Spirit They’re Gone Spirit They’ve Vanished/Danse Manatee
ith Animal Collective generating an impressive amount of (much-deserved) buzz this year on the strength of Here Comes the Indian, the timing of this double-CD reissue couldn’t be better. Indeed, hearing this pair of albums from a few years ago takes on an entirely new significance now, in light of their more recent recordings. Both these albums, in their own way, seem like tentative halfway steps towards the sort of blissed-out rhythmic free-for-all they’ve perfected on their newest effort. Which is not to discount the music here, either; both albums included on this reissue are entirely worthwhile, finding the Animal kids at their most playfully experimental, getting their fingers dirty in gritty noise and cutesy melodies alike.
The first of the discs, Spirit They’re Gone..., leans decidedly toward the latter. A collaboration between Avey Tare and Panda Bear (though FatCat’s minimal packaging has eliminated the line-up distinctions, grouping both records under the Animal Collective moniker), Spirit is a fun and sprightly collection of simple pop songs cased in electronic debris and inventive production. In any other hands, a set of songs this twee and classicist would probably wind up as sub-Elephant 6 dither, but with Avey Tare and Panda Bear’s dense feedback attacks and crazed outbursts flying every which way, you hardly even realize you’re listening to pop songs most of the time on this album.
At this early stage, the duo was still clinging tightly to sturdy song structures, tying their flights of noisy juvenilia to delicate Beatles-inspired melodies and proggy, winding compositions. Prog-pop epic “Alvin Row,” the massive 12-minute album closer, perfectly sums up all the album’s themes, veering schizophrenically through steadily-climaxing waves of classical-sounding piano, electronic atmospheres, and a rambling lyric running unscathed through it all. This is hardly the only highlight, either, merely the encapsulation of everything great about this disc in a single song.
“April and the Phantom” is another highlight, chasing away the infirm early on with an opening barrage of static noise, but then blossoming into a jittery rocker that can’t seem to decide if it wants to be punk or folk. Nervous cyclic guitar strumming forms an unsteady bed for Avey Tare’s unsettled vocals, which veer from a high croon to jagged punk screams, before ushering in a ghostly bridge where his watery, distorted vocals moan “I’m the phantom.” Every tune on the album is similarly complex, and the net effect is like hearing a group of truly gifted toddlers mangle their favorite pop songs; it’s messy, raw, and oddly lovely.
Danse Manatee is the flipside to Spirit’s noise-tainted pop. Recorded with the addition of the Geologist, the second album to come from the Collective incorporates electronics to a far greater degree, with the result being less organic, less accessible, and far less rooted to recognizable structures than its predecessors. Although also much less consistent than the first disc, this album is not without its strong points, and its unrestrained tendency towards chaos is as refreshing in its own way as the first CD’s poppy dementia.
The nearly nine-minute “Meet the Light Child” is a step towards the more recent sound of Here Comes the Indian, with half-sung, half-chanted vocals over a chaotic stew of percussion, drones, and chattering electronics. It’s all reminiscent of the unstructured but strangely pleasurable noisemaking of the first Amon Duul album, and if it never approaches the anarchic glee of Indian, it’s a compelling step in the right direction nonetheless. Even better is “Ahhh Good Country,” which is the only track on either disc here that’s the equal of the group’s more recent work. Cricket chirps merge with bass drones and rhythmic clanging which fuse into glorious industrial folk as Avey Tare’s multitracked vocals sooth like an angel and a jackhammer guitar riff rams it all home. The song seems to endlessly build even as it stays completely, hypnotically constant, and more than anything it points the way towards what the Animal Collective have been doing ever since.
Besides these two epics, the rest of Danse Manatee’s songs seem more like rough sketches than actual songs. The music box melody and woozy rhythms of the brief “Throwin’ the Round Ball” are totally disarming, capturing childhood nostalgia through a skein of adult drunkenness or dementia. “Essplode” is the sole song on the album that reaches back towards Spirit’s slightly twisted pop, and does it very nicely at that. There are a few other interesting songs and ideas, but ultimately Danse feels like an incomplete transitional record.
Regardless, this double-disc set is certainly to be welcomed, since the original albums (self-released on the Collective’s own imprints) have always been rather difficult to track down. This is worth it for Spirit alone, which would be an interesting and great album even if the musicians responsible for it hadn’t gone on to do even more remarkable things since then. And if Danse Manatee is a lot more uneven, it’s not without merit of its own. Together, both discs of this set trace the unusual path of the Animal Collective over the past few years.
Reviewed by: Ed Howard
Reviewed on: 2003-09-10