f this year’s Here Comes the Indian is a stunning encapsulation of everything the Animal Collective is capable of, Campfire Songs is its starker, more intimate companion piece, a striking, extended examination of one aspect of the group’s diverse musical palette. That said, a record this good should hardly be dismissed as the band’s lesser effort from this year, and the many subtle pleasures to be found here make Campfire Songs nearly as essential as the group’s other 2003 album.
Recorded in late 2001, it’s not surprising that Campfire Songs is completely different in style from the band’s more recent work, but the album’s unique sound can also be attributed to a conscious artistic decision to make an album of back-porch psychedelia. For the duration of these five lengthy songs, Animal Collective members Avey Tare, Panda Bear and Geologist limit themselves entirely to acoustic guitars and singing, with none of the electronics or drumming that are so characteristic of all the other Collective-related efforts. Surprisingly, this lack of variation in the instrumentation does nothing to prevent the outfit’s always-unconventional sound from stretching out into new and exciting directions.
Armed with just three guitars and their own technically unspectacular voices, these musicians craft dense, deep walls of melody so gorgeous that it’s nearly overwhelming. Throughout, the guitar parts weave together in unusual ways, crossing paths frequently as if all were on their own meandering way to entirely different destinations, but somehow keep winding up in the same place. And the singers trade off between leads and harmonies, their high and strained vocals blending in an affecting manner that’s made all the more beautiful by its roughness.
As a whole, Campfire Songs is concerned with fostering mood and atmosphere from its simple elements. The place and time of its recording are integral to the experience, with elemental sounds of rain, birds chirping, wind, and rustling bushes prominently featured in the mix -- both naturally present during the outdoor sessions and added later through overdubs. The gentle reverberating twang of the three guitars creates a hypnotic effect above this naturalistic hum and hiss, and the voices often blend into the music as just another element of the overall sound, the lyrics sometimes indecipherable if it weren’t for the included insert.
Reading these lyrics reveals what is somewhat obscured in the alternately jaunty and relaxing guitar melodies- the overarching darkness that lulls through much of the album. The majority of the songs ebb and flow with a sort of restrained, morbidly surreal sadness, captured more in snatches of imagery and wordless cries than in any concrete narrative. “Doggy,” which might be called the album’s “pop” song, is actually a rather simple story of a dog that falls from a tree and dies, but the bittersweet emotion in the singing and the passionate guitar melodies buoy the tune far above its pedestrian origins.
Elsewhere, the songs are far less literal. The opener, “Queen in My Pictures,” would be just about incomprehensible without the lyric sheet, and even with it the rambling lyrics about LSD damage and “demon clusters” don’t make much sense; only the repeated word “hallucinating,” from the refrain, is clearly enunciated in the song, and the singing serves more to bolster the stoned strumming of the guitars. The rest of the songs share with “Doggy” the stench of death, and it’s the subtlety of this common thread -- which only becomes apparent after spending a while with the music -- that makes Campfire Songs so affecting. The incantatory majesty of “Moo Rah Rah Rain” conjures images of a family on the very edge of destruction -- “we’ve been beaten, we’re dying” -- and the portrait is made even more desolate by the crackling backdrop of a rainstorm, its hissy steadiness blending into the hesitant jangle of the guitars.
On “Two Corvettes,” the death comes as a surprise, as the first half of the song is a delicate and peaceful courting hymn as the singer asks his girl to “come along” on a drive. His idyllic poem about the pleasures of the road is cruelly interrupted, however, with a harsh interjection of rolling guitars as the three singers join in an ecstatic chorus: “two Corvettes collide on the freeway,” ending everything in a puddle of wracked guitars fading out. But it’s the closer “De Soto De Son” that best captures the album’s desperation and gentle sadness. With plucked, melodic guitars progressing through a number of overlapping movements, the song mingles sorrow, longing, and a sense of simple love, especially as its impressionistic lyrics paint vague images of seclusion.
All of Campfire Songs does a beautiful job of conveying this same sense of isolation and quietude, despite the inner turbulence of the music. This is the skeleton of the Animal Collective’s music, stripped down to its barest roots, revealing that even at their raw heart, this is a group possessed of an instinctive grasp for emotion and beauty.
Reviewed by: Ed Howard
Reviewed on: 2003-09-10