Album Review: Panda Bear – Tomboy

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In the absence of an Animal Collective album since 2009′s post-Merriweather EP Fall Be Kind, it’s tempting to compare Noah Lennox’s latest release with his bandmate Avey Tare’s solo debut, 2010′s Down There. The comparison isn’t unwarranted; both albums share a homey, underwater sound, as though the listener were hearing the songs from the bottom of a swimming pool.

But as valid as such a comparison might be, I don’t believe it’s fair or effective to compare Tomboy to Down There, simply because the latter was Avey’s first solo effort; Panda Bear, on the other hand, has been perfecting his individual sound for years. And so, while Down Thererepresented the sound of an artist getting his feet wet by himself for the first time, Tomboy sounds like the culmination of Lennox’s output–both solo and as part of Animal Collective–thus far.

Panda Bear has always had a great ear for melody, but Person Pitch was not an especially melodic album. Rather, on that 2007 release, Lennox teased out tuneful moments from his samples; “Bros,” for instance, devotes much of its 12-minute running time to the repetition and development of a single jingle, employing the mellowness of a lullaby to make more palatable to his brother a startlingly harsh (but, as anyone with a brother will agree, reasonable) request: “Come and give me the space I need.”

Person Pitch is about a lot of things, but one of its main themes is Panda Bear’s ever-changing relationships with his family. On “Take Pills,” he urges his mother to give up her antidepressants; “I’m Not” concerns his insecurity about becoming a father (“I’m not ready for it, but then never I could be”). Our feelings about our relatives are rarely static, and it’s this ambiguity of mood that Lennox so successfully captured on Person Pitch.

By contrast, Tomboy is a more melodically inclined affair, even if this might not seem obvious on first listen. The album opens a cappella: “Know you can count on me,” Lennox repeats, eventually joined by a psychedically warped acoustic guitar and distant handclaps. The melodies on “You Can Count On Me,” as on much of the album, are buried deep within the song, obfuscated by a collage of instruments that only congeal after several spins of the record. It’s kind of like looking at a Pointillist painting up close; the jumble of multicolored dots only make sense when you step back and consider the piece as a whole.

Now, I’d be remiss to say that Tomboy doesn’t play with mood. But Lennox has largely eschewed the heavy sampling found on Person Pitch and instead turned to sequencers, recording his own playing of instruments as opposed to extracting bits and pieces from others’ works. This makes Tomboy’s layered density–at times brilliantly clear, but often murky and dusty like antiques in your attic–all the more impressive and, strangely, personal; as though all these instruments were being played especially for me.

If the listener had to find the melody within the moods of Person Pitch, then the opposite is true for Tomboy. “Surfers Hymn,” backed by the sound of rolling waves, is a pure pop song in the verse-chorus-verse tradition; its percussive keyboard arpeggios at first evoke chaos but soon fall in time with the song’s overall rhythm and pacing, reflecting the way “a rider can steady though waves come crashing.”

The piano stabs on “Slow Motion,” much clearer than they were on the 7″ release of the song last year, drive the song in a subtly melancholy direction. “It’s what they don’t say that’s what counts,” Lennox sings, filling in these imagined gaps with shuffling shakers that blend into what sounds like glass being shattered over and over again. One gets the impression that there’s a lot happening beneath the surface of “Slow Motion,” deeper and mysterious things that waver from resplendent to menacing. It’s what the song doesn’t put out on the surface that’s what counts.

“Last Night At The Jetty” is an immediate album standout, thanks to its waltz-like rhythm and indelible catchiness. Lyrically, it echoes the struggle to accept the passage of time hinted at on Merriweather‘s “Bluish,” which included lyrics about thinking “back to the time when we were green/I know we have changed but I still grin ’cause I can’t wait to see you.”

Panda continues to both bask in naive nostalgia and accept the fact that he’s older now: “Who could say we’re not just as we were? No one could deny, my, my.” Yet there’s a touch of wistfulness in the music, like a carnival’s theme heard from across the parking lot. The song’s tunefulness would have been jarring and conspicuously straightforward on Person Pitch, but on Tomboy it represents an evolution of Lennox’s sound: Still airy, still dreamy, but also more forthright in its pop inclinations.

Welcome relief follows “Jetty” in the form of “Drone,” a song that certainly lives up to its title. But even here, the synth drones poignantly change pitch every so often, constituting a melody as thick and slow as honey. “Drone” also serves as a bridge between the rather classically structured first half of the album and the more abstract, psychedelic latter half.

“Scheherazade” is led by a quiet piano–a much different piano than the one that drives “Slow Motion”–and around it, echoes and wind chimes float in and out of consciousness, suggesting a hallucination unfolding in slow motion. Maybe that’s what Lennox means when he sings, “I see it in the day, I see it in the night, I see it all the time, though I might not desire.”

“Friendship Bracelet,” meanwhile, flirts with the Fleet Foxes’ brand of timeless folk; it sounds like a song that’d be played in the town square of some early twentieth-century Appalachian village. Lennox’s favorite lyrical theme–that peace, love, and harmony will save us all–is as evident here as ever: “Cannot be destroyed with a friend’s ring at the side/Don’t break ties that hold them ’round the ring.” Yes, “peace, love, and harmony” is a hippie trope, but Panda Bear is a much better–and subtler–songwriter than the “kumbaya” cliche that “Friendship Bracelet” would evoke in lesser hands.

Panda lets this melody twist and turn, dipping in and out of major and minor keys, always calm but never really at rest. It’s a testament to Lennox’s talent that such a melody plays so effortlessly, as though it were the most natural thing in the world.

“Afterburner” is the other immediate album standout; it’s as aggressive as Panda’s ever been. “I’m so tired of taking, of taking it,” he sings, the repeated “of taking” reminding the listener that the chillest vibes are sometimes built up as a defense against the most stressful environments. Or maybe not a “defense,” but rather, as mentioned on the album opener, a “force field switch” to “keep you secure just a little bit.”

Regardless, the pounding drums and whirring synth accents on “Afterburner” suggest a tiger on the prowl. After almost 40 minutes of mellow ruminations, “Afterburner” provides the album with a vital jolt of energy, reminiscent of Merriweather’s bouncy closer “Brother Sport.”

At last we reach the end with “Benfica,” which encapsulates everything great about this album: Subtle melodic shifts, delicate vocal harmonies, an atmosphere that understands the difference between ethereal and boring, and lyrics that complicate their own moralism. To illustrate the latter, listen to how he imbues his claim that, “There is nothing more true or natural than wanting to win,” with a sort of bitter disbelief–the kind of phrase you’re forced to recite despite your own objections. The song approaches the resigned melancholy of a dirge, but never drowns in its own sadness. The ambiance, despite the distant roar of a crowd, is one of profound loneliness.

That he makes this loneliness sound so catchy and rich is no surprise. But upon each repeated listen of the album, Tomboy seems to reveal something else you hadn’t heard before, another secret buried beneath the reverb. That it has so many secrets of offer makes it all the most enigmatic and powerful.

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