Album of the Month: Animal Collective – Sung Tongs

  • Posted on: January 29, 2016
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Now, here’s something that will bring you in from the January cold!

So I found myself in the locker room of a gym earlier last week with my best friend, who had brought me along “for muscle gains”. In this locker room, there is a small TV streaming Much Music behind the last row of lockers. Much is very much like MTV in a few ways, other than essentially being the Canadian and American equivalents of each other, respectfully. Both used to be a place to go for great musical discoveries and conversation of anything surrounding music as an art form. You don’t get so much of that anymore.

Now whenever Much comes on, I don’t hear music, I hear an episode of Conan or Tosh.0 (what even is Tosh.0??). Though to be fair, Much started to lose its lacklustre to me years ago, when Big Shiny Tunes 14 came out. The compilation of Rock music was something I looked forward to every year; the songs were always skillfully selected and carefully ordered, and I would break each album in like a pair of shoes, a book my favourite author wrote, a mixtape. It always promised favourites, new up-and-comers, names I had never heard before, but it never disappointed. I didn’t even bother picking up Big Shiny Tunes 14 when I looked at the tracklist, already aware of the fact that every song on the album would sound an empty shell. Much was still playing music then. New issues of Big Shiny Tunes stopped coming out, stopped entirely. And then Much eventually stopped playing music entirely.

And so imagine my surprise when I heard music coming from the small TV in the locker room (naturally, an old Drake song was playing). “Much is playing music again?” I asked Jen. She just shrugged, stuck out her lower lip. The song changed over to a weird, pseudo-vaporwave colour trip of a music video, but nonetheless caught my attention. I was surprised again to learn from the corner of the screen that this was new Animal Collective. I had never really paid much mind to Animal Collective. I might have tried to get into them once or twice, but never really knew where to start or put in much effort to start listening. But by AltPop standards, this was catchy stuff, and even though I didn’t like the song right away, I was still singing “Flor-Flor-Flor-Flor-Florida / Flori-dada, Flori-dada” in the gym, and in the kitchen the next morning.

I listened to the song again with breakfast, and was left unimpressed. Sure, it’s catchy and fun and the chorus slithers like a snake, but it just feels like a basic formula being filled out without much elaboration or originality, or a thought made towards bending the rules. This was really disappointing! Surely, all the hype being made over this group for years must have been for something, right? I mean, music notables everywhere were listing Animal Collective as a central influence, Pitchfork seems always to be raving about Panda Bear’s solo efforts, for starters. Was the cavernous world of underground music letting me down? What was next? Marina and the Diamonds going mainstream?

Oh wait…

So, I decided to do some snooping by taking it back to some very early Animal Collective to see if there was a difference in sounds and motives, and I understood then why everyone had been making such a fuss. This search had lead me straight to Sung Tongs, which in turn brings us to the main objective of this article. If you’ve stuck around past this unbelievably long introduction, I thank you. Now, let’s talk about the music.

Sung Tongs was first released in 2004, and is the debut album of the Baltimore-based group. I don’t think I’ve ever been so quickly made aware of an album’s unconventionality and demanding presence before this. It is reminiscent of Brian Eno in its tonal qualities and atmospheric sounds at some spots on the album, yet there is always a driving and persistent beat that leaps the tracks forward, and is otherwise fresh in that a lot of these instruments verge more on the acoustic rather than the digital. Notably however, is the vocal distortion on many of the tracks, as made especially evident in “Waddit I Done”.

I think most of what gives this album most of its life force is the use of polyrhythms (meaning more than one rhythm at one time, in case you’re not familiar with the terminology), not only in the percussion sections of each track, but cleverly, in the other forms of instrumentation as well. There are quieter moments on the album to really soak in all of these different textural rhythms, but then on the faster tracks, the musical arrangements transform themselves and make you feel like you’re running. It’s kind of like a windup toy, opened and moving slowly so you can observe all the little details individually (a fascination in itself), before winding it up again and showing its full potential. Doesn’t that sound like fun?

This is music that is having fun with being music. Most of the lyrics are just little sounds than actual words, which is always interesting to hear musically, as the voice becomes a tonal instrument outside of its role as linguistic communicator. Do you follow me? And the words that do stick out are usually ones that are kind of child-like in quality, which match up wonderfully with the jangly percussion and guitar, as well as with the polyrhythms. Really, this album is just pure sunshine, start to finish.

So, where will my journey in discovering Animal Collective go next? I think that “Floridada”, no offence to the band, was a bad introductory point, but Sung Tongs is giving me so much hope in its warm, sonic sunshine. Do any of you have a favourite album that I should listen to next as a good follow up? Let me know; I’d definitely be interested in listening to it and reading about why it’s your favourite.

Keep an ear out for: “Kids on Holiday”, “We Tigers”, “Who Could Win a Rabbit”, and “Mouth Wooed Her” (“College” is a really fun one, too).

And as you step into your new year, a new future, don’t forget to take the old root of something with you. It’s always important to reflect on the start of something big. My offering to you is this album. Now, go make your own music, dance your own dance, put forth your own response to the future of this year we are living.

And never stop jamming.

-Bee xo