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"Tomboy"

Panda Bear – Tomboy
20 April 2011, 08:00 Written by Janne Oinonen
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Tomboy’s predecessor, 2007’s Person Pitch, had the kind of impact that second solo albums by percussionists of (at that point) proudly marginal art-rock bands rarely achieve. Not only did Panda Bear – Lennox’s furry alias – win wild acclaim and admiration for the album’s groundbreaking combo of cutting edge sampledelica and heavily Beach Boys-influenced dream pop. The newfound emphasis on electronics also had a huge impact on the output of Lennox’s day job Animal Collective, gradually morphing the Baltimore-born four-piece from cultish purveyors of truly out-there experimentation – equal parts astonishing and annoying – into the mainstream-courting, dubwise psych-pop magicians known and loved for 2009’s jawdropping Merriweather Post Pavilion and last year’s equally mighty Fall Be Kind EP.

As such, the expectations regarding Tomboy are totally off the scale: repeat old tricks, and prepare to be subjected to the laws of diminishing returns. Try something new, and expect grumbling galore as disappointed listeners hanker for more of the same. Considering this, it’s perhaps telling that the first sound you hear here is that of a mass of harmonising Noah Lennox’s cooing “no, you can’t count on me” (or at least it appears to be so – for an album saturated with endless variations on the human voice, Tomboy’s noticeably shy when it comes to revealing the contents of its lyric sheets).

As with Person Pitch, most of Tomboy could be heard on one-off singles prior to the album’s release. This led to some conflicting first impressions. The new cuts packed a remarkable sound; dense and effects-laden as on Person Pitch, but also freshly organic, featuring prominent roles for Lennox’s guitar and keyboards at the expense of painstakingly assembled sample collages. But killer tunes ala ‘Bros’ or ‘Take Pills’ appeared not to be on the agenda this time around, with Lennox’s new melodies appearing reluctant to lodge themselves in memory.

Slowburning and distant on first encounter, but gaining hypnotic pull with each subsequent listen, ‘Tomboy’ soon proves underwhelming first impressions to be wide off the mark. Although tracks like ‘Surfers Hymn’ – a warming hit of musical sunshine – and the uncharacteristically energised ‘Alsatian Darn’ pack gigantically catchy choruses, most of Tomboy defies songwriting convention. Tracks remain anchored on a single theme, with a massed web of tweaked, treated and multitracked Lennox’s gliding ever upwards in search of a new angle on the deceptively simple melodies. Add to this the album’s subtly dub- and hip hop-influenced foundations and the disorientating wealth of detail (check out the eerie procession of disembodied voices that interrupt the hymn-like calm of ‘You Can Count on Me’, the distant bass rumble roughing up ‘Scheherazade’ or the rubbery synth squelches that propel the highlight ‘Afterburner’ to heady levels of intensity) that Lennox and collaborator Sonic Boom (of Spacemen 3 fame) have created, and the result’s a true one-off: minimalistic and intimate, whilst simultaneously richly textured and embracing an everything-all-the-time ethos of untamed noise-mongering.

It’s not entirely faultless. Pretty as the celestial vocal pirouettes of ‘Drone’ – the glacial single-chord hum of which definitely delivers what the title promises – are, the track lacks a fully satisfactory conclusion. The gentle glide of ‘Friendship Bracelet’, meanwhile, is a bit too strict in its adherence to the album’s guiding dogma of unorthodox song structures, wounding up an aimless, if divertingly disorientating, journey in sound.

Even so, when the caressingly smooth surface of the closing ‘Benfica’s ruptured by sampled outbreaks of wild applause and adulation, it’s impossible not to join in. ‘Tomboy’s the fourth truly outstanding offering from the Animal Collective camp in a row – and just as special as its much-feted predecessor.

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