Merriweather strays from old Collective sound

The word experimental seems to show up in iTunes’ genre category a lot. As sort of a catch-all for indie bands that head in a non-traditional direction, it’s generally a bad tag; some of the most experimental music isn’t classified as such according to the endless levels of categorization music nerds love to create.

There is a common thread though: experimental music can often be pretentious. Bands in this genre try to get around that label in different ways. Mr. Bungle avoided it by being incredibly non-serious (lyrically and musically), The Dillinger Escape Plan does it by being intensely aggressive and The Mars Volta does it by mixing several diverse genres (unfortunately those guys get that reputation for other reasons).

In Merriweather Post Pavilion, Animal Collective tries to avoid it the way people like Brian Eno have done before–by creating a sound that’s very content to not be the center of attention. There are never any grand crescendos where the music starts to really assert itself. In the vein of so much electronica, it almost begs to be background noise.

Does that effectively stave off the label of self-importance? Well, mostly. Animal Collective does seem to take their music really seriously, a lot more than you would expect from artists who name themselves things like Panda Bear and Geologist. But either way, the choice to keep their sound pleasantly contained helps AC avoid the same pitfalls of conceit that similar indie bands fall into.

That agreeable atmosphere is pretty consistent throughout the record. The individual songs flow well into each other, less because the album was designed as a coherent concept but more because the pieces just sound similar. “Taste” is a standout song. It’s very glitchy and sort of industrial, and it gives the album’s atmosphere a much needed lift toward the end.

Speaking of consistency, the fuzzy, harmonizing, singing-in-a-cave routine does get repetitive, but I’d bet that vocal style works better in person due to Animal Collective’s strong reputation for outstanding live shows.

I found that to be true with Yeasayer (an indie band with similar vocals) after comparing a pick from their studio album to a live rendition of the same song on YouTube. Even in that horrible quality the difference was stark; an X factor must be lost in production somewhere while they try to soften up the music.

The cover art is so crappy. It’s a leaf pattern optical illusion in the spirit of those old Magic Eye pictures. That might have been cool a few years back, but in this technological era it’s just reminiscent of pop-up window content. They might as well have made the cover a punch-the-monkey banner or an ultimate IQ test.

Actually, they should have done just that; no doubt their core indie fanbase would have called it “ironic” and eaten it up. Thankfully the worst part about this release is something that really doesn’t matter, since few of us bother to keep CD cases anymore and even fewer impulse buy based on cover art.

What does matter is that Animal Collective is very comfortable with their sound by this eighth studio album. Not that they haven’t grown from previous efforts; they’re comfortable in a way that lets them maintain their music’s integrity while growing into something a bit more accessible.

This is not spiritual music, but it’s not hipster garbage either. It’s good casual listening that by all indications makes for an even better live show. Merriweather Post Pavilion should easily satisfy Atlanta Animal Collective fans until they roll back through.