There is a fine line between accessibility (desirable) and conventionality (undesirable) in indie music. Sadly, Animal Collective must not have gotten the memo. “Feels” is certainly less unconventional than 2004’s critically acclaimed “Sung Tongs.” Unfortunately, it is also much less interesting. By couching its eccentricities in more traditional instrumentation, the band loses some of its refreshingly offbeat personality, resulting in an undeniably decent but completely nonessential album.
Animal Collective is known as much for its stage antics as its music — they are both regarded as quite bizarre. The Brooklyn band wears animal masks (and sometimes full-body costumes) during performances and in music videos. Burning Man Festival participants covering Brian Wilson’s “SmiLE” might sound something like the band’s characteristic experimental pop. Animal Collective’s largely acoustic 2004 album expertly layered vocals and naturalistic percussion in a thick and intricate web of rhythm. Its follow-up, the eagerly awaited “Feels,” should have been not only more approachable, but also just as skillful.
The opening track, “Did You See the Words,” achieves that goal in spades. Accented by chromatic descents on piano, the dancing melodies support the powerfully undulating vocals, while a snare drum, regularly punctuated by crashing cymbals, keeps a simple beat. The song, with its dominating vocals and subordinated inflections, affirms the promise of a more mainstream yet no less dynamic sound — sadly, this height is not consistently matched on the rest of the album.
In some cases, Animal Collective’s influences simply overpower its own accomplishments. “Turn Into Something” simultaneously drives and emotes like an Arcade Fire B-side covered by Wolf Parade, but here Animal Collective seems not inspired by, but derived from, those Montreal denizens. Equally unoriginal, the song’s ethereally poppy epilogue calls to mind Mercury Rev.
The single, “Grass,” emerges from the same shallow pool of sources. The synchronization of screams and cymbal crashes does not contribute enough of a unique touch to distinguish the song from the dreamy anthems of any of its more accomplished indie peers. The ambient “Loch Raven” shares this flaw. Reminiscent of Broken Social Scene’s slowest songs, the initially enjoyable track features an innocent, Aphex Twin-invoking chime that emphasizes Animal Collective’s childlike whimsy; unfortunately, the song crawls so slowly that the chime ultimately becomes obnoxious.
These three tracks demonstrate Animal Collective’s mistake: By attempting the same narcotic sound that those peers have popularized, the band has not only over-extended itself, but also partially abandoned the unique brand of chaos that it had previously monopolized. “Feels” is not objectively deficient in the least, but it is overshadowed in comparative mediocrity.
Animal Collective thankfully restores its personal style on “The Purple Bottle.” Though the melody itself is as typical as any on “Feels,” the opening rhythm and the quickly ensuing vocals perfectly exemplify the frenetic and unusual qualities that earned “Sung Tongs” a place on critics’ year-end top 10 lists in 2004. Too bad this characteristic is not systemic on “Feels.”
Equally unfortunate are the faults of the earlier albums that carry over to “Feels.” The boring “Bees” and the lackluster “Daffy Duck” are both too slow and too long for their own good, meandering nowhere for a total of 12 minutes between them. Coupled with a vocal drone, the lyrics of “Bees” say little more than “the bees, the bees, the bees” and those of “Daffy Duck” are as repetitive and stultifying. “Bees” is ultimately the more irritating track, thanks to the grating inclusion of recurring harp chords.
Sandwiched between these two disappointments is the album’s best track, the tender “Banshee Beat.” Though longer than both “Bees” and “Daffy Duck,” this standout track does not plod without variation, but rather combines Animal Collective’s rhythmic excellence with the influences pervading “Feels” as a whole. The balanced coexistence of the band’s signatures and its newer melodic inspirations demonstrates Animal Collective’s singular talents. If the rest of the album were handled so subtly and elegantly, this track would not be lost amid less-stirring tracks.
Ultimately “Feels” is a solid effort on the part of Animal Collective. Nevertheless, the record fails to stand out amongst its steep indie-drug-pop competition. By diverging from the acoustic, campfire-tribal eccentricities of “Sung Tongs,” these inventive musicians have stepped out of their league and found themselves (for now) outclassed. The album is not so much unsatisfactory as it is forgettable. “Sung Tongs” may still be considered classic in a few years, but “Feels” has a much shorter shelf life.