(February 8th on Anti-Records and Epitaph Records)
Cass McCombs is great because his heady folk rock gets Americana and jammy but just before that gets three-Phish-sets-at-Bonnaroo obnoxious he veers off into another territory entirely. One day we’ll probably think of him as a Great Lost American Songwriter but you could just discover him now, too, it’s never too late.
When Person Pitch first came out I was of the opinion that it sounded exactly like the Beach Boys, if the Beach Boys had been granted access to high-octane research chemicals during the writing and recording process. Very little in the ensuing decade has given me any reason to change this opinion.
Noah “Panda Bear” Lennox was, in early 2007, on top of the world. His day job band, psychedelic electronic acid-jammers Animal Collective, were being increasingly recognized as one of the most vital bands in contemporary indie rock (Strawberry Jam was just around the corner to cement this status). Between Feels, AnCo’s breakthrough album, and Person Pitch Lennox moved to Lisbon, Portugal; the sunny climate and generally carefree atmosphere Lennox found heavily influenced the sound of the album. The stacked vocals evoke a very beachy, very free-wheeling sense of fun and abandon; the sampled loops and instruments that clatter on beneath everything add to the sense of unreality, as though you’re on an endless vacation in a place where the sand is white and the water is a clear, brilliant blue and you have no return ticket. “Bros” (jam of a lifetime) and “Good Girl/Carrots” add a bit of gallop to the sound, as though the Grateful Dead (pre-Workingman’s Dead) had access to a modern recording studio and all of the LSD they could ever want.
Person Pitch was the height of Noah Lennox as a solo artist. His next album would largely ditch the samplers in favour of more guitar-focused work, and his follow-up to that would try to rework samplers back in while striving for a more radio-ready sound. Neither have the sense of hedonistic abandon that characterizes Person Pitch and neither has the reverb-laden choral quality of vocals that marks the album out as something special.
The last major outing for Noah Lennox – Animal Collective’s Centipede Hz – was a rather disappointing album. The stakes, therefore, were pretty high for this new Panda Bear album. Would Mr. Lennox find his footing again, or would it turn out to be another case of diminishing returns from a once-hot artist who managed to change the rules for a brief, shining period in the Oughts? Spoiler alert: it’s the former.
Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper returns to the same sort of sounds that made Person Pitch such a delight. Unlike his last Panda Bear album, 2011’s Tomboy, it eschews a stripped-down focus on guitars and drums and returns to the sampler and the synthesizer. It’s electronic pop with a severely experimental bent, like Caribou took a lot of acid and played Pet Sounds with abandon. That last bit is maybe a bit more of a red herring this time around; while Lennox’s vocals on Person Pitch were strongly influenced by the Beach Boys, his work over the last eight years has made those sounds his own, and so now they sound less like the Beach Boys, and more like Panda Bear in its own right. The songs don’t cloak themselves in studio weirdness like on Centipede Hz, where all of Animal Collective’s tricks served to distract rather than enthrall. Instead, they get right to the point and stay there, allowing the weirdness to enhance your quality of life. There’s a bouyancy on these songs that cannot be denied, a quality that’s easy to spot on the singles “Mr. Noah” and “Latin Boys” but is also present on the slower, sadder tracks “Tropic of Cancer” and “Lonely Wanderer”. They’re cloudy songs with hope, and while they break up the joyousness a bit, the overall effect of the album leaves you feeling cleaner and happier than you were when you went into it.