Why would I, a classical pianist by training, choral director by trade, and Hindustani singer by aspiration be drawn to Tomboy, the new solo release by Noah Lennox, a.k.a. Panda Bear of Animal Collective? Last spring, a student of mine, tired of me extolling music he’d never heard of, issued me a challenge: listen to Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion. He said the album would “completely change” the way I hear music
Not quite, but Animal Collective and Tomboy have changed my underwhelmed view of indie “band” culture. Even if Tomboy, Panda Bear’s fourth solo album, is heavily produced psychedelic rock with a debt to the Beatles and Brian Eno, it’s also bristling with originality and intelligence.
The songs are built on processed guitar tracks and feature lilting melodies with lush vocal harmonies, complex rhythmic play, and either static or simple harmonic progressions. Most offer refreshing twists on common compositional techniques. Afterburner, for example, plays with our expectations. It sets up a driving, if unusual, groove by alternating four measures of “3” with two measure of “two,” only to change the pattern a minute into the song. We feel the groove, but can’t predict it. Nice.
Tomboy’s lyrics, like Zen koans, often ponder spiritual questions. But they challenge us not only to decipher their meaning but, as often, the words themselves—which are unpublished and swimming in sea of reverb. The vagueness can be frustrating, but the frequent, super-sustained vowel sounds vibrate like the meditative “seed syllables,” or mantras, of Eastern religious chanting; the vibration itself becomes a gateway to sonic experiences beyond literal meaning. It’s the idea behind “OM,” but it works for other syllables, as well.
If a vibrating low D# can create these patterns in water, imagine what the long, eliding vowels in “Drone” might do to your brain when Panda Bear sings “Now I see you again/Now I feel you again.” And the lyrics, like in a good Kirtan chant, easily double for human or divine love, especially given the organ-like underscoring and phrases in the rhythm of breath—like a meditation. It might be hard to achieve awakening in the four minutes of “Drone,” but would it be an “indie” album if it were too overtly spiritual? The way sound waves rearrange matter might be more scientific than mystical, but in any case, it’s cool.
In another Eastern evocation, “Scheherazade” unfold its melodic contour gradually, with repeated phrases, in the manner of an Indian raga. “Raga” literally means “color of the mind,” and the occasional raised forth scale degree in Scheherazade conjures other-worldly shades. The drone accompaniment adds the twist of stacking two fifths on top of each other (rather than the usual one), adding a gentle bit of Bartok.
“Slow Motion” questions the clichés of received wisdom (“they say practice makes perfect,” etc) and transforms a relentless downward melodic harangue (“and what else do they say?”) into an exhortation to “step out” and a remember that want matters is “deep down.”
“Surfer’s Hymn” similarly asks the question: “how to live?” The answer comes in a metaphor for living in the moment and in ecstatic arpeggios and sweet harmonies.
…I’ll take my time to make up my own mind
To set it up when the times are calling for a steady creed
How do I know it’s time?
Even if I’ve got mine
‘Cause if the wise do know what wisdom is
If I could err on every good side every time
Out on the water
A rider can ready
Though waves comes crashing
A good board can steady
I wouldn’t ever want to bet upon the balance on what’s going on
Take away the percussion and electronic effects from “You Can Count On Me” and you really do have a hymn, if secular. The balanced phrases and harmony that alternates between sweet 6ths and austere 5ths reminds me of the hymns on Anonymous 4’s American Angels album.
Anonymous 4, Resignation
In the spiritual view of the Plains Indian People, animals (and people who embody their qualities) carry the “medicine,” or transformative power, of their essential natures. The bear is often regarded as a symbol of introspection and wisdom and, for me, Panda Bear is good medicine.