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Animal Collective:: Strawberry Jam (Album Review)

Avant-Garde music has always had its place. Whether it’s for the music fan who likes to push their listening to the extreme, or those who have had one too many sips of the mushroom tea and absinthe chaser, its audience is still a relatively minor one compared to the McFlys of our day. But here comes Animal Collective’s seventh album (sixth in the studio) and it promises to open the doors to many new fans.

Unlike what has come before, Strawberry Jam is easy – well, easier – to handle. It may be due to the band getting a little older, wanting to appeal more to the masses, or maybe because it has a new, big, shiny record deal with Domino Records. Whatever it is, it’s welcome. Not because it’s more like ‘normal’ music, but because it really emphasises the great musicianship, melodies and imagination of the band – namely Panda Bear, Avey Tare, Geologist and Deacon – while keeping their oddness right at the forefront.

There’s no better way to introduce an album than with complete confusion and Animal Collective does this brilliantly.Opening track and first single, Peacebone, begins with a nightmare of electric mess, transcending into a conformed thumping of bass and drums. Just the juxtaposition of the two opposites is enough to unnerve you. Its marching beat continues beneath a track full of swirls, industrial crashes and a simple and sweet melody, which breaks only for screams and childlike chorus, straight from the darkest depths of the nastiest horror flick. Its psychedelic lyrics joined with a bit of soprano vocal sets the scene of the creepy tale, which will make every kid sleep with their door wide open. It’s illustrated brilliantly in the video of the first date between monster and weirdo, rotten-toothed beauty.

The hellish fairground surrealness continues into Unsolved Mysteries, with its Willy Wonka-esq bubbles and sweetshop adolescence. It’s cute, but in a very dark way, as is the theme tune to an evil set of Snow White dwarves, Chores, which changes from manic and demanding to quite serene and beautiful.

The pulsating guitars of For Reverend Green (Al maybe’) keeps Jam nodding on, its Arcade Fire-esque backing vocals the complete antithesis to Bear’s screeches and screams among the lovely tune. It gets even lovelier in the superb Fireworks, one of the gems of the album, the Beach Boys influence shines through and the percussion is superb.

More weird and wonderful beauties wrapped up in fantasy bring the album to a close – Cukoo Cukoo, with its warm, magical piano and thrashing guitar and the tropical Derek, the military percussion again bringing something new and exciting to an already experimental band.

Strawberry Jam doesn’t promise to be something for everyone, but it will certainly please those with an ear for the strange and surreal – even if you will have to sleep with your light on.
(Gemma Hampson)