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Album Reviews

Review: Panda Bear – Tomboy

Panda Bear – Tomboy

Released: April 12, 2011
Label: Paw Tracks
Purchase: iTunes | Insound | Amazon

Most finely tuned machines are beheld without conscious awareness of the intricacies and technical attention that has been involved in their construction, and their users blissfully ignorant in their expectation of service. Only once exploded is it apparent that the functions these machines serve are enabled only through the purposeful arrangement of all component parts toward an intended function. We become conscious of the fact that these units, complete and unassuming, are the result of a multiplicity of tiny mechanisms interrelating, communicating, affecting one another to produce a wider experience that is elaborate in its execution but impressively focused in delivery. The next, subsequent, realization is that this construction took skill – immense skill – and most of us would be ill-equipped and unable to create anything like it.

In this regard, Noah Lennox’s (Panda Bear)Tomboy is the musical performance racer of finely tuned machines.

In today’s alternative music scene, experimental electronica albums are a dime a dozen – often eventuating to be, ironically, hackneyed in their pursuit of nuance and originality. Lennox, of Animal Collective renown, is no bandwagon-hopper. Over the last eleven years and eight releases he and his Animal Collective comrades have been trailblazers of trip exploring the frontier of freak, with a steady stream of Lennox solo work supplementing their catalogue with characteristically hazy, washed out experimental electronica under his moniker Panda Bear.

This is electronic music, but not in the typical sense. There are no massive, tacky bass drops in Tomboy – any crescendo is supported by lavishly layered samples and loops. There is an almost classical sensibility in Lennox’s approach to electronic music, perhaps telling of his childhood background in the cello and piano. New sounds are introduced in concordance with one another and with a long amplitude attack and as a result the tracks tend to feel painstakingly created rather than a cobbled together graduation leading to a single cheap thrill. Songs are dynamic; some tracks begin and end in completely polar genres (“Last Night at the Jetty” meanders through ambience and chamber pop on its transition to rambling freak-folk).

Tomboy is drenched in distortion. Fuzz soaks sharp, bold loops with a softness that subdues them. The use of reverb contains the album’s sound, envelops otherwise domineering musical aspects (the percussion in “You Can Count on Me”) and wraps them in a softness that consolidates into a single musical experience what is essentially a collection of competing loops. The album is also almost exclusively poly-phonic – rarely do we experience abate from swirling, pulsing noise, which lends to the uncommon moments when the fuzz is stripped back a striking sense of clarity.

Individual songs seem to have no message independent of the album, and derive their meaning from their function/position within the record. On an intra-track level the songs blend into one another, to the extent that during a prolonged listening session the ocean of fuzzy reverb makes to disguise the separate songs into a single cohesive experience.

There is a strangely accessible side to the record. Lennox barely alters his voice’s strained lilt throughout the album, the constancy of his vocals adding continuity between tracks – comforting in its familiarity as a friend would be in a foreign country. For listeners completely comfortable in the album’s intimidatingly unconventional sound, though, this fixed voice is occasionally mired by predictability and may stagnate by the end of Tomboy.

The album’s main shortcomings are interconnected with this same familiarity and constancy. While immediately a very rewarding and immersive album, there is little fundamental deviation between tracks (also between this record and Panda Bear’s back catalogue as a whole) and as a result it simply doesn’t stand up to repeated listens. It is an enjoyable, intricately detailed experience, but ultimately not a deep one.

Tomboy will not be Lennox’s magnum opus, nor is it genre-defying, but it is a stunningly complete album experience and proof that he is damn good at what he does best. And why shouldn’t he be? He’s clearly had enough practice.

8.5

Standout Tracks: “Afterburner” – the current popular favorite, and with good reason: a throbbing bass line and buckets of fuzz make for a track effortlessly laid-back and enjoyable.

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