Toward the end of 1970's Burnt Weeny Sandwich – one of Frank Zappa’s most brilliant and strange early albums – the beautiful madness of a live Mothers of Invention recording culminates in Zappa telling an audience “Everybody in this room is wearing a uniform, and don’t kid yourself.” Those words rang true as I walked into a packed Ogden Theatre to see Animal Collective.
Around one in five men in the audience wore the outfit pioneered by Animal Collective and cemented in recent years by ironic indie-rock darling Mac DeMarco: The goofy hat is key, whether it’s a beat-up old extended-brim fishing cap like Smalls wore in The Sandlot, a bucket hat or just one of those baseball caps that looks a few sizes too small. Then there's the T-shirt, preferably oversized, maybe some canvas pants, and tennis shoes. Memes online illustrate this uniform perfectly, but seeing it over and over in person last night at Animal Collective’s Sung Tongs tour in Denver was something else.
Like the Beastie Boys before them – though to a smaller niche centered around college students in the late aughts until recent years – Animal Collective has had a deep cultural influence that spans music, fashion and attitude.
That uniform does little if anything to touch the surface of why Animal Collective — which is slated to release a new double album next month — is an important band. After just a few moments of Panda Bear and Avey Tare’s acoustic guitars talking with each other last night as the duo performed the breakthrough Sung Tongs, from 2004, fashion, attitudes — even the doomsday politics of our time — quickly faded from immediate relevance.
The band opened with “Leaf House,” as Tare (Dave Portner) and Bear (Noah Lennox) interspersed absurdist, wordless harmonies with lyrics about a sad house and feverish acoustic-guitar percussion. That was the musical blueprint for the night, save for the sequences when Tare struck a floor tom placed between the two, who are as close to a Lennon and McCartney as the freak-folk world has probably known.
As a whole, Animal Collective’s surreal 2005 album Feels is the group’s masterpiece, bringing together the wild, campfire-psychedelic vocals of Sung Tongs with twinkly synthesizers and explosive rock. But as a psychedelic crevasse listeners can tune in and turn off to, Sung Tongs (famously recorded on Tare’s parents’ land in Lamar, Colorado) is a landmark achievement in gorgeous, stripped-down weirdness, the effectiveness of which was on masterful display at the Ogden with just Portner and Lennox’s vocals, acoustic guitars and sparse mood lighting captivating the crowd.
It was a gutsy departure from Animal Collective’s big-production tours of the past decade, featuring giant, elaborate light shows and the thumping beats of crowd-pleasers like "My Girls." A few minutes into the duo’s hour-and-a-half set — which did not include an encore — I got a very clear feeling that if the Beach Boys rather than the Grateful Dead had been the house band for the Acid Tests, it would’ve sounded something like Tare and Bear performing Sung Tongs.
Since Animal Collective's critically acclaimed 2009 album, Merriweather Post Pavilion, Tare and Bear’s respective solo albums have arguably been more interesting, original and enchanting than their band’s releases; the Ogden show was a powerful reminder of why the duo’s voices and imaginations are a magical juxtaposition.
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Animal Collective is a modern psychedelic band with neither virtuoso musicians nor rock musicians pretending to be virtuosos. But fans don't want that anyway. The 2,000-strong Ogden crowd instead embraced wonderfully odd, palpably psychedelic music thankfully devoid of guitar solos. Animal Collective records like Sung Tongs — especially in concert — and Panda Bear’s ethereal 2007 LP, Person Pitch, have the tangible ability to suddenly yank listeners in and make them feel high, which can be overwhelming in a packed theater, or even when one of the albums comes on at a coffee shop.
More than anything, the Bear/Tare duo’s voices touch you, whether like a gentle pair of hands or the pills your dentist gave you after wisdom-tooth surgery.
After Sung Tongs was played front to back, the pair ran through a half-dozen stand-alone Animal Collective gems, including the brand-new “Sea of Life.” The old Susan Sontag mantra about art not having to mean something to be something came to mind; it’s nearly impossible for it not to when Animal Collective is entrancing an audience with something as silly as “Who Could Win a Rabbit.”
I wondered if many jam-band fans know about Animal Collective, whose roots are as much in the legendary Box Factory drone of the Velvet Underground as they are in the acid-laced Merry Prankster delirium of early Grateful Dead. If not, a taste of that crossover is recommended...uniform unnecessary.