As Animal Collective’s music has slithered its way out of the sonic murk over the last half-decade or so, it’s been equally fascinating to chart the rapidly developing vocal personas of the band’s two core songwriters as it has been to sit stunned at the day-glo, synthetic leaps they’ve made as sound sculptors. On the one hand you have Noah Lennox, the more tonally traditional of the two, taking Brian Wilson-inspired pop harmonies to delirious new heights. And on the other there’s Dave Portner, Lennox’s unhinged, occasionally deranged foil. Together they’ve produced some of the most unique and forward-thinking pop records of the modern era, and as their individual personalities have become more pronounced in recent years, they’ve managed to parlay their success into various solo and side projects. Lennox, being the more accessible of the two, has unsurprisingly garnered enormous levels of acclaim for his work as Panda Bear, while Portner looks to be using the freedom to work out nagging experiments and personal anxieties.
Thus far, his work as Avey Tare has manifest itself in but a single widely reviled—though rather fascinating to these ears—collaboration with wife and former Múm singer Kría Brekkan (Pullhair Rubeye; 2007). Portner’s official solo bow, Down There, while not as outright extreme as that record, is similarly idiosyncratic, with only occasional glimpses of the freewheeling dynamism that has marked his recent Animal Collective contributions. This proves to be both an interesting downturn in delirium and a bit of bummer as far as ingratiating standalone songs are concerned. It’s safe to say that you’re ultimate impression of the album will be predicated on patience, as Down There mostly simmers just below the surface, with an equal amount of emphasis ceded to Portner’s pained lyricism as the record’s intriguing if shallow stew of swampy sonics. This approach, however, yields perhaps the album’s most worthwhile trait: in resisting the temptation to extend Merriweather Post Pavilion’s kaleidoscopic pop, Portner has managed to withstand any accusations of water-treading, thus carving out a distinctly contemplative niche for his solo debut, even amidst his band’s wide-reaching back catalogue.
The relatively even keel of the record, then, actually facilitates the album-length listening experience, though this music certainly lacks the verve of the best Animal Collective material. As a result, the few occasions that Portner vocally asserts himself immediately stand out, while the remaining pieces sort of wade introspectively. For someone whose favorite Tare-fronted Animal Collective tune is Strawberry Jam stunner “For Reverend Green”, this downturn in excitability can prove to be a considerable tease. Nevertheless, opener “Laughing Hieroglyphic” makes good on the album’s atmospheric drift, tripping woozily on a skittering bed of electronics while Portner punctuates the loose structure with his most authoritative performance. I’m equally keen on closer “Lucky 1”, easily the album’s most pop oriented moment and a nice light at the end of the record’s dimly lit tunnel.
Elsewhere, tracks such as “Ghost of Books” and the painfully intimate “Heather in the Hospital” take their time in establishing mood alongside their thin melodies, while others such as “Cemeteries” don’t really ever coalesce into anything outside of contextually dependent thematic tissue. The appropriately personal nature of this music puts it in line with Panda Bear’s cult favorite solo hymnal Young Prayer from 2004, and like that album, Down There accomplishes its prescribed goals with noble, sometimes frustrating determination. It’s an intriguing look into the mind an artist who often times must compartmentalize his sonic and lyrical reflexes for the greater good of his group, yielding rewards equal to what any given listener brings to the proceedings. Return visits may prove less frequent than expected, but there’s no denying this record’s unique pull. [72/100] [Published: 11.11.10]