Margot & the Nuclear So and So's signed with Epic Records in 2007, having made enough waves with The Dust of Retreat to partner with a major label. The big leagues aren't always accommodating to new bands, however, and the band quickly clashed with Epic over which songs to include on their follow-up album. Two different records were ultimately released: the band's preferred version, Animal!, and the Epic-approved Not Animal, which featured those songs favored by the label. The latter record was the only one to receive a proper CD treatment, with Animal! being relegated to a vinyl/digital release.
Accordingly, Not Animal isn't the album Margot intended to issue; instead, it's a compromise between the band's evolving sound and the label's desire for a marketable product. Yet despite the concessions that Margot & the Nuclear So and So's had to make, this sophomore record is hardly conventional. Not Animal takes an experimental approach to the band's chamber pop sound, which previously drew parallels to Sufjan Stevens and Arcade Fire. Those comparisons are less evident on this 12-track album, where the band's eight members rarely pile their instruments into lush, orchestral heaps. Instead, they play their cards like veteran poker players, waiting for key moments to throw down a loaded hand. It takes restraint to act this way -- to downplay the sheer noise that such a big ensemble can make -- and Not Animal sometimes sounds like a Richard Edwards solo album, since he helms the bulk of these songs with his guitar and weary vocals. When the band comes together, though, Not Animal sounds like the wiser older brother to Retreat's wide-eyed child. One of the strongest tracks, "As Tall as Cliffs," opens with harmonica and bouncing acoustic guitar before slowly adding layers: Emily Watkins' harmonies, Andy Fry's electric guitar, multiple percussive instruments, and -- for a brief 20-second period at the end of the track -- a big sonic swell featuring the entire band. The highlights continue; "Real Naked Girls" is an atmospheric ballad with with Nintendo-styled keyboards and strings, "Pages Written on a Wall" mixes James Bond guitar riffs with mariachi horns, and "Hello Vagina" manages to sound sadly sweet despite its masturbatory lyrics ("I am your right hand; I am your best man"). Not Animal gets better as it goes along -- the sparser, melancholic songs are pushed to the front, leaving the band's energetic tunes to bring up the rear -- which means the album ends on a high note, effectively masking most of the sour taste left by the band's battle with Epic Records.