Animal Collective have come an awful long way in the last 10 years. Where once the Baltimore-based quartet (and sometimes duo or trio) was a curious and obscure confection that appealed largely to aficionados of noise or ambient compositions, they’ve since matured into a reliably awe-inspiring pop band. In fact, just this past year they released the sprawling, electronically-based Merriweather Post Pavilion, which numerous publications, including this one, called `album of the year.’ But what’s most interesting about their evolution is how gradual and disciplined it has been. Revealing themselves as fairly prolific since around 2003, Avey Tare, Panda Bear, and frequent collaborators Deakin and Geologist unleashed psychedelic chaos with Danse Manatee and Here Comes the Indian, but with Campfire Songs, Animal Collective (calling themselves merely ‘Campfire Songs’ for this release) began to show a softer, meditative side that would also emerge on the subsequent year’s Sung Tongs.
For the past few years, Campfire Songs has been out of print, but it’s finally getting reissued through the band’s own label, Paw Tracks, in the same basic form in which it was released prior. No bonus tracks, no extra DVD, no needless autobiography. No, the band is merely re-releasing the album for the sake of making it available to fans, which is a fine enough reason to do so. And, frankly, given the direction the band has taken in recent years, hearing this artifact proves quite interesting, shedding a little light on the more experimental Animal Collective of yore.
The explanation given for the album’s title is that these songs aren’t necessarily meant for singing around a campfire, but that they are melodies born from the fire itself. Abstract concept or hippie mush as that might sound, it works in context. The first track, “Queen in My Pictures,” seems to do just that, faintly flickering until it slowly and gradually builds into something much bigger, if still fairly amorphous and loosely flowing. “Doggy,” by comparison, is much closer to an actual pop song, bouncy and strummy, with a smirking mischief that would come to be a signature of their later compositions. “Two Corvettes” splits the difference between the first and second track, melodically immediate but structurally meandering. It’s slow and meditative, but gorgeous, and draws the listener in closely with its gentle plucks. “Moo Rah Rah Rain” opens with strange whisper chants, but as it unfolds incorporates the sound of whooshing waves and intermittent guitar. And closer “De Soto De Son” returns to an approachable, escalating and descending guitar melody, closing out the record with a simple and lovely exercise.
When held up against Animal Collective’s more recent effort, it sounds much more primitive, which, most likely, was the point. It’s a simple album, one without the bells and whistles of Feels or Strawberry Jam, and with nothing in the way of a single. It’s practically a yoga session, but that’s part of its natural, free spirited charm, and a reminder that Animal Collective has yet to make the same album twice.