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SPIN Essentials

Animal Collective, ‘Centipede Hz’ (Domino)

Invisible railways crackle with life...
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: September 04, 2012
Label: Domino

From the beginning, Animal Collective intended to create not just sounds, but worlds. Even before settling on a name, 2003’s Campfire Songs presented a 55-minute glimpse into a November cabin-in-the-woods jam session wherein the most enchanting sounds didn’t come from the drone-folk tunes, but from whatever lurked in the background: the crickets, the footsteps, and the barking dogs, around which you could piece together an entire ecosystem. Seven years later, the band brought that campfire to the Guggenheim, filling Frank Lloyd Wright’s interior with costumes, film loops, and a site-specific 36-channel speaker system that immersed museum-goers in a purposefully unfamiliar sensory habitat.

These days, the band, which again includes fourth member Deakin (who returns after an African hiatus), is interested in radio, all those invisible transmissions that haunt our airspace with the fragmented sonic traces of other places, times, people. When we think radio, we tend to think pop — Wolfman Jack in American Graffiti, goading the town into a new era of mass culture, or all those Dr. Luke-produced sugar-highs keeping us alert as we push across the interstates that tie all those towns together. But with Centipede Hz, Animal Collective draw on an alternative history, one of British offshore DJs, coded messages bouncing through lonely shortwave stations, and restless undergraduates sending strange noises via university antennas. As the band mashed together sounds on their pre-release Internet radio show, the antecedent was less the Wolfman than Afrika Islam, the Afrika Bambaataa affiliate whose Zulu Nation Radio Show sent an unpredictable and often unidentifiable melange of breakbeats, electronic noises, and melodic fragments into the Newark night, proving it was possible to broadcast live from Mars 30 years before made his own interplanetary transmission.

Fittingly, Centipede Hz opens on one of those interstates: The Eastern seaboard’s I-95, with our young narrator holding onto his “stash of jams that ran along in Michelin times.” Whereas 2009’s revered Merriweather Post Pavilion was a social album, filled with songs about walking around after dark, and named for one of the biggest outdoor music venues in Maryland, this one is more private, concerned with the effect music makes on the individual, embedding its lyrics deeper into the mix, rewarding the type of close listening you only can do alone. Just as the pogoing synths of Merriweather tracks such as “Lion in a Coma” bounce you back out into the world, these swirling, digital-industrial noise-melodies draw you in closer as you detect traces of acts as diverse as James Ferraro (tourmate and cosmic cousin to former Paw Tracks signee Ariel Pink), Gatekeeper (another world-creator who paired his recent Exo album with a downloadable first-person video game), and Nguzunguzu (a bass-music production duo who mutate R&B and hip-hop). As Panda Bear sings on “Rosie Oh,” on which that chugging FX blitz is particularly prominent, “I’d like to embrace it all.”

More than a tossed-off wish, that line crisply sums up an approach to both music-making and -listening that stretches across the album: Whatever you’re hearing, you’re hearing correctly, and whatever you’re feeling, that’s okay, too. Back on the highway, recalling his old stash of jams, Tare can’t remember, as he puts it, “What the text was,” but the sensations the jams provided and the “sun-heated seats” he sat on? He’ll remember those forever.

If it’s not yet clear, Centipede does retain much of the band’s earnest, knowing naiveté. After “Rosie Oh” ends with some broadcast fragments, which include a vocoded advertisement for Johnny Walker, “Applesauce” traces a piece of fruit’s journey from farmer to child to chef to mayor, thankfully abandoning the trail upon its digestion. Like nearly all of the record’s 11 songs, it benefits from a disregard for traditional pop verse/chorus/bridge song structures: Surprisingly, this story works just as well when repeated in a coda that regurgitates the body of the same tune. Elsewhere, “Monkey Riches” adds element after element and noise after noise to a frenzy that only gets resolved by a fragmented glitchstep breakdown, and closer “Amanita” swells and swells until bursting into the record’s most joyful, exuberant minute and a half.

Hearing these developments, some have suggested the influence of popular electronic dance music — and if we’re embracing it all now, how could there not be, on some level? — but at its core, this music is less for monolithic PAs than headphones, less for sprawling ex-urban all-day ragers than quiet bedroom 3 A.M.s. There and then, you can lie back, close your eyes, and allow the music to expand across new geographies — and new worlds — completely of its own making.