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Face Jammers 

Animal Collective's new disc revives its beastly bite.

The Animal Collective -- hairy and jammy, just like their music.
  • The Animal Collective -- hairy and jammy, just like their music.

Strawberry jam rarely invokes the phrase totally fucking gross. But take a gander at the photo above. That's Animal Collective mixing facial hair and jelly.

Amazingly enough, that pic is tame compared to the cover art for the group's new disc, titled (ahem) Strawberry Jam. Cranking the yak-factor to 11, it's a hyper-detailed close-up of battered berry-brains and bloody syrup. It transforms the sugary-sweet condiment into something garish and hostile.

But the image also reflects the music therein. Animal Collective's eighth disc since its 2000 debut sees the group -- born in Maryland, but now scattered throughout the world -- twisting Sesame Street-style sing-alongs into manic, piercing pop music. Strawberry Jam is the band's most aggressive release since 2003's Here Comes the Indian.

Of course, no one ever mistook AC for Slayer, but record stores generally filed the group's discs under "experimental noise." Although the band possessed a talent for whimsical indie folk, listeners just couldn't get past the textural feedback, proggy clunk, and narcotic dronescapes.

After Indian, however, the quartet anesthetized the radical sonic elements and fetched a much larger fan base in the process. Music scribes hailed Sung Tongs, released in 2004, as classic pop. Ditto for 2005's Feels, which landed AC an MTV News profile.

Although both discs found the quartet writing the most nuanced tunes of its career, the production was too comfy, too straight. Sure, the band has to sell records to earn a living. But no wall of fuzz could ever smother its truly accessible ear candy, and AC's psychedelic pop was always best when the band embraced the avant-garde.

Strawberry Jam does, although it doesn't simply regurgitate AC's early catalog. The record pounces with the urgency of musicians who know they've gone a bit soft. Multi-instrumentalist Josh Dibb (aka Deakin) admitted as much when, in an interview with Billboard, he described Jam as a "chiseled" and "shiver-inducing" disc containing "more brain-stabs."

Dibb nailed it. But after just the first few spins, Jam sounds, ironically enough, like AC's most orthodox release to date. The group penned an efficient batch of pop songs. It also removed the percolating effects traditionally shrouding the voice of David Portner (aka Avey Tare). He sounds like he's making the leap from freak mumbler to "actual singer."

But the real Jam quickly reveals itself, pricking the ears with white-light clarity. Feels allowed listeners to snuggle inside dreamy lullabies. But Jam kicks the face with a relentless, suffocating pulse reminiscent of the scraping techno grooves of Matthew Dear's Audion jams.

Credit has to be given to producer Scott Colburn, who also worked on 2005's Feels. Back then, as they recorded at his Seattle studio, Colburn actually asked the boys if they might be drowning the record in too many overdubs. This time around, the crew relocated to desert-dry Arizona, and AC seems to have heeded Colburn's original concern.

From the pounding "Cuckoo Cuckoo" to the nitrous repetition of "Chores," this disc is ultimately about the power of raw performance. Portner slices through the speaker cones while whiplash synths, Looney Tune whoops, and tribal stomping scrambles about him.

Jam hits its zenith on track six. Titled "For Reverend Green," the six-and-a-half-minute workout kicks in with sandpaper scratch, shimmering glass, and a melancholic glow. Portner, who gives his most extreme vocal performance to date, flips like a schizophrenic from jive-talking Kermit to guttural throat-shredder. As the rhythm builds, his mantra becomes more and more frenzied. Indecipherable baby talk gives way to temper tantrums, shrieks, and coughing blood. (Or is that strawberry jam?)

At one point in the tune, a fragment pops from the mix: Portner shouts, "I think it's all right to feel inhuman now." And that's an appropriate motto for Strawberry Jam. It's not a humane record. It denies listeners the spacious comforts typically associated with great pop. But that's exactly when Animal Collective feels most alive.

More by Justin F. Farrar

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