- Panda Bear
Close your eyes for a moment and think back to your teenage summers. At one point you walked through your neighborhood, very late at night, on one of those foggy, humid, August nights where the orange streetlights glow seemed magnified to an eerie incandescence through the fog. Maybe you were on your way home from a house party, maybe you had a quiet night with a few friends, but regardless of the details, we’ve all been on that walk. Try to remember what that felt like to you on a cellular level, the simultaneous feeling of being viscerally joyous at being alive and terrified at the same time about what might lurk around the next corner or what that rustle was behind the house on your block that you were sure was occupied by pagans. Remember the almost inaudible hum of your block at two o’clock in the morning and the indelible imprint that it left on your soul as you alone began to face the universe on your terms for the first time.
Tomboy, the third album from Noah Lennox, aka Panda Bear, is an album that is evocative of the feeling in your gut. Full of swirling demon noise, soaring harmonies and gritty, urban jangle it is a stunning, four years in the making follow up to the canonical Person Pitch, released in 2007. You will not fall in love with this instantly the way you did with Person Pitch, it is a challenging record that takes a couple of spins to sink in. Give it time though and this painstakingly rendered album might just re-illuminate some deep seeded recess of your consciousness, as it did for me.
From all accounts Lennox constructed Tomboy by adopting a monastic existence, recording in the daytime darkness of a basement studio in his adopted home in Portugal. That atmosphere undoubtedly crept into the work. This monkish approach has wrought an album that is intensely focused; nary is a note misplaced from track to track.
Lennox’s patient construction of each track, and his attention to the nuances that make each piece so rich, are at the heart of the best moments on Tomboy. The swampy burble melody of “Last Night at the Jetty,” punctuated by a hollow, eminently clap-able drum beat, wrap around classic harmonies to form the albums centerpiece. “Last Night at the Jetty” is the spiritual sequel to “Comfy in Nautica.” Instead of exhorting you to simply remember to have a good time we find the narrator, presumably Lennox himself, questioning “Did she/didn’t we/didn’t you have a good time?” It is an utterly beautiful track that will garner endless rotation on your best of 2011 mix tape. As will “Alsatian Darn”, fraught with a scatter shoot drum beat and a searching melody before modulating into a strident chorus equally laden with self doubt as “Last Night at the Jetty.” “Say what it is I want to say to you/ Say what/ Say can I make a bad mistake” leads you out with the nervous intensity of an approaching August thunderstorm. That insecurity laid bare, with its cunning instrumental accompaniment, imbue these tracks with the ability to spark deep memories within the listener.
Ominous markers dot the track list, some are full tracks like the echo-chamber eeriness of “Scheradze” and the washed out, minor key guitar and synthesizer of “Tomboy.” More subtle monsters lurk in the background of instrumentation too. Throughout Tomboy sounds of sucking air, muffled loud speaker announcements and general spectral weirdness float in and out of most of the tracks.
On paper this shouldn’t work, but Lennox is deft in his placement and mixing of all of those little ghostly snippets. This approach reaches its most logical, and least haunting end on the closer “Benfica,” an airy hymnal that folds in a chorus of soccer supporters, presumably from the club in Lisbon for which the song is named. It’s a subtle tip of the hat to the time Pink Floyd included the England’s largest choir, the fans of Liverpool F.C., singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” at the end of “Fearless.”
It’s not all dark and brooding. “Surfers Hymn” is four minutes of psychedelic glory that is thankfully the track in his catalogue that might just defy any comparisons to the “Beach Boys” better than any other. The constant mentions of Lennox’s harmonies to theirs grow tiresome at this point. The cacophony of “After Burner” morphs into a gritty, pulsating coda that is endlessly listenable.
It’s easy to take for granted the fact that he does all of this largely alone, save for mixing the album. If a band with traditional drums, guitar, keyboard, bass and vocals recorded something at this level, with this attention to detail we’d be flipped out. Not to be a master of the obvious here, but the fact the Lennox does all of this on his own may be the greatest argument in music today for the conception and execution of a work being in sole control of the creator. You wonder if another voice were at play here, would it dilute his ability to translate his web of complex human emotion and equally complex instrumentation into such a groundbreaking work. After all, the work of a solo artist, this one separate from his acclaimed collective, is no democracy, and in this case it’s for the better.
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