Photography by Nina Corcoran
From an outsider’s perspective, Animal Collective always seem to be set on defying any expectations placed on them – to their credit, they’re pretty damn good at it. After a handful of experimental, psychedelic folk, they fell right into a lysergic trip of arpeggiated synths and beats with 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion. Their most accessible and catchiest album to date, it catapulted them to a level of unprecedented popularity: They sold over two hundred thousand copies and started playing thousand-seater clubs and theaters (including the amphitheater they named their album after).
In reality, they never really stopped doing what they’ve always done. Never a band to dwell on the past, they challenged their burgeoning audience by playing new and constantly evolving songs. Sub-headlining the main stage of Coachella in 2011 was perhaps their biggest show to date; they celebrated the occasion by showcasing eight new songs from the yet to be released Centipede Hz. The people wanted the hits, but what they got was the unknown. Mixed reviews for albums and shows have followed them ever since. Painting With, their latest album, has drawn every score under the shade: some publications mourning what was once a promising band, others delighting in the fact that their weirdness and spontaneity are still intact.
Perhaps in an effort to downplay their previous success, they elected to play smaller venues this tour. The last two times they played in Boston was at the House of Blues, which is nearly triple the size of The Royale, a nightclub-cum-concert venue nestled in the heart of Boston’s theater district. Last night’s show, unsurprisingly, sold out instantly.
Giving Animal Collective a run for their money, Rat King opened with a barnstorming set of inventive hip-hop. At first a seemingly odd pairing, Animal Collective’s attraction to them is apparent in their eclectic samples and experimental beats comprising reversed and looped synths and frequent drop-ins from a flute. The most interesting point of their set was their saxophone player who would alternate between low drones and jazzy, melodic runs at opportune moments.
Acting as a three-piece with a touring drummer (they are, again, sans Deakin), the trio were represented by large Easter Island Moai-esque figures with a demented Dada twist. These figurines towered over the band as stop-motion projections of rolling clay wheels and squiggly lines of color gleefully danced in and out of view. Inspired by ’70s Danish cartoons, their visuals did a fine job of establishing their album’s aesthetic as physical entities.
While Painting With is undoubtedly Animal Collective’s poppiest album to date, their live show stretched everything out through extended jams and starry-eyed drones. As a result, some of the newer songs lost their tight arrangements and turned into meandering pieces that eventually blended into an indistinct swirl. However, this more relaxed approach actually turned some of the album’s lesser songs into standout moments. While the album version of “Summing the Wretch” feels far too busy, live its strong rhythmic qualities took center stage and turned the track into an extended dance break. As the Painting With songs bounced and burbled around, it seemed like most of the crowd were unsure of how to receive them.
“Floridada”, of course, received a welcome response as it seemed like it was one of the few newer songs the audience knew. Perhaps the problem isn’t with the new material itself, but the audience’s unfamiliarity with it. There was a distinct disconnect between the band and the audience — the former seemingly lost in their own world, the later desperately wanting to join in.
Electing to play more ethereal cuts such as “Bees” and “Loch Raven” from earlier album Feels was a wise choice as the songs stood in stark contrast to their current material. Whereas their newer material relied on heavy, thumping beats and octave-leaping vocals, these songs acted as a relaxing, ambient respite from the chaos.
“Daily Routine” was the only Merriweather Post Pavilion to make the cut, and its twirling synths and long reverberated vocals were one of the absolute highlights of the night. No surprise that this got one of the biggest reactions of the nights with hands aloft during its washed out synth coda. By closing with “Alvin Row”, one of their earliest songs, they defied my own expectations by reaching far into their back catalog and delivering a gem for their long-standing fans.
Therein lies the greatest conundrum for Animal Collective: They retained that massive audience from the Merriweather Post Pavillion days, but they’ve long since moved on sonically. However, it’s still early and heady days for the Painting With… tour. For a band with plenty of charm and uniqueness, there’s always a chance to win back an audience who want nothing more than to love them.