In One Track Minded, we pick a select cut from a chosen act and delve beneath the surface. Mark Conroy gets lost in Panda Bear’s swirling and richly psychedelic 2006 epic, ‘Bros’.
A quick Panda Bear history lesson to start us off: When avant-garde, art pop pioneers Animal Collective were on one of their first European tours way back in 2003, band mastermind Noah Lennox just happened to stumble into the love of his life. After a Lisbon show, Lennox fell in with a group of strangers and like so many twenty something Americans stranded in a foreign land, he ended up on a makeshift bed via the couch. One of those strangers was a fashion designer named Fernanda Pereira. The two had hit it off immediately after seeing after a gig of a Finnish house producer, and within eight months Lennox decided to pack up his things in New York and make the transition to a life in the lush, Portuguese coastal capital.
An uncertain yet possibly life-affirming ending coupled with edgy, “you’re cool-if-you-know it” alternative music and artsy, undecided quarter lifers with their whole lives ahead of them: this is not the kind of meet-cute you’d find in a pre-McConaissance rom-com but rather a warm-hearted indie vehicle. You know, the kind of movie the music of Animal Collective just might show up in. The story, however, doesn’t really end there. The event, which Lennox describes as one which just “snowballed”, went on to inform much of the music he made in the ensuing years. It might just be a coincidence but after falling in love, Lennox went on a stellar run of albums with his main band that started with the quiet electro-folk of Sung Tongs and culminated/peaked with the summery splendidness of Merriweather Post Pavilion.
It had an even a greater impact on his solo work as Panda Bear, and you have to look no further than 2007’s flirt-with-perfection of an album that is Person Pitch to see it. Even with only seven songs, it’s very much a complete and musically dense work. In terms of sound, Lennox wanted Person Pitch to reflect the atmosphere, aesthetic and general vibes of the city which adopted him. It’s a sugary, sprawling and scintillating record with a lush production that perspires with the warmth of the Iberian Peninsula. It’s not urgent, like the hustle and bustle of a New York metropolis, but instead patient and time-taking like the more relaxed cultures of cosmopolitan Europe.
Although the sound is used as an attempt to mimic the colourful climate and flavourful feeling of Lisbon, the words Lennox sings paint very a different picture. Person Pitch is a document of an ex-pat’s difficult adjustment as well as a communicative work aimed at those he had left behind and it’s the breathtaking ‘Bros’ that acts as the album’s centrepiece in this regard. At 12 minutes, it’s a sumptuous, symphonic epic. Filled with luscious loops, staggeringly strange sampling and Lennox’s own other-worldly vocals, ‘Bros’ is a gargantuan gem.
These ‘looser’ songs by Panda Bear have always ebbed and flowed in that unique Noah Lennox fashion. The repeating patterns and lively looping, which start off as cheerfully chiming on ‘Bros’, form the base and core that our maestro works off of. By the song’s end, we’ll have also heard, among other bizarre soundbites, a steam engine, a plane taking off, a sobbing woman, kids playing and even the hoot of an owl. All this may appear needlessly jarring and inconsequential, but considering that this is a newly-married father who had romantically absconded from his former life, many of these eccentric excerpts actually fit into the Panda Bear narrative of 2007. As for the owl, well if the name of his band and the moniker he gives himself don’t already make it immediately obvious, the guy just likes animals.
In less assured hands, the diverse clutter of ‘Bros’ could very well have overwhelmed even the most tolerant listener but here Panda Bear is both our creative composer and trustworthy tour guide. Lennox always feels in complete control of his surroundings as if he’s holding our hands and escorting us authoritatively through this expansive soundscape. His songs have a way of manoeuvring around methodically as he introduces new elements not forcibly, but by easing them in gracefully. The most marked example being found in the unexpected inclusion of an acoustic guitar. When we first hear it, Lennox only teases us as the instrument initially appears almost invisibly amongst all that’s going on, but then at around the seven-minute mark, the rhythmic strumming emerges on its own from the racket that surrounds it and rings out as clear as a bell. It’s spine-tingling stuff.
Lennox’s lyrics, whether for Animal collective or as Panda Bear, have often evoked a childlike sensibility. He’s able to get across big, universal ideas in simply sung terms, and this is not a criticism. So when he sings, “Coolness is having courage/ courage to do what’s right” on Person Pitch opener ‘Comfy in Nautica’, there’s a self-aware naivety but also a sort of defiant schoolyard logic to the words. For Lennox, “what’s right” is just about following wherever his heart and his gut take him. If that line was the album’s thesis statement then ‘Bros’ is its main body, a plea for understanding from those who might otherwise have felt aggrieved or confounded by his life-changing egress. The title implies that it could be aimed at Noah’s own brother Matt or even his bandmates with whom he no doubt feels he shares a fraternal bond.
The opening words of “Hey, man, what’s your problem? Don’t you know that I don’t belong to you?” set the precedent. What Lennox longs for is simple, the personal “space [he] needs” and to be allowed to have the control over his life that he deserves, one free of unnecessary incursion. Lines like “Grow up/Can’t you just grow up?” may make it all sound like a passive aggressive postcard but the singer isn’t trying to be venomous, he assures us that “I’m not trying to forget you / I just like to be alone”. Lennox might be tired of having his vocals compared to Brian Wilson, but sometimes he just makes it too easy as in ‘Bros’ early stages, he shares the So-Cal tenor’s angelic wistfulness. It’s in the second half that he reminds us that he only sounds like Wilson when he wants to as his voice becomes stretched and something much less tangible. Whereas it started off as buoyant beach boy, his voice then becomes lost in a sea off eerie echoing and ambient overdubbing. Even with all the mind-boggling sounds he can create with his machines, Lennox’s voice is still his most versatile instrument.
In an alternative universe, ‘Bros’ could be even be considered dance music, not the kind that’s bopped to by bucket hatters on ecstasy-fueled night out but instead the kind that would shuffled to by hairy hipsters in a dingy, subterranean bar. This is a song that somehow successfully crams an albums worth of ideas into twelve, stunning minutes. The prevailing image of how Panda bear makes music, shut off from the world in a cloistered environment, is an ironic one due to the fact that he makes music this inviting. It’s hard to imagine him ever topping it, and I’m okay with that.