t’s clear that, for whatever reason, Avey Tare (née David Portner) has a thing for alligators. Alligators are everywhere—on his website, on the cover of his new album Down There, even in the video for that album’s first single, “Lucky 1.”
Maybe it’s a sly branding response to fellow Animal Collective member Noah Lennox’s solo success as Panda Bear. Maybe Portner watched a Discovery Channel documentary on reptiles. Maybe he simply wrote down the names of a bunch of cool animals, threw them in a hat, picked one and ran with it.
But the choice in unofficial mascot makes more sense after listening to the swampy, bayou-dwelling songs on Portner’s latest solo effort. He flaunts these boggy sensibilities from the get-go; opener “Laughing Hieroglyphic” ratchets to life as an accordion carries the melody for a good five minutes. It’s also the first—but hardly the last—time that Portner sounds like he’s singing underwater, and when he’s not sounding bubbly his voice still echoes with either poignancy (as on “Ghost of Books,”which is the closest Avey Tare will probably ever come to recording a torch song) or eerie (as on the carnivalesque “3 Umbrellas”).
Animal Collective’s widely acclaimed 2009 release Merriweather Post Pavilionshares several attributes with Down There, including the echoey singing. But the most striking resemblance is in atmosphere; Pavilion tracks like “In The Flowers” and “Lion In A Coma” impressively managed to sound both electronically modern and viscerally organic. Synth sounds worked in the service of a natural sound; the album felt almost tangibly alive.
Down There similarly plays with atmosphere and balances the natural with the synthetic, and when it clicks—like it does on album highlight “Heather In The Hospital”—the music resounds with a steampunk-esque retro-future charm.
As “My Girls” proved, however, Merriweather also benefited from Noah Lennox’s knack for creating gorgeous melodies. Portner’s melodies, on the other hand, never quite approach that same level of beauty. Tracks like “Heads Hammock” and “Lucky 1” nail the swampy atmosphere but lack the melodic strength to keep us interested. Too often, the album presents a tedious challenge, offering glimpses of brilliance layered beneath incomprehensible lyrics and sometimes grating instrumentation.
At 35 minutes, Down There is short enough to be worth your time. It’s just a shame that what could have been a great album instead gets stuck in the mud—probably the result of spending all that time with alligators.