The Baltimore-bred, Brooklyn-based Animal Collective have made a name for themselves by being something wholly other. Their music is convoluted, ecstatic, cluttered, noisy, scratchy, itchy and downright fun. Their last two full-length albums, 2003's Sung Tongs and 2005's Feels, create an acid campfire sing out -- with everyone singing a different blissed-out tune in as obnoxious and wildly creative a manner as possible. Sounds are layered on sounds are layered on sounds and are then separated seemingly at random. But Avey Tare and Panda Bear know exactly what they are doing. There isn't anything remotely excessive about AC's excess. They have, until now, presented a holistic view of the individual through the guise of consensus-building pop noiseadelia. With Strawberry Jam, the orgiastic aural carnival sideshow begins to change a bit. There is a growing tension at work here in the music. There is Panda Bear's warm, bubbling sunshine pop that's as childlike as Brian Wilson's or Bobby Callendar's. He's got the cosmic vibe that expresses itself as goodwill toward everything. It's full of padded moments and long, shimmering, blanketing heat. Check his wonderfully accessible hippie blurt in "Chores" when he exclaims: "...Now I got these chores./I'm never gonna hurt no one...I only want the time/to do one thing that I like/To take a walk in the light drizzle/At the end of the day/When there's no one watching." Who knows who's stoned on what? Acid is too easy for this kind of happiness. On the other hand, there is Tare's utter sense of alienation, his strangeness -- and estrangement -- from the limits and inconveniences of the human body and its politics, and his questioning of his own place in human relationships and interactions. It too can express itself as a kind of manic glee, but it's far more brittle.
That said, it makes for an utterly compelling, even obsessive listen. The single "Peacebone" that opens the album in a blur of synth and electronic noise breaks loose into a whirring, beat-driven pop song with a messiness in the mix and hallucination-inducing lyrics: "A peacebone got found in the dinosaur wing/Well I was jumping all over while the fuse was slowly shrinking/There was a jugular vein in the jugular's girl/was supposed to be leaking into interesting colors..." On "Unsolved Mysteries" with its sampled strings and pump organ, he begins to engage: "...Why must we move on/From such happy lawns/Into nostalgia's pond/And only be traces..." and then begins to grate with his questions, observations, and neurosis. Thank goodness: these two and their partners in crime are human after all! David Bowie, Philip Glass and Brian Eno can only dream about having been creative enough to come up with "Fireworks #1." Sure, their collective influence (Terry Riley's too, but he's on another plane altogether -- he's not predisposed to such abject "seriousness") may indeed have inspired the song's hypnotic glam ambiences, but they could never have glued it all together so loosely or gleefully. "Winter Wonderland" by Tare is another adrenaline infused orgy of manic musical happiness, even if the lyrics state otherwise. It's got that AC thing where overdrive into infinity is not just a choice but an M.O. The set closes with Panda's "Derek." It's among the most beautiful and tender songs he's written. Mid-tempo and relatively stripped down for AC, the vocal is a Beach Boys styled melody but more complex. Sounds cross the aural landscape on top of, underneath, and next to the melody until about the track's mid-point when all hell breaks loose. Joe Meek and Phil Spector might have bee able to manage a sheer wall of uber-echo this deep in the percussion and keyboards and have the vocals come right out of the middle, floating above and around the mix. So this tension and sharp, edgy contrast is felt now more than ever before on AC's records, but it's a great thing. It doesn't feel or sound personal, and it doesn't sound as if anybody is interested in closing the gap. Which is wonderful, because what literally bleeds out of the speakers is the most primal yet most sophisticated record AC have done to date. Children could sing these melodies -- and that's the point -- but it took cleverness, a collective sense of humor, and faith in one another to put Strawberry Jam into such a seamless, delicious whole.