On the opening track to Strawberry Jam, the seventh studio album by experimental indie rockers Animal Collective, frontman Avey Tare sings, “It’s not my words you should follow / it’s your insides.” By the time you hear those lyrics, just a minute and a half into the record, it’s clear that Animal Collective are listening to their own advice by following their insides, taking chances, ignoring what critics might say, and making great music in the process. And while Strawberry Jam might not be the band’s best record, it is still a very solid effort.
The aforementioned opener, titled “Peacebone,” kicks things off with a bouncy beat, bubbly electronics and Tare’s great falsetto. Things quickly get wilder with the introduction of screaming and backing vocals that sound like gang shouts done by a children’s choir. This contrasts very interestingly with the brighter instrumentation, yet the song is somehow able to maintain a sense of cohesion. It is a perfect example of what makes Animal Collective great: their music is smart, fun, and unique all at once.
“Chores” is the next standout and features an exotic vocal hook that is simply infectious. However, the song is most memorable during its breathtaking conclusion. Gently hit splash cymbals, echoing guitars and airy vocals usher the song out, creating a finale that is as good as any other on the record. It is immediately followed by “For Reverend Green,” which is the single best song on the album. Tare’s vocals are extremely passionate and span the range from low to high as well as the range from soft singing to outright screaming. The catchy melody is carried by the vocals, keys, and guitars at different points in the song, and this ensures that you will be humming to yourself hours after you finish listening. While the instrumentation is fairly simple, the vocals are so mesmerizing that it doesn’t matter.
There is also plenty to please fans who prefer the denser, more complex side of Animal Collective. “Fireworks” puts the vocals just a little lower in the mix, which allows the swelling synths and multiple types of percussion to stand out. On “Winter Wonder Land” the spacey synthesizers, warm keyboards and glitchy beat fit together so well that they aren’t outshined by another superb vocal performance. There is still a great hook, but it is one of the few times on the album where it takes a backseat to the intricately layered electronics.
Unfortunately, even though the album is just nine songs long, there is still some filler and a few missteps. “#1” starts off promisingly enough with looped keyboards and some very strange, deep, and distorted vocals. Despite this, the song never really progresses beyond its interesting premise and certainly doesn’t do anything to justify the track’s five-minute running time. On the other hand, “Cuckoo Cuckoo” suffers from the opposite problem. After a slow start, it progresses to the point where it is chaotically spiraling out of control. Although this is enjoyable at first, the chaos goes on for so long that eventually it changes from being a decent change of pace to simply being self-indulgent.
Album closer “Derek” essentially sums up Strawberry Jam. The song incorporates many of the elements that make the album very good. It has the great vocals and relatively simple instrumentation, both of which are very effective throughout the album. In the end, though, the song ends a little prematurely and isn’t given a chance to develop into something truly special. It’s not bad; in fact, it’s very good. But it’s not quite as great as it could have been.