Zoilus by Carl Wilson

Middle America’s Dr. Seuss-Gone-Porno Nightmare…

November 6th, 2004


…. is our Youtopia. And other post-elekkktoral phantasies. In this week’s Overtones - starring Animal Collective, above, and all their furry-nonconformist, post-ballot-boxing comrades - as you’ll find out on the flip.

C’mon everybody, clap your paws

The Globe & Mail Review
Saturday, November 6, 2004

Well, so much for the human race.

If the events of the past week have left you feeling dazed and misanthropic, there’s a musical movement ready and waiting to help you cheer up and drop out of the whole damn species. New York duo Animal Collective supply its manifesto on their recent album Sung Tongs: In a manic chant over a powwow-style drum beat, they babble, “Everyone is welcome, everyone is welcome/ Tigers, tigers, tigers, tigers, tigers, tigers, tigers, tigers . . .”

And with that, the two young animorphs who call themselves Avey Tare and Panda Bear usher in the new era - where everyone can join the party, so long as you walk on four feet (flying, crawling, drifting, flowing, blowing, hopping and digging are also copasetic) and are therefore ineligible to drive, shop, serve in the military or otherwise screw up the world.

Just at the moment, that sounds mighty fine to me.

Animal Collective, performing in Montreal and Toronto later this week, is one of the best and most prominent representatives of what’s quickly becoming an international network of atavistic musical eccentrics, variously dubbed new folk, free folk (as in “free jazz”), anti-folk, acid folk and perhaps most commonly psych-folk, as in psychedelic. In a cover story last year, Wire magazine called it “the New Weird America.”

Most of the artists hail from the blue states, especially California, where the old-time countercultural whiff of sandalwood incense hasn’t completely faded from the air. Devendra Banhart got Britain talking with a TV appearance in May in which he sat barefoot on a Persian rug to sing his gnomic folk koans. He brings his shaggy vibe to Montreal and Toronto this Thursday and Friday along with Ben Chasny, the haggard guitar-picker who goes by the handle Six Organs of Admittance.

Another bestially named New York group that’s in Canada next week, the Animentals (also known as Oriental), wears animal costumes and uses motion sensors to trigger its electronic noise, “all creating the mood of a magical forest” (on Monday at Rancho Relaxo in Toronto). The next week, Sufjan Stevens arrives in Montreal and Toronto, his gentle hymns dedicated alternately to Christ and to each of the 50 states, and Animal Collective associate Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti tour comes on like Syd Barrett gone New Wave.

Keep an ear cocked, too, for Joanna Newsom (the 22-year-old San Francisco harpist whose The Milk-Eyed Mender is one of the year’s best albums), White Magic, Josephine Foster, Espers and CocoRosie; in Canada there’s the Silt (member Doug Tielli plays the Tranzac in Toronto tonight), Eric Chenaux and Michelle McAdorey, Victoria’s Frog Eyes and the communally minded multitudes of the Montreal music scene.

The movement is musically diverse, with the further-out fringes sounding like all the experimental rock and jazz of the last 40 years shaken and baked — some, such as New York’s Black Dice and Michigan’s Wolf Eyes, even sound like extreme Japanese noise. But others reek of Donovan, Nick Drake, John Fahey, the Fugs or the Holy Modal Rounders, the winking holy-fool folkies reincarnated in people not yet born when woodland-creature camouflage was last any sort of viable option (except when backed by high-voltage machismo, as in the trippier moments of Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull).

The Incredible String Band has actually reformed to mark the moment, currently touring the U.K. with Newsom. These are the outsiders who took footpaths less travelled after Bob Dylan’s electric guitar supposedly assassinated the “folk boom.”

Pop culture has its own ecology, with no dead ends, only detours. Every style ever voiced goes on murmuring forever, until one day it suddenly stops sounding goofy again and becomes exactly what people need to hear. It’s a reassuring proof of the resourcefulness that keeps our scavenger race in coconuts and funeral songs on this cosmic Galapagos.

The psych-folkies, with their rabbit masks and names like the Jewelled Antler Collective or the Skygreen Leopards, are city and suburban kids imagining their way into the consciousnesses of vegetables, mammals, insects and swamps — writing songs from the perspective of the teeth of a crocodile or the hair of a badger, creatures they’ve probably never even seen in real life. They’re moved by the same environmental and animal-rights ideals many young people now hold far dearer than any old-paradigm ideas of left and right, with both raging sentimentalism and startling humility. If this keeps up, the next civil-rights movement will be to give ducks and moose the vote.

And why not? They couldn’t do much worse. In the U.S. election this week, it seemed somehow the distinction between gay marriage and Islamist terrorism got lost, both muddled into what heartland Americans seem to feel is a world gone mad.

Just as it defies their common sense that suitcase bombs could be left on the sidewalk of Main Street, so does the idea of two guys sealing their vows with a kiss. The very suggestion flips them out into surreal visions of an overwhelmed natural order: “What’s to stop three men and two women from getting married? What’s to stop someone from marrying their dog?” And from there, what’s to stop talking ostriches from running for Congress? What’s to stop drinking fountains spewing palm oil? What’s to stop refrigerators laying eggs and penguin orgies breaking out in line at the bank?

In the work-play of the psych-folk collectives, the penguin orgy is in full swing, and the little tuxedo-clad dudes deserve some mood music. Amid all the fretting over how to kowtow more abjectly next time, how to “frame” issues for people who think “moral values” involve who sleeps with whom but not where you drop your bombs, there’s an enormous relief in finding these freak-flag-flying anthems. These musicians have opted out of the culture war by decamping for an imaginary time zone where it never even began.

While the Democrats take their beating from the fundamentalists and promise to do better, the psych-folksters cruise the interstates in vans loaded down with sparrows and tree frogs, their speakers blaring: “It’s all true! We’ll build our crazy Dr. Seuss-gone-porno utopia no matter what you do! And guess what? You’re not invited!”

Maybe it’s the political equivalent of pleading insanity, but right now we can use the reminder that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in democracy.


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