Until quite recently, Animal Collective took a somewhat lackadaisical approach to, well, let's call it "full band participation". Those who wanted to involve themselves with a project under the AC name were welcome, and if they stayed away for whatever reason, then it was no big deal. Before the release of "Strawberry Jam", only "Campfire Songs" and "Feels" were recorded with input from all four band members. Once the band's critical and popular acclaim hit a new peak in 2005 with "Feels", it appears that they hit a turning point. Every subsequent release would have too much riding on it to not require everyone's full attention. Suddenly they had to concern themselves with things like their creative direction and long-term career planning, instead of just mucking around in the studio or at live gigs with whoever happened to be around.
This is a band that loves to experiment with new songs on tour -- most songs on "Feels" had been regularly played live for nearly two years before the album was released, and the same can be said for nearly everything on "Strawberry Jam" (even current live sets feature a spate of even newer songs). Writer's block is apparently a non-issue with these guys. Deciding how the album would eventually sound presented a greater difficulty. But they knew they didn't want it to sound anything like "Feels".
"Feels" was their guitar album. That means their obsession with doing something different -- without guitars -- meant that they had to remove all the best things about "Feels". The gauzy drones that backed so much of the record highlighted nearly every track from a sonic standpoint and provided a counterbalance to the band's zanier impulses. I used to be (and still am) nonplussed by most AC records, and only joined the ranks of the converted with "Feels". With each new release, the superfans emerge to decry the more restrained sound of the album compared with their more freeflowing live shows. And now I've become one of them, because a big complaint I have with "Strawberry Jam". But I also worship at the feet of guitar-drenched albums like "Feels". What else, other than those swarming layers of guitar, could have linked "Flesh Canoe" (which slots itself beautifully next to MBV's "Glider" period) with "The Purple Bottle"'s frantic ode to giddy love?
So "Strawberry Jam" is their electronic album, and it's not that they go too far with the electronics, but that they don't go far enough. Once you subtract the sonic density behind many AC recordings, then the zonked out wackiness starts coming to the forefront, and that's not a good thing. Without enough sound smacking you in the face, parts of "Strawberry Jam" come off like They Might Be Giants with a few electronic bleeps added in. "Reverend Green" ups the sonic mayhem until it reaches a blissful density overload, and along with "Fireworks", these tracks build majestically and jam their way into the kind of semi-epic explorations that the band typically excels at. "Peace Bone" contains the type of pogo-beat and caveman chanting that they use for all their singles, and although the formula is a fun one, it doesn't go far enough over the top. Instead of the wimpy, two dollar electronic backbeat, they could have gone full-mode crazed hardcore techno and blasted the track into overdrive, but even that would have put them in a virtual tie with what Super Furry Animals were doing ten years ago (example: "Mountain People").
Still, the band is on a hot streak where nearly everything they do feels at least a little bit right (although the new tracks they've been playing live aren't exciting me at all just yet). I'm not sure I'd put money on this album not being embarrassingly unlistenable in a few years, though.