Gorilla Vs. Bear Fest IV With Panda Bear, SOPHIE, Ejecta, Doss and Blues Control Granada Theater, Dallas Friday, September 12, 2014
The first song I recall falling in love with was "Kokomo," the '88 Beach Boys radio hit. I was four or five and in my mom's car on the way to kindergarten the first time I heard it. It was lovely and strange. I felt immediately different, like I was somewhere else or someone else -- a better but more abstract where and who. The sensation, as vivid as the first moment, remains with me. But I've still yet to unlock what it means to me exactly, though I know I enjoy it. It's either pathos or bliss, I'm not sure which. Like the way very hot water can feel icy cold to the first touch, it's a feeling so intense as to cause confusion.
From child to adult, from music fan to music writer, it's a feeling I've been chasing ever since. A yardstick to measure all other musical sensations against--that indefinable moment where all things felt possible within the space of a single pop song. For some reason, Panda Bear taps into that same feeling more than any other act I've found (save for the Beach Boys themselves, of course, alongside Brian and Dennis' solo material).
The reasons might even seem obvious: you have the near-crippling artistic infatuation with SMiLE of Panda Bear, the solo project of Animal Collective's Noah Lennox, and a similar ultra-fine attention to timbre and texture. Then there's the visual quality to his music that, much like that of the Beach Boy's, somehow evokes both space and underwater scenes in equal measure -- not to mention that Lennox does everything in his power to make his vocals sound just like those of his beloved progenitors.
That's why, for better or worse, I'll never pass up an opportunity to see Lennox perform live; Friday night's fourth annual Gorilla vs. Bear Fest at Granada Theater was my third such experience in the last four years. In an evening ultimately marked by mesmerizing visuals, low volume and generous helpings of vocal chop-and-screw, Panda Bear was scheduled to go on last. Openers ranged from dance-like to poppy, though all were firmly of that art-damaged aesthetic that places texture and mood above structure and melody.
The two opener high points, Doss and U.K. producer SOPHIE, were great fun, particularly the latter. While a wash of primary colors pulsated behind her like sunsets in seizure, Doss put on a set that sounded not dissimilar to Laurel Halo's recent foray into milky dance forms, only chock full of the same spiraling FX-heavy vocals (in Doss' case sampling) that were all the vogue in 2009.
SOPHIE is an entirely different sort of act altogether. Loosely affiliated with the new and very exciting net label PC Music, SOPHIE is pop-music-goes-art-exhibit. Like academic collage pieces you can dance to, SOPHIE's tracks see pop broken into parts and embellished to near shameful effect, yet another reminder that the future of boundary pushing pop music lies in fragmentation and conceptual distortion.
And on goes Panda Bear. The main objection levied against Lennox over the years has been his project's lack of substance, particularly from a pop perspective. That is, on the whole, there's not much in the way of rhythm in his songs, while hooks and melodies function therein in only the most non-traditional sense. While I'm somewhat in agreement with this sentiment, I think there's a lot to praise in his music, specifically with respect to atmosphere and emotion. However, in Lennox's opening minutes, this criticism rang loud and clear.
Something was off, although I wasn't sure what. I think it had something to do with the sound setup, which had been on the quiet side all evening. The backing track came off thin, while Lennox's vocals -- which normally drown in the mix -- sounded dry and overbearing, too far up and out from the music. I've never seen him start a performance this slowly.
Just when disappointment seemed inevitable, he reined it all in (maybe the reverb and mic knobs were just a little stuck?). Here was the Panda Bear I'd seen twice before, the one fans have come to know on record. Swirling vocals, drowsy loops, globular blips here and there, each sound slipping off one another like oil in water; it was all there, arranged and layered brilliantly. Moving backwards and forwards, inside and out, his visuals (courtesy Danny Perez) were equally surreal, a grand procession of images melting into one another. Much like the music, these living pictures were at turns maximalist and minimalist. A few simple components, manipulated just so, were made to look like a sea of complex moving parts. A chorus of colors.
Made all the more apparent live is how Lennox's music is custom made to duplicate, or accentuate, the effects of marijuana. The time-stretching magnification of a moment, the way he distends the tempo or clips a theme to highlight the way his music drifts, then swells, contracts and returns. At times the effect is euphoric, a vehicle for losing oneself in a foggy sort of reverie; at others, it's disorienting, like too many gasps from a nitrous oxide mask.
Despite Lennox's hopeful lyricism and perceived sunniness, I've never been able to shake the impression that his music is a metaphor for death. There's this subtext of continual renewal and ceaseless dying that watermarks each track, a demand for total sensory submission, bordering on synesthesia. In the way each thematic lemniscate circles itself in what feels like a never ending continuum, each repeated motif is a reminder that in these spaces time is relative, a means for the artist to suspend an experience teetering between oblivion and tranquility.
Falling through the closing seven minutes of aquatic, purgatorial repetition, I felt neither fully reborn nor fully consumed, but I felt the love of "Kokomo" again. I felt five years old once more. I remembered the weight of the air and that ride to school. I remembered the smile of my mother. And I felt ready to believe in Noah Lennox all over again.
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