

Person Pitch, for all intents and purposes, is Panda Bear’s coming-out party as a solo artist and as a performer, period. From top to bottom, it’s the most moving, complex, all-there release to come from the Animal Collective camp. Suffice to say, critics and listeners alike are leaving snail trails with their computer mouses, pitching out comparisons to Brian Wilson and album-dropping Smile. Alluring as all of the hoopla sounds, Person Pitch’s faint melodic/harmonic similarity to Pet Sounds et al is but one facet of its deep understanding of nuance and sustained energy that keeps its drones lush and lively — avoiding the occasionally cloying strum-strum redundancies of Sung Tongs — and its multi-suite movements rich and rewarding, regardless of their long running times.

Tantamount to Person Pitch’s near-perfection is Panda’s willingness to take off the mask of his day job and show us exactly who he is, an uncomplicated, apolitical, soulful, relatively carefree late-twenty-something entering the phase of life many of us stationed at age 27 or older dread: assimilation into the adult world. He isn’t hiding behind gaping expanses of effects, percussion, and guitar drone, nor is he subverting his vision for the ‘good of the group.’ Despite the fact that PB had to cut solo tour plans short to record the new Animal Collective album, Person Pitch heralds the arrival of Noah Lennox as a singular personality apart from — rather than in conjunction with — the group that made his Panda Bear pseudonym a hot ticket in the first place. He’s not proving he doesn’t need his Collective comrades, but he is establishing his mettle as a songwriter and arranger in his own right.

Opener “Comfy in Nautica” goes a long way toward mapping out Panda’s persona with one of the most refreshing lyrical refrains imaginable in a genre as show-y as indie-rock. Overtop a slow stomp-’n’-chant, he lets fly one of the corniest sentiments I’ve heard since I watched the end of coming-of-age teen dramedy: “Coolness is having courage/ Courage to do what’s right/ Try to remember always/ Just to have a good time”. And with that, the sniveling sneers, cutesy/ironic posturing, self-deprecating-but-still-automatically-cooler-than-you scenester-isms of the indie-rock world are revealed for what they often are: cold, disingenuous, and, worst of all, calculated. Considering that indie-rockers over the years have become the equivalent of junior high students, carefully choosing their words in order to receive the approval of — or at the very least not offend — ‘the group,’ Panda Bear’s words become much more prescient. It may seem ridiculous, but by writing and singing the first thing that comes into his head, he has transcended countless scribes that spend hours attempting to come up with the perfect balance of discontent/dysfunction/disdain/detachment every time they write a song.

His decrees throughout Person Pitch are so simple that it seems ridiculous to extol their virtues on the surface, but such directness is sadly a lost art. Perhaps Lennox, a self-proclaimed ‘uncool’ kid, is meant to make his mark by creating music for the shy, artistic child playing in the corner rather than the attention-seeking All-American brandishing a Fender his rich parents bought him. It’s certainly difficult to imagine a gruff MTV2 band touching a lyric like “When my soul starts growing” with a ten-foot pen, which brings about Person Pitch’s incredible paradoxical appeal: While it nudges Panda further into what could be labeled as ‘pop’ territory with its never-neverland harmonies, this is still outsider music through and through in form and execution.

Which brings us to yet another pulse point of this seven-track beaut; it’s created almost exclusively from samples. Panda deliberately wanted to ditch his guitar for a spell after the six-string noodling of Young Prayer, and he has done so with vigor, only employing a few strums for the conclusion of “Bros” and other random intervals. Since it would take an honorary doctorate in sample-ology — or at least more than casual, cursory knowledge of the subject — to properly lay out the exact process that went into extracting the material for Person Pitch, I’ll just venture to say that you won’t notice any more than you noticed the number of patches in your grandma’s finest quilt. There are a few tunes where Panda obviously took a starting point — hand drums, manipulated voice snippets — and expanded by adding layer after layer, but there are other compositions with no clear entry point (and it must have taken forever to line some of these tunes up so precisely).

For an album constructed from so many constituent parts, Person Pitch is amazingly warm and inviting at times, wrapping around the ears, nestling the head, and squeezing like a nice familial bear hug after years of no contact. “Im Not” drifts on a sustained bed of manipulated vocal scraps and a quasi-dub beat, gracefully sinking a hook into your mouth as you float serenely, aimlessly bobbing to the slo-mo underwater rhythms. Through repetition, the drone sinks further and further into the ground until Panda’s sublime voice wafts and waxes as if he’s cooing from the bottom of an abandoned well or the clutches of an endless canyon, his voice dripping softly like candle wax and hardening in colorful shapes and patterns. Again, I’m not sure how he assembled this dynamic kitty-purr of a song, and I’m also not entirely sure I’ve heard a more splendid melody since “Winters Love,” his strongest contribution to Sung Tongs.

It would be accurate to call “Im Not” a centerpiece of sorts because of its location in the tracklisting and overall effect, but that wouldn’t be giving the songs that surround it proper justice. Moreover, the sequencing is so tight, you won’t be able to listen to Person Pitch out of order without feeling like you’ve strayed far from the homeland. “Comfy in Nautica,” with its jaunty opening chant, sunshine lyrics, and hopeful tone, feels like the lift-off before a lofty launch, and “Ponytail” is a fitting ending point and fresh start at once, scoring the conclusion of an artist’s definitive statement and the beginning of perhaps a new phase in his output, with more lovely, vulnerable melodies, and instrumentation so frail it would collapse under the weight of a flawed mix like an earthworm under a pair of jagged cleats.

In between, we’re treated to a pastiche of several styles and genres, many of them falling wayyy askew of the traditional listener’s radar. Fragments of afro-beat, dub, glitch, avant garde, Tokens-style jungle doo-wop, tribal, drone, ambient, and probably more bloom from the rich soil of Panda Bear’s creative conscience, and what’s uncommon is the distinct sound unearthed when the disparate ingredients fuse together to become one. Those who have read this reviewer’s piss-takes on so many heavily hyped albums have surely been waiting for the time when Gumshoe will get all blubbery and soft as a ten-ton vat of lard. Well, enjoy it while it lasts, bitches, and remember: Person Pitch will do the same thing to you if you give it one thorough listen.

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