In 2004, whether they knew it or not, Animal Collective were on the verge of becoming one of the biggest acts in the indie circuit. The group had already been building force – in particular with their two 2003 releases Campfire Songs and Here Comes the Indian – so it wasn’t that much of a surprise that the Maryland experimental collective would at one point or another become a success. The most bizarre thing was the record that brought upon their breakthrough; instead of continuing with the sounds found in their previous two releases, the group, which for the recording of this album became a duo, went for a much more stripped down sound. Sung Tongs was an experiment in the more abnormal side of folk music, and let us remember that Animal Collective already had quite a bit of training in the bizarre.
What brought on the success here is that the oddities on the record are mostly mixed with the group’s ability to write a pop song. The difference between the pop melodies here and in their previous record is that they no longer seem unintentional. Look no further than “Who Could Win a Rabbit” for evidence of this. The track has the feel of two weirdos in a room pounding away at their guitars, yet the hooks are clear and they make their way into your subconscious, making it one of Animal Collective’s first massively catchy tracks.
The track that follows “Who Could Win a Rabbit” is the near-seven minute “The Softest Voice.” Despite its length, the song never feels stretched and there are little signs of experimentation. Aside from the soft psychedelic feel there’s not much that separates this from something out of a singer/songwriter album. That’s not an insult however, as their way of tackling this genre is with precision. If anything it shows the ability of Panda Bear and Avey Tare as songwriters.
The duo does eventually reach the levels of bizarreness required to place this under the “psych-folk” label. The almost thirteen minute-long centerpiece “Visiting Friends” has what you would expect from an Animal Collective record. You can hear how old the guitars are, as the feeling of their strings slowly detaching is felt. The vocals are buried far down in the mix, with heavy effects – almost to the point where the melodies are done away with.
One of the reasons why this particular group is so renowned is their ability to infuse weirdness with just plain fun. The highly upbeat “We Tigers” follows through on this task. It’s one of those songs where the happiness and excitement of those behind it is felt, at times something that is all too absent in the current wave of indie records.
Sung Tongs was the record that would bring Animal Collective to the forefront of the alternative scene. No longer every art school student’s best-kept secret, they were now Pitchfork darlings. From this point on everything any of the members touched turned into gold. Their biggest records were still to come, but Sung Tongs can be seen as the start of it all.