The four whimsical Baltimore-to-Brooklyn transplants of Animal Collective have been building a dedicated following since early in the new millennium, establishing themselves as the jam band indie hipsters can love even as the group has chaffed at that description. "A lot of times you hear the words 'jam bands' and you think Phish or something like that," bandleader Avey Tare (a.k.a. Dave Portner) told me in 2006. "We reached a point where we improvised a lot over long periods of time together, just sitting in our apartments and making stuff up on the spot. But at the same time, we were thinking, 'How can we incorporate more of a song structure in this so we won't always have to rely on improvisation?'"
Good question. Despite that goal--and the band's hero worship of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd--its prolific output has been frustratingly inconsistent: For every moment of pure psychedelic-pop bliss, there's been an unfocused and uninteresting detour into that dreaded Phish murk. But on their ninth studio album, Portner, Panda Bear (Noah Lennox) and Geologist (Brian Weitz) pare down to a trio--Josh Dibb, a.k.a. Deakin, is taking a leave of absence--and they concentrate on the songwriting without losing any of the trippy sonic playfulness of the past.
This relatively late blossoming brings to mind similar evolutionary moments in the careers of the last generation's indie/psychedelic heroes--the Flaming Lips with "Transmissions from the Satellite Heart" (1993) and Mercury Rev with "Deserter's Songs" (1998)--though Animal Collective has always been more rooted in hippy than punk, and the primary melodic inspiration behind this new concision seems to be the Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds": You can hear it in all of those lovely harmonies and in every clattering bell and tinkling piano in the background, even if these come via samples instead of an orchestra. And you won't be able to get the hooks of songs such as "My Girl," "Brothersport," "Bluish" and "Also Frightened" out of your head.
Even as the rhythms point toward the future with their organic take on electronic dance grooves, Animal Collective remains tied to the past, most notably through the hippie visions of its impressionist lyrics. "I don't mean to seem like I care about material things like my social stance/I just want four walls and adobe slats for my girls," the group sings in "My Girl." That sort of sentiment could quickly turn from laudable to laughable, but it never does, not with melodies this strong and a sound so familiar but somehow so fresh. Besides, in these dark and dire times, an expertly crafted, absolutely irresistible utopian fantasy is exactly what rock 'n' roll needs.