For those of you my age (I hit the big six-oh this year), give or take: Do you remember how strange and wonderful the Beach Boys’ song “Good Vibrations” sounded the first time you heard it? I certainly do.
Something of the same frisson awaits those who give a listen to today’s album, my first musical turn-on of the new year. The artist, Panda Bear (aka Noah Lennox) is best-known as half of the main creative duo (along with Avey Tare, aka Dave Portner) of the wonderful Baltimore-formed experimental band Animal Collective — and if you haven’t yet sampled their oeuvre, get thee to thy nearest music purveyor, and start with their 2009 masterpiece “Merriweather Post Pavilion.”
Decoding all of Mr. Bear’s musical influences can be rather like composing a tasting note for a big young Napa Cabernet: Heady aromas of psychedelia give way to a thrilling jolt of electronica, haunted by eerie notes of horror movie soundtracks and clusters of contemporary classical (e.g, György Ligeti, Krzysztof Penderecki), structured on a foundation of “Sgt. Pepper”-era Beatles and “Pet Sounds”-era Beach Boys, but with the vintner’s unique lyrical voice carrying through from start to finish. It’s intoxicating stuff, all right, perhaps even addictive.
Performed and produced in collaboration with Sonic Boom (Peter Kember), “Meets the Grim Reaper” is Panda Bear’s fifth and most approachable solo album. Others have described it as his “grittiest,” which perhaps it may be by comparison, though I found that the grit gave extra traction to his sometimes meandering muse. The songs, based on simple, easily-grasped melodic ideas, are cogent and appealing, saying their piece then moving on. The formidable electronic array is used with a free but disciplined hand, giving each song its unique color without calling undue attention to the “man behind the curtain.”
All of this could have come across and cold and impersonal, if not for the way Lennox’s distinctive, boyish tenor retains its personal warmth no matter how much electronic manipulation gets ladled over it. And while one would not normally turn to Panda Bear’s music for intimacy, two back-to-back songs bring us about as close to the artist’s romantic soul as we’ve ever gotten: A poignant ballad called “Tropic of Cancer” that sounds for all the world like a plugged-in c. 1960 Paul Anka (such as this), and a lovely number called “Lonely Wanderer,” based on a fragment of Debussy’s Arabesque No. 1 (video here). I could imagine these songs, indeed most of the songs on the album, done “unplugged” (or at least with more conventional live forces) and still holding up, something that cannot always say about albums that go heavy on the electronics.
Quite a few of the top artists of smart contemporary pop are scheduled to release new albums in 2015. If they’re all as good as “Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper,” then by this December’s centennial of the immortal Francis Albert Sinatra, I’ll be able to sing, “when I was fifty-nine, it was a very good year…”