By Ryland Walker Knight
The last time Panda Bear/Noah Lennox toured through the Bay as a solo act, he played The Fox in Oakland, offering the crowd a swamp of bass in waves of noise that probably wasn’t what most of those in attendance wanted to see and hear that night. Nobody complained, of course, and did their best to dance, but it was more an evening of sounds than songs.
Last night, at the Fillmore, Lennox played songs. He also layered sample on sample of himself, of synths, of squibs, of bass, of beats, but he seemed determined to work through the very real structures of all new songs (until the encore), getting bodies moving and people smiling. Perched behind a table of electronics and a blue-foamed mic, Lennox started slow, drawing in the ears with a simple organ progression and tremolo-effected vocal swoops of unrecognizable words. Not that the words matter, per se. The first “single” off this new record was first called, simply, “Marijuana,” and the refrain, such as it was, went something like “Marijuana makes my day.” Not very deep, though kinda funny; the thing that made the track was the vibe, the feeling. That sounds just as goofy as the lyrics, but psychedelia is, in one way, about getting beyond language.
Furthermore, these new songs seem designed to look beyond the stage, beyond the instruments and private practices of making the music that typified Tomboy and its tour. The repetition remains, the loops and strategies aren’t terribly different, but the tone is brighter, with more snare drums in the mix, and Lennox’s voice, sometimes just making vowel sounds up and down scales, seems pointed backwards to the Brian Wilson styles found on Person Pitch and his guest spot on Daft Punk’s “Doin It Right” from last year. In fact, it seems like this batch of concoctions has been designed to pick apart harmony, to sort of suspend its pieces in a kind of constellation that brightens here, dims there, and pulses forward always.
A lot of that is simple arpeggios, and I’m not going to argue that Lennox is some Bach-level genius writing symphonic fugues for a digital age or some mumbo jumbo, but there is a certain kind of genius to syncopating things just right — letting silence space out a jam, even on an eighth note, or knowing when to push your voice beyond its range is okay, when it’s okay to break down your own capabilities, only to let a breakbeat bounce in underneath that cloud of yearning and get your betters lifted once again.
There’s a new song he’s playing about midway through his set that begins with a harp melody lilting up, bellow to bright, and builds variations of Lennox caroling “in the family” on that towards a hook (of sorts) wherein he chant-cries “You won’t come back, you can’t come back” that brought the house so quiet in awe it felt like we were all holding our breath. I don’t think it’s an accident that those words stood out, or that he made them the most accessible. One of the more ingratiating aspects of all the Animal Collective music, across their varied catalogs, is how naked they are about pain. It was around this time that I remembered the working title for the new album: Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper.
That’s when the visuals started to make sense, too. The projections were great from the start, a series of shifting fields as ever, this time marked by cherries and waves of cranberries (in my eyes), changing to skin, and then a kaleidoscope of one nude, blue dancer, arranged Busby Berkeley-style into a wave of flesh from one point of perspective, like a shell’s curves, which rhymed with the strings of light roping across the screen at other times, and her face reappearing, quite large, painted like death. Later in the show she emerged from behind Lennox in a red cowl, carrying a sickle, coming for all of us, as she will, only to be multiplied and fed ice cream (?), which she then regurgitated. It was beautiful, hilarious, stupid, hard not to love.
After roughly 10 songs, there was a break, of course, and when he came back out, Panda Noah Bear Lennox gave the goons what they wanted: something to sing along to! And it made me think about necessity. My favorite art is made, rather simply, out of the artist’s innate drive, some might say compulsion, that makes it a necessary outpouring. It doesn’t need an audience, though art without an audience is a fool’s errand, and if music only exists to trigger familiarity, what’s the reason you’re paying your money to experience this arrangement? Is it vanity? Simple distraction? I know I revel in the new, no matter how much a return may appeal, especially if it’s pleasure circling back, as a gift, to swim through me. But pleasure isn’t necessarily necessary; or, it’s only necessary to alleviate pain.
I suppose this is the old catharsis idea, and that may be the basic desire for live music, to transport, which this show certainly did. But what truly great art, and truly great experiences might offer is a picture of those poles suspended as if in either hand, both present at once. So a Grim Reaper makes sense, again: If you want sky, like Lennox once sang, your only route to the clouds is down, into the dirt.
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