Panda Bear, the solo project of Animal Collective’s Noah Lennox, earned enough critical praise for his 2007 album, Person Pitch, to garner a significant spike in attention. In spite of the steadily building hype, he has stuck with his vision. In 2010 he performed new material to a festival crowd. Needless to say, the reactions were wildly mixed. As a result, his fourth album, Tomboy, has been the subject of much speculation (most of which has been admittedly simple — as in, “Is it good?”). So, this review functions as a guide to the three possible groups of “fans” coming to this record: the beginner, the intermediate and the expert.
Let’s start broad: You’ve heard of these Bear bands: Bears, Grizzly Bear, Panda Bear, etc. Maybe you’ve even heard of Gold Panda. You think “Bear” may be the new “The (fill-in-the-blank)” or “Black (fill-in-the-blank)” band/artist signifier. Unfortunately, you don’t know the difference between any of these Bears, let alone whether Panda Bear, Gold Panda and “The Black (fill-in-the-blank)” sound any different. Wait a second, is there a band called Black Bear? Yup. And a Black Panda? Ditto. Overwhelming, I know.
If you identify with this category, I applaud you for making your way to this review. Really, I don’t mean that in a condescending way. Panda Bear is not the most mainstream artist.
As for the music, I’m cautious. The enthusiast in me would gladly recommend this record to anyone. However, I’ve also had several friends throw this recommendation back in my face. Let me put it this way: Any time Panda Bear is on the home stereo, the boo inevitably turns down the volume after less than 5 minutes.
So, maybe try a taste, like the neatly structured “Last Night at the Jetty.” The beat lopes, but the leading components — bass, keys and voice — follow a gently wafting melody in tight unison. If the odd bits of echo and distorted moans fall to the wayside for you, sample “Surfer’s Hymn.” The melody reaches high, the beat follows the crashing of waves and there is enough flotsam and drone drifting by to give a sense of how Lennox fills his compositions. If you’re still on board, then dive right in. Person Pitch ain’t so bad, either. If you’ve already checked out, then this is clearly not your bag.
Next group: You liked Person Pitch and you want another round. If this is you, we need to subdivide further. Did you like the whole album? Or did you like “Comfy in Nautica” and felt “Bros” was “epic”? If you’re the former, you’ll like Tomboy. You’ve clearly gotten over the hurdle of warped samples swimming past your brain. Sure, the title track is comparatively murky and the dense album closer “Benfica” is a departure from the sparkling coda of “Ponytail.” However, the album has enough of the qualities that you probably liked in Person Pitch, plus a healthy dose of minor keys.
If you’re in the latter, well, I’ll refer you to my suggestions for the first group of listeners. Surprisingly, singles or solitary songs don’t always represent the oeuvre of a musician.
Finally: you like Panda Bear. Not just that one album. You like Panda Bear. You probably have conversations about which album you prefer, how these albums influence the Animal Collective albums and/or vice versa. Frankly, you’re the easiest to speak to because we can discuss specifics. Tomboy is very much about the details.
Tomboy as a finished album is different than the bits and bobs that have leaked in the preceding months. “You Can Count On Me” now begins with a brief acapella reading of the chorus. The title track’s ending draws out. And “Slow Motion” has a dubby guitar that adds a hint of aggression. In other words: Go support your boy. The album is different than those MP3s you’ve been drooling over.
Because comparatives figure in many of our minds, let’s get them out of the way. The largest difference between Tomboy and Person Pitch is the overall tone. Tomboy features fewer conventional melodies. While Person Pitch had its share of immediately catchy hooks, even in the opening bars of the 12-minute long “Bros,” the drawn out vocals of Tomboy’s title track are more indicative of the new record’s contemplative melodic approach. Critics and fans may call this “dark,” which is misleading. Let’s just say Tomboy likely won’t receive as many Beach Boys comparisons.
The album is a natural progression in that Lennox continues to explore thick, tangible productions. “Alsatian Darn” and “Friendship Bracelet” move at a relaxed clip with bellies filled with echoes, chirps and other sounds. Song titles like “Surfer’s Hymn” and “Last Night at the Jetty” suggest a continuation of the nautical theme, but the latter half of the album has the languid feel of a midnight swim on a humid summer night.
In a recent interview Lennox noted the treatment of his vocals as an intentional point of departure. While he cited the crooning style of Frank Sinatra and Scott Walker as an influence, the more noticeable takeaway is the separation of audio tracks. The vocals, drums and various accompaniment parts have more space apart from each other. Lennox links these parts subtly, such as the liquid vocals on “You Can Count On Me” that match the softly sloshing guitar strums. The entire song has the feel of listening from inside a fish bowl, but with the clarity of listening outside of the bowl.
Fittingly all roads to Tomboy end at the same point: The album is not the second coming of (fill-in-the-blank). It has its share of welcome experiments that don’t end promisingly (the clanging four-on-the-floor excursion “Afterburner”). And it has plenty of a-ha! moments, like the flip of the “Top Billin’” drums on “Slow Motion.” Tomboy’s best quality is its consistency with Lennox’s vision, in spite of the critical hullabaloo surrounding it.