I heard the other day that a brand new Animal Collective single was purportedly on its way, which samples Phil Lesh’s mighty “Unbroken Chain” one of my favourite Dead songs. First, though, there’s a reissue of 2003’s ghostly “Campfire Songs”; an album which, I guess, may come as something of a shock to people who’ve only been exposed to Animal Collective’s last couple of albums.
Checking through the archives, it seems it was just over a year ago that I blogged about “Merriweather Post Pavilion”, which rapidly became one of the most viewed posts out of the 592 I’ve managed on Wild Mercury Sound, and maybe signalled to us how popular this extraordinary band were becoming. But where that album is fully-saturated and electrified, “Campfire Songs” reduces the Animal Collective sound to its bare, spindly bones.
For a good while, this was actually my favourite AC album, and it still sounds great: Avey Tare and Panda Bear on a Maryland porch, strumming and harmonising in very dislocated, beatific fashion, while Geologist uses field recording techniques to capture not just their playing, but the ambience of their environment. If Animal Collective were once aligned to the whole freak-folk thing, it’s due in no small part to this album.
Much of the five tracks seems loosely improvised on the spot, as one sigh and slither of melody gently coalesces into another. It’s interesting, though, listening to it with the knowledge of what the band have done since. Somehow, the tunes become more accessible, as a result, I guess, of our increasing familiarity with how Dave Portner and Noah Lennox construct songs.
So while “Queen In My Pictures” opens “Campfire Songs” with nine-odd minutes of hesitant, strung-out acoustic ambience, it turns into “Doggy” (and there’s a title, rich with infantilism, that now looks programmed to wind up those who criticise AC as insufferably twee); a song which, treated differently, wouldn’t be much less striking than something like “My Girls”.
It’s a lovely, intimate, immersive record, if you haven’t heard it before, and one which, while “Merriweather” seems very much of its precise time, feels comparatively ageless. Soon enough, Animal Collective would revisit these gaseous ideas, in more structured form, on “Sung Tongs” and, especially, the “Prospect Hummer” EP with Vashti Bunyan. In some ways, though, they were never gentler, or wilder, than here.