Animal Collective's 'Painting With': EW Review
Experimental rock group Animal Collective spent the last decade churning out colorful, idiosyncratic music that could’ve perfectly soundtracked a hippie’s experience tripping at a Grateful Dead show. Often scattershot and strange, albums like 2004’s Sung Tongs and 2007’s Strawberry Jam attracted scores of fans thanks to a blend of boundary-pushing electronic explorations and lush Beach Boys-style harmonies. But on Animal Collective’s tenth studio album, Painting With, the group falters — mainly because it sounds like a facsimile of itself.
No Painting With listener would mistake Animal Collective for another band. The rollicking opener “FloriDada” is cartoonish and goofy — perhaps to a fault — while nevertheless referring to Dadism, the avant-garde art movement from which it takes its name. Tracks like “Vertical” and “Spilling Guts” skitter along with the wild, modulating vocals that have become the group’s calling card. And this deep in their career, band members Dave “Avey Tare” Portner, Noah “Panda Bear” Lennox, and Brian “Geologist” Weitz achieve inviting quirkiness better than anyone in the game: “Lying In The Grass” sounds ominous, but only in the way a tricky level on a Nintendo 64 game was — all jagged planes and bright hues.
But the album lacks the emotional weight that made records like 2005’s Feels and 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion cornerstones of Aughts indie music. When Lennox earnestly sang about family and domesticity on “My Girls,” the music’s synthesis of grandiose texture and lyrical brevity (“I just want / Four walls and adobe slabs / For my girls”) combined for a transcendent experience that surpassed the sum of its parts. Here, a song like “Bagels In Kiev” obliquely references a grandfather, but confounds with lines like “Bagels for everyone / That’s the kind of thing you would have wanted.”
The album’s instrumental components also fall short. Animal Collective has famously road-tested material before putting it on record, but for Painting With, they adopted the opposite, more conventional route by hitting the studio first. As a result, these songs sound directionless: “Hocus Pocus” and “Golden Gal” come off like rough sketches that could’ve used audience feedback. None of the album’s 12 tracks are awful, but none are masterful — instead, many are just pleasantly, peculiarly indistinctive. Part of what has made Animal Collective so revered is their disregard for traditional song structure and melody. They’re still testing those limits on Painting With, but the product rarely feels as groundbreaking.