When operating at the peak of their powers, Animal Collective have created some of the most fun and captivating music of the 2000’s. But there’s also another side to them that can often leave you feeling frustrated and scratching your head. Arguably, their best album came in 2009 with Merriweather Post Pavilion, which received widespread acclaim for its near perfect balance of experimental and accessible psychedelic pop, full of gorgeous Beach Boys-like vocal harmonies.
After following MPP up with the excellent Fall Be Kind EP later that year, it seemed Animal Collective were destined for great things. However, the fall has been anything but kind, resulting in them taking quite a bit of flak for a series of releases that appeared to turn away from the magic formula helped create four superb albums between 2004 and 2009. Starting with the experimental “visual album” ODDSAC in 2010, they followed this up with the dense and erratic Centipede Hz in 2012, before going quiet for a few years.
Then at the end of last summer, a live album was announced out of the blue, their first containing material recorded during their peak period. While good for the most part, it also served to highlight Animal Collective’s reputation for hit-and-miss live performances, partly a result of their penchant for experimentation. Two festival performances here in the UK in 2009 offered up a fine example of this, as a superb showing at Glastonbury was followed up two months later by a very disappointing headline slot at Greenman (which they later apologised for).
After Centipede Hz saw their momentum derailed, their latest album Painting With was an opportunity to get back on track. Marketed as a pop record inspired by Cubism and Dada, lead single “FloriDada” (despite the horrendous video) was the best thing they’d released since Fall Be Kind. The album when it arrived though was rather underwhelming, packed full of energy yet at the same time almost completely flat. Perhaps hearing some of it played live would change the minds of those with negative opinions about it?
The final show of their European tour at Manchester’s Ritz was used to showcase around two-thirds of Painting With, as well as a couple of recently released b-sides in the form of “Gnip Gnop” and “Hounds of Bairro”. Although both tracks were more exciting live, it was still easy to see why they didn’t make the cut on an album already full of weak material. Overall, the addition of a live drummer to back up the knob-twiddling trio of Panda Bear, Geologist and Avey Tare did improve some tracks, but too often it felt like they were polishing a turd.
The plodding dullness and awful chorus of “Vertical”, and “Summing The Wretch”, which left you thinking “please (please) stop (stop) singing (singing) like (like) this (this)”, were just two examples. It wasn’t all bad though, with “Lying In The Grass” and “FloriDada” providing a couple of stand-out moments. Outside the latest album, a reworked version of “Alvin Row” from their 2000 debut Spirit They’re Gone Spirit They’ve Vanished was a surprise but welcome addition.
The few vinyl copies of 2007’s Strawberry Jam were quickly snapped up from the merchandise stall, considered by many fans to be their best work. However, no songs from the album would feature in Manchester. There was room though for a couple of numbers from 2005’s superb Feels, represented by the autoharp-led “Bees” and the dreamlike beauty of “Loch Raven”, another highlight. “Daily Routine” was only track from MPP to make an appearance, by far the least accessible moment from that album on night of odd setlist choices.
Several groups of people headed straight for the exit immediately after “FloriDada” ended, not at all interested in waiting around for the encore. There were rumours floating around of a setlist revamp for when they return to the UK in September for a series of dates starting with a headline slot at End of the Road. A rethink is certainly required in order to improve upon performances like this one. If your plan is to see Animal Collective for “the hits” then you’re probably going to the wrong gig. The visuals were pretty damn cool though.