Friday, May 6, 2011

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 5/6/11 - Panda Bear and The Trashmen

Of all the putdowns of Panda Bear’s music I’ve heard, and I haven’t heard a lot mind you, the funniest came courtesy of WFMU’s Tom Sharpeling when he commented that the music sounded like a warped Beach Boys record. What’s interesting is that his statement addresses pure form instead of getting into the thornier territory of personality or motives. If being somehow pressed for time (like, maybe I’ve got a plane to catch, y’know?) and asked by some curious character to describe exactly what it is that Panda Bear does, I might just resort to saying it’s indeed like a Beach Boys slab that’s suffered some minor yet transformative effects from an encounter with the rays of the sun. I might elect to instead mention the connection to Animal Collective, Mr. Bear’s main and long running musical concern, but without knowledge of those activities where would that leave the needs of my hypothetical inquisitor? But of course surf-sonic warpage only really scratches the surface. There is obviously much similarity between TOMBOY, Panda Bear’s excellent brand spanking and sparkling new one and the brilliant recordings of the Mothership Collective, but there are also distinctions. For one thing, where AC is very much the work of a unit all stretched and strung out like day-glo taffy, Panda’s expressiveness is very often distinctive as being the just as malformed but less layered intentions of one hyperactive, beautiful mind. Also, the Collective’s group achievement is generally more identifiable as being in the tradition of hard psychedelia, but the solo stuff, while still as psyche as a sheet of deeply soaked blotter tabs still registers as lighter, roomier, and more in line with a broken and distended pop aesthetic. It’s not a major difference, but it is notable. TOMBOY largely picks up where PERSON PITCH left off, with the crafting of a batch of finely tuned pieces that connect into one long, powerful soundscape. The structure of these individual pieces seems to lie in the creation of solid, accessible, often quite pretty sound nuggets that are then methodically compromised via chopping and repetition, with the relentless cyclical focus then returning to a masterfully tweaked semblance of the music’s initial form. The vocal qualities are certainly remindful of later Animal Collective stuff, but in AC the voice most often works in tandem with the music, becoming a part of the weave, one sound among many. With Panda Bear the singing feels separate, riding above the music, a euphoric gush that on TOMBOY possesses a very tropical feel, at times even nodding to South African vocal roots style. This element is significant enough that it might cultivate a unique fan set for PB’s material, inspiring a group that while knowledgeable and comfortable with the work of Animal Collective is simply far more in tune with the personal aspects of Panda Bear’s creations. Naturally, this is just surmising on my part. No polls, no knocking door-to-door, and in fact I haven’t even asked a single soul. It’s just that after queuing up MERRIWEATHER POST PAVILLION and TOMBOY for back to back listens and being struck by the obvious similarities (PAVILLION being AC at their most pop friendly), I can also hear where the two stand apart. It’s by no means a long distance, but it is tangible, if at this early point more than a bit resistant to explication. So, on to something more easily detailed. It’s quite plain that the whole AC/PB whatsis his kick-started a tight batch of like-minded work, Ducktails and Sun Araw in particular. It’s an extremely fertile playground in which to absorb influence and introduce new wrinkles, for one instance Jamaican dub, and that TOMBOY’s title cut luxuriates in some grand dubbiness seems to imply an openness, an acceptance and even desire for give-and-take between (for example) the island riddum-goosing of a new jack like Sun Araw’s Cameron Stallones and the older, obviously influential work of the Panda. I’d bet ducats to danishes that AC and the Bear had long ago wrapped themselves around the indefatigable seductiveness of Lee Scratch Perry and internalized it into their music, but to my ears it’s never announced itself in such an overt fashion before. The one thing that The Parasails, Animal Collective, Ducktails, Predator Vision, Panda Bear and Sun Araw all share, from the more pop-inclined, plush studio recorded moments of TOMBOY to the spacey, addictive marginalia of limited edition EP cuts that sound like they could’ve been taped in some grumpy uncle’s tool shed, is a predilection for Pulse. From there the experimental tampering with the (re)directions of rhythm and melody are motives more individually realized. TOMBOY takes a big step in pointing this sound from the lavish eccentricity of a few vital bands toward the possibility of a full-fledged movement. At least that’s what I’m hoping.

I’ll always hold a special place in my heart for The Trashmen. Famous for “Surfin’ Bird”, one of the most ludicrously infectious slices of full-tilt insanity ever waxed, they were primarily a surf band, though one that curiously hailed from the Midwest region, specifically the land-locked burg of Minneapolis, Minnesota. But they had a bunch of other distinguishing qualities as well, foremost among them their ability to release a substantial amount of material on the back of their biggest hit. THE GREAT LOST ALBUM, first released in the early ‘90s and currently available on vinyl from Sundazed, is a fine example of the factors that contributed to their staying power. First off, The Trashmen were a very fine exponent of instrumental surf style, not only conjuring up the cool, relaxed atmosphere most often associated with The Ventures or Chanteys (of “Pipeline” fame), but also occasionally sliding into the more aggressive pasture defined by the great Dick Dale. That they could knock out a instro-car jam like “Stick Shift” shows how in touch they were with the culture of their peers, since rods and boards were very much a part of the same youth lifestyle, but also adapting such pre-existing material as “Ghost Riders in the Sky” “Greensleeves” and “Hava Nagila” into the equation showed they possessed distinctive scope as well. Beyond instrumental dynamics however, The Trashmen were also a vocal band, and this fact shot into some interesting areas. For instance, they were known to tackle R&B covers, this LP holding a nice one of Little Richard in fact, but instead of trying (and failing) to approximate that crazed wildman’s origins, the approach here is decidedly casual, much more appropriate for the laid back humidity of a mid-summer outdoor bash. For some this adjustment and restatement of “Hear You Knocking” will represent a betrayal of what makes the original so great, but I think the change serves as testament not only to the strength of the song (the source) but to the quality of The Trashmen’s conception (the interpretation). There is also some mild and appealing garage gestures on display, whether it’s the goofus Dylan-lite of “Mind Your Own Business” or the slightly Doug Sahm-ish Beatles-ism of “Talk About Love”. And Buddy Holly’s “Heartbeat” moves far outside the band’s dominant mode, sounding close to the smooth pleasantries of The Association or The Tremeloes; unusual, but not at all a bad thing. While the majority of this disc was recorded in ’64, both “Talk About Love” and the Holly cover are from a ’66 session, showing the band grasping new ideas as trad surf reached the end of its commercial run. Much closer to the band’s standard operational zone is their solid take of the Beach Boys’ “Be True to Your School”, a tune that shows the level of accepted idea sharing that once transpired between the advancements of groundbreakers and the quick-study ingenuity of those they inspired back in the days before the problematic concept of originality spread over rock music’s development. It's just this sort of no-big-deal stylistic grasping that is actually The Trashmen’s biggest connection to the punk music that was to come in the following decade. While the elevated mindlessness of “Surfin’ Bird” is justly celebrated as one of the earliest and most suave of proto-punk blasts, the reality is that very little of the band’s stuff ever returned to that level of sonic disruption. Yes, THE GREAT LOST ALBUM’s instrumental “Bad News” does touch slightly upon “Bird”’s zonked essence, and “Bird Diddley Beat” wholeheartedly embraces Sir Bo’s majestic inventions in demented rhythm, emerging as the sort of crazed throwaway that undoubtedly got The Cramps’ Lux and Ivy hard and moist inside the tightness of their leopard-skin pants, but with these exceptions aside, The Trashmen’s true gift to punk was essentially operational and not of aural texture. Bands like The Ramones, The Dickies, The Rezillos, Agent Orange and especially those Cramps were all to varying extents inspired by the small-scale rapid-fire gusto that The Trashmen traded in so well, the sort of activity that with apologies to the great film critic and painter Manny Farber was quite Termite-like in practice, very much different from the parade of White Elephants that were just around the corner. It was music that seemed on the surface to have very little to say, but in reality held a significance that spoke in minor, coded terms to legions. The difference between THE GREAT LOST ALBUM and the assortment of punks with chips on shoulders, scores to settle and playing fields to level is that The Trashmen’s only agenda was to keep the party moving, make some bucks and impress a few gals until the ride was over. Pure surf was one of the leanest, least alienated musical impulses ever documented, and it can be contextualized historically as riding the tail-end of the largely well-adjusted surface placidity of post-World War II American life before all sorts of excrement hit the fan blades and the ‘60s became The Sixties. What The Trashmen were doing was as deeply rooted in this environment as The Mississippi Sheiks’ jug-band style and The Sugarhill Gang’s proto-rap was to theirs, and as such it’s more than just a fun diversion, it’s a vital cultural document.