I haven’t really liked too many bands since 2000 or so. I think there’s three reasons for this. In part it’s because I’m happier delving through the past and rooting through the greats, rather than keeping up with what’s new. Another reason is because I’m no longer a youngster and, as wise old E.M. Forster said, there’s a narrowing of the gates necessary after 30 if the mind is to stay creative. But probably the main reason is that I find a lot of the music unambitious and insipid – suited for these wan unimaginative days. (Let’s face it, we’ll probably never get bands like Throbbing Gristle, MC5, The Stranglers or The Smiths again). I mean, when The Strokes came out with the single “Hard To Explain” I was genuinely excited, but the album contained precisely 1.5 good songs: yet they were absurdly overhyped as somehow restoring the glories of CBGBs and the pre/post-punk New York thing. Anyone who had ever heard The Ramones or Television or Blondie knew what a pale imitation The Strokes were! Same with Interpol – an inferior imitation of Joy Division. Same with stuff like Editors, Spoon, British Seapower, Franz Ferdinand etc: just nothing special. And then there’s music that’s just utterly lacking in testicles, like The xx: weak, pallid, insipid, and utterly lacking in ambition. (I’m not even going to go into bedwetting mortgage rock like Coldplay).
However, one album that really grabbed me was Animal Collective‘s Strawberry Jam. Sometime in 2007, the Guardian did a feature on best albums of the 00s, with commenters adding their own favourites. I downloaded ones which sounded good, with Strawberry Jam swiftly becoming by far my favourite. As often happens when a good album strikes you with some force, it complemented my own mood and circumstances. I had recently arrived in China, teaching English in a small university. For the first time in my life, I felt like I was in control of and directing my life, rather than letting things happen: I had taken things by the scruff of the neck and it was fun. China was fascinating, my students were lovely, and I was really enjoying being there, learning so much every day. I loaded the album onto my MP3 player when I first headed to Shanghai for the weekend and savoured it.
While most electronica albums are based on beats and rhythms which sometimes criss-cross but usually cohere, Strawberry Jam is more joyfully psychedelic, based on the idea that more is more. It starts off relatively conventionally with “Peacebone”, where a propulsive rhythm and shimmering blips keep the numerous seemingly-random samples and effects from becoming shapeless, while a lyric of fantastical images (“A jugular vein of a juggler’s girl”) goes nowhere but is striking. “Unsolved Mystery” starts off with a simple repeating two-chord accoustic riff (sampled, to cut out the decay), but discards this metronome as the song proceeds, overtaken by repeated colourful samples and vocal effects. The apotheosis of this approach is the next song, “Chores”. This is just a wonderful gleeful psychedelic maelstrom that is utterly infectious in its deep sense of wonder and joy. It’s kind of like “Tomorrow Never Knows” but REALLY REALLY HAPPY. I love the looped sample (0.56-1.10) – repeated thirty-three times! (I counted). The latter half of the album (after the remarkable “For Reverend Green”) is less euphoric and almost reflective, but follows the same musical approach, as with “Winter Wonderland”, a song which captures a sense of Yuletide magic.
It’s an album which perfectly complements a period of new experiences and heightened vision. It’s also adventurous, colourful and joyous. A wonderful album.
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