February 15, 2009

Mirror Groups: Animal Collective

Posted in Music tagged , , , , , , at 9:16 pm by Andrew McMillen

Simon Reynolds discusses how Animal Collective have become a “mirror group” at The Guardian’s music blog:

…with their new album Merriweather Post Pavilion, they have been promoted to a bigger league, where they’re a talking point for a whole new set of people who, until recently, had no interest in their existence.

Just like when you pass by a mirror and can’t resist taking a glance, people are looking for the flattering angle, for a stance on the band and their music that makes the opinionator look good.

I like this concept of a mirror group. Reynolds cites MIA, Vampire Weekend and Kid A-era Radiohead as recent examples, though I’d argue that the release of OK Computer heralded Radiohead’s tipping point.

I’ll add Kings Of Leon to that list. Two mildly successful albums, and then a surge in popularity upon the release of Because Of The Times and its lead single On Call in 2007. But that album was nothing compared to the runaway success of 2008’s Only By The Night and Sex On Fire.

Reynolds is right about Animal Collective. They’ve flittered away under my radar for a couple of years, and I chose to ignore them, if only because I wasn’t pushed hard enough in their direction.

But that’s changed with the new album. Aziz Ansari linked to their excellent video for My Girls, which burns bright with kaleiodscopic joy. (The “woo!”s in the background of the chorus totally make the song, btw)

And that’s all it takes. A solid recommendation, and I’ll pay attention to a band for a song or an album or a lifetime. I downloaded the album and I like it. I’ll recommend it to my friends and see them when they tour.

At a deeper level, beneath the particulars of aesthetics and resonance, what’s really at issue is, I think, the status and function in our culture of “middlebrow”. With Merriweather, almost everyone is either castigating or applauding Animal Collective for their tentative steps into the middling regions of pop culture: that Kid A zone where mild experimentalism meets not-too-obvious melodicism.

The space between the underground and the mainstream is a tricky intersection for musicians to navigate. Stray too far from your roots, and you’ll be abandoned by your core fanbase – your tribe.

Primal Scream are a fine example of a band whose sound has varied wildly across their career, yet their musical diversity allows them to successfully embody many genres – or wear many masks, if you’d like – when performing live.

The Reynolds column is worth a read, even if he does wander several hundred words past his point. Then there’s Kevin Kelly‘s ‘1000 true fans‘ notion, which requires a new discussion altogether.

Many musical thoughts for a Sunday evening. An open question – which sounds are exciting you at the moment?

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6 Comments

  1. TDW said,

    I’m going through what I would call a bit of an orgy of new music right now. I recently started up a new band for the first time in about five years, coupling that with a co-band member who is the first person I’ve met in a very, very long time who seems to know more music than I do (that might sound like I’m full of myself, but if you knew my friends you’d completely agree – I’ve always had to find music on my own), coupled again with Last.fm and their recommendations, coupled yet again with the fact that I only finally figured out how to use Bit Torrent a couple of weeks ago.

    I have more new music than I have time for – and that’s probably a literal thing!

    A few new sounds (for me) really getting me off at the moment:

    Circa Survive
    Alkaline Trio
    Birds of Tokyo
    Dropkick Murphys (thanks to an awesome BDO performance)

    And then there’s even more artists my interest has reignited with since I’ve been getting albums I never bothered getting (i.e. Killswitch Engage, Tool, A Perfect Circle, Devin Townsend, The Used etc.).

    Something I’ve given a bit of thought about that might interest you as a topic in the future (although bloggers seem to hate and generally ignore any topic recommendations) is the difference between bands who take a long time to reach the mainstream (like Kings of Leon) and build a significant dedicated fanbase along the way, and the negative effects (fans thinking they’ve “sold out” when they’ve merely become popular) and positive effects (dedicated fanbase usually means longer existence) – compared to bands who hit it big rather quickly with their debut (like the Killers) who most likely won’t come under such criticisms no matter what they do (Sam’s Town… honestly… what was that?) but also may lack the dedicated fanbase that the other sloggers have behind them for the future when they don’t have hit singles for the radio.

  2. Love it dude. Instant gratification versus longevity. Short versus long haul. Good artist example, too.

    Why would I hate or ignore such a fine idea? 🙂

    Glad to hear that you’re hearing a bunch of new sounds, too.

    There’s loads to absorb on my radio station at http://www.last.fm/user/niteshok, but I’ll just make one recommendation: Minus The Bear, preferably the Highly Refined Pirates album.

  3. Dean said,

    Andrew, if you and your friends don’t buy the Animal Collective record then they will not tour.

    I know you have this fanciful idea of the ‘new music industry’ where the consumer pays little for great benefit, but if bands don’t have money, they can’t afford to tour.

    Your thirty dollar ticket is not enough. Not because the bands don’t appreciate it, but because they literally live hand to mouth and for the most part can’t get tour support to bring them over here (it costs a lot of money for a band to tour. I can understand this is something you don’t have a concept of given the fact you don’t play in a band or work in the music industry).

    I had a quick skim through your blog and found so many things I would like to argue with you about, but unfortunately I just don’t have the time.

    Just go and buy some CDs/vinyl/mp3s (I don’t agree with paying for mp3s but each to their own). If you don’t have the money now, then convince yourself to do it when you do. People’s lives go into making great records, and gthe very concept of someone releasing a great record has only been able to survive through people being willing to buy them. Don’t cheapen this great artform anymore than you already have, please.

    Hope to see you sometime,
    Dean

  4. TDW said,

    I hate to be one to reply to other people’s comments, but…

    What Dean is asking for is a complete cultural shift in the minds of consumers. A MASSIVE cultural shift to the point where the large majority of society would have to view downloading as a highly unethical and illegal thing to do – then they would have to care enough to spend their hard earnt money on something they are now used to getting for free. It would require some seriously well planned commercials (which no one would take seriously – starving rock stars? come on) and a lot of persuasion. More effectively it would require authority to undertake a massive crackdown on illegal downloads, which would be necessary the world over to be effective.

    Alternatively the music industry should evolve and figure out a new business plan. It would nice if we would all continue to buy albums but it’s just not going to happen. One or two of us doing it is not going to keep the industry healthy. It’s in a transitional change whether we like it or not and the winner is the musician who figures out the best model.

    On another note I read that vinyl sales are up…

  5. Stuart said,

    Interesting article. I dig the ‘mirror artist’ analogy. On the music review website http://rateyourmusic.com , it is so hard for recently released albums to get above a rank of about 3.5 stars (out of 5). Whenever albums start to get a high ranking, they move up the ‘top 100 list’ for that particular year, and expose themselves to a whole new group of listeners that may previously have had no interest in that style of music. Those listeners then begin the process of giving low ratings to the albums, and therefore weigh it back down the charts.

    So, it’s hard for new albums on RYM to get an average rating of above 3.5, because everyone is so fixated on the current charts due to the ‘mirror group’ effect. On the other hand, old albums from years gone by have a lot more freedom for high average ratings because they are away from the attention of the current crowd of chart watchers.

  6. The new Telefon Tel Aviv and The Church continue to impress me to no end – but there’s no way I’d give the new Animal Collective 9.6 out of 10 like Pitchfork did


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