by Sebastian Ruan
What a great year for music! All the stars from 3-4 years back finally came out with a nice little albums that we all can dig for a few weeks/months (LCD Soundsystem, Joanna Newsom, Gorillaz, Big Boi!). Though, the ones that have been working so hard to consistently construct gems every year or two I think deserve the most credit this year. And that brings me to Dave Portner, the head singer/songwriter for the mega-indie-electronica-freak-folk group Animal Collective; he has written a good 3/4s of every Animal Collective album (and all of their first official release, Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished). What more can be said of this true American artist? Oh yeah, he releases a solo album filled with pure gold just a year and a half after the indie game-changer Merriweather Post Pavilion and (for those of you have yet to see it) the amazing and evil-seeming ODDSAC a Visual Album with Animal Collective and Danny Perez.
Being released just before Halloween, perfect timing might I add, is Down There, Portner’s (aka Avey Tare’s) first solo effort. Let me start by saying “Genius” to Portner for the sound I so desperately needed this year. Down There is up there with the greats this year, with its swampy feel and dark undertones. Portner modeled Down There after what he believes hell to be: a swamp. We can all agree that swamps are icky and sticky and gross, but just watch The Princess and The Frog like I did earlier this month and you’ll soon think otherwise. Like that delight of a Disney movie, Down There is dangerously addictive with its down-trodden percussion techniques and Portner’s lyrics about things we can totally relate to (Cemeteries, Heather in the Hospital, and Lucky 1).
Death plays a big part in this album unlike other Animal Collective works which usually deal with brotherhood, commitment and having some summer fun. Though once you look past the morbidness of the album’s arching theme, you will find a lot to love, like the very otherworldly beats, the sampled and deformed passages between songs, and passages into corridors and circles of hell that Portner beautifully crafts in verse. Most of these songs have an Animal Collective air to them, as they all sound watery, which is an AC staple: “Banshee Beat,” “Bluish” Water Curses [EP], all of which are sung by Portner... I think we’ve stumbled on a pattern! So we are presented with an album full of the past watery-ness of AC tracks and it doesn’t feel like a “swimming pool” (“Banshee Beat”) but more like a... well, swamp.
And now for those ever-endearing tracks. The first single, “Lucky 1” was released earlier this month and suddenly jumped its way to the top of my most played tracks this year (last year it was “What Would I Want? Sky,” another AC bombshell). And let me just add that it takes a really fascinating artist/song to float my boat (no pun intended). So no surprise here, that Portner is my go-to guy for a mind-boggling and up-lifting track. “Lucky 1” closes out the album with probably the closest Portner gets to electronic-pop on Down There. Except that he finishes the song with “Were you crying? Were you crying? Where are you crying? Where are you crying? Where are you?” but he blurs it in such a way that you can’t distinguish “crying” from “dying” and “where” from “when” so my quote may be inaccurate. And that is one of the more fascinating aspects of Portner’s singing, aside from it’s eerie and captivating nature, the words seem to be constantly changing with each listen and I think he knows that (he titled the opener to 2005’s Feels “Did You See The Words?”). Getting lost in those verses and chord changes is probably the most enjoyable thing about those pesky Avey Tare tracks.
On “Laughing Hieroglyphic,” with angst he yells that he “doesn’t find it strange that [he’s] talking to you” while oscillating accordion synths pulsate through the eccentric drum machine percussion. I believe he has a sense that sometimes it’s hard to get through some of the lengthier songs of his, but as I’ve done and I’m sure you will too someday, those songs are phenomenal because they transport you to a new world, albeit a swamp hell. “Cemeteries” is a delicate number and it feels like those times when you’re walking through a cemetery looking for a familiar tombstone while trying not to disturb others around you and watching where you step ‘cause it could very well be someone’s grave your standing on. The song opens with what I picture to be fireflies illuminating your passageway to a loved one. “Cemeteries” is so hushed and sweet as though Portner doesn’t want you to be scared or creeped out by the graveyard (you can’t spell “graveyard” without “Avey”) but embrace it, if ever so lightly. Portner holds back any attempt to belt out a lyric throughout the track, which displays his growth as a singer and because of which his become one of the best in the genre (whatever genre you want to categorize this as, be my guest).
Concept albums are a tricky field to lurk in. Neutral Milk Hotel blew every concept album out of the water with their representation of the feelings of Anne Frank during her youth before and throughout the Holocaust. Yet Avey Tare’s Down There is a wonderful album as a whole; swamps don’t seem so scary, in fact I want to visit a swamp sometime soon to hear the sounds I loved hearing on this album. The album’s length totals to about thirty-five minutes, an easily digestible piece of music. So go support this artist by buying the LP, I think you deserve it after listening to all the ‘meh albums this year.