Like most artists, Animal Collective is only human. Although they grant themselves faux names like Panda Bear or The Geologist, the group is still guys utilizing a skill that is very human: the skill of singing. Their music is almost exclusively tuned toward their omnipresent vocal delivery, which sounds like The Beach Boys mixed with some kind of computer error which warps the exactness of one’s voice. Their layered and melodic sound used to be so refreshing to listen to, but after several years of rampant experimentation with their voices and odd, electronic sonic detours, Animal Collective has finally circled back around to a devotion of their trademark style.
This style gives way to a wobbly yet achingly straightforward album entitled ‘Painting With,’ the band’s 10th album in 16 years. While each member has been dispersed for about four years releasing their own projects or just taking a break, they came together to record ‘Painting With,’ which adopts some lessons they each learned in their time away, mostly taking cues from founder Panda Bear’s last studio album, ‘Panda Bear vs. The Grim Reaper,’ a rote exercise in electronica and psychedelia that did not expand upon its core sound in any way. ‘Painting With’ sounds like it took the worst parts of that album and tried to implement other ideas from the band, leading to a mixed bag consisting of some of the most questionable and downright boring tracks recorded by the band.
The album starts off with the single ‘FloriDada.’ This track is obviously put first because of its infectious aura and delightful vocals. This track is a hoppy opener, but one that most fans have already heard and responded to well. It all fits together perfectly, but once the song ends it’s easy to see that it was adequate, but not a crowning example of the band’s sound. In many ways, this describes ‘Painting With’ perfectly, as the listener desperately wants the band to evolve somehow even though their footing has been off for several years now.
This point is only amplified by the middle run of ‘Painting With.’ Labeled by several short, halfway-realized versions of songs, the band cannot find a happy medium within the sound they try to muse on with this entire chunk of songs. Tracks such as ‘The Burglars’ are a sonic mess, with a loudly overbearing synth line running through the entirety of the song. The instrumental is intrusive in the worst way possible. Vocally, this track is also a mess, with the lyrics being negligently spattered out by the band through an alternatively scattershot attempt at throwing some harmonies in the fray.
Most of the problems arising in ‘Painting With’ are from the conflict between the simplistic beats and rhythms relying heavily on synths and drums machines and the misfires at creating memorable vocal melodies. ‘On Delay,’ the eighth track, tries to tie the vocals to the music’s mission, which is to create a delay between members singing and also the beat. Ideas like this don’t work for the band, and unfortunately there are quite a few of these on the album. ‘Summing The Wrench’ is another practice in overplay between the instrumentals and vocals. It includes one of the trademarks of Animal Collective by switching between different vocal pitches extremely fast, which makes the entire song a queasy affair coupled with the tinny synths that also plague this entire album.
There are some examples of this sound decently working, such as track 9, ‘Spilling Guts,’ a two-minute song that allows the band to sing normally for the most part other than submit each verse to harmonies that don’t gel with the beat. Although it’s short, this track is the right length for what it is, and doesn’t bleed over into other songs like several others on the album. Sometimes a beat is strong enough to elevate a song, such as track 4, ‘Lying in the Grass.’ With both the beat and harmonies, this song really works and overcomes the struggle that other songs on ‘Painting With’ have with maintaining the balance between the two.
As the album ends, another standout track appears in ‘Golden Gal,’ which samples a clip from ‘The Golden Girls’ as an attempt to make the track thematic. The song isn’t actually about The Golden Girls, but rather about a nondescript ‘golden gal’ who brings everyone strength. ‘Golden Gal’ was a single from the album and is the other great track from the album next to ‘FloriDada.’ This song uses a narrative structure rather than a wall of sound employed by other, more exhausting songs on the album. The harmonies are varied enough to make each chorus feel flighty and communal as the band sings the words ‘golden gal’ all together. Whereas other songs are a firing of vocals and sound, this track takes its time to let the song play out, leading to a stronger, steadier sound that overshadows most tracks on ‘Painting With.’
Animal Collective leave ‘Painting With’ out there with a sound that is not confident in itself and often falters. When the songs work, though, they are a merry return to what Animal Collective knows best: psychedelia which feels audibly correct, a mural of noise and keys that paint a picture rather than just stick out there like colors thrown on a canvas. The majority of the album is unfortunately a laborious excursion in the mundane, with songs that sound alive, but are internally dry and grasping at cohesion.