Until recently, Animal Collective, the Baltimore-to-Brooklyn transplants who've bridged the gaps to bring those worlds together, have been stronger as an ideal than as actual art. The group's live shows, including a high-profile headlining gig at last summer's Pitchfork Music Festival, were more notable for their Pink Floyd-worthy lighting displays than for free-flowing sounds that, at their worst, devolved into hippies-with-bongos arrhythmic clatter -- a hipster version of the Grateful Dead's dreaded "Drums and Space" wank-fests.
Meanwhile, though the band's prolific recordings often had moments of promise, those were outnumbered by the bouts of unfocused overindulgence.
But on "Merriweather Post Pavilion," the group's ninth studio album, released Tuesday, the newly pared-down trio of the trippily named Avey Tare (a k a Dave Portner), Panda Bear (Noah Lennox) and Geologist (Brian Weitz) sobered up long enough to polish and perfect their songcraft, yielding a psychedeli-pop masterpiece winning praise from every corner as an irresistibly sunny idyll in ever darkening times.
Just as exciting, this new concision and welcome emphasis on infectious melodies and more propulsive rhythms also were in evidence when the group took the stage Thursday night at Metro before a sold-out crowd of worshipful fans, including quite a few who were living embodiments of the band's musical mergers. (Think indie/emo geeks sporting hippie dreadlocks and Day-Glo raver face paint.) Like DJs huddled over their turntables, the band members didn't provide much to look at during their 75-minute set. As befits his position as bandleader, Avey Tare occupied center stage, delivered many of the vocals and switched among guitar, keyboard, the occasional thumping of a floor tom and the sporadic tweaking of knobs on a card table full of electronics.
To his left, Panda Bear alternated between keyboard and a few more acoustic drums, in addition to handling the rest of the singing, while to Avey Tare's right, Geologist, sporting a spelunker's head lamp, hunched over another table full of more electronics, including the all-important drum machines.
(A fourth member, Josh Gibb or Deakin, is missing in action for this album and tour, though his band mates say that he still is a part of the fold.) In other words, this was very much the Animal Collective of the past -- there just was a little less of it, and in all the right places.
Rather than serving as the be-all and end-all of the set, the extended electronic jams -- droning roller coaster rides on the pounding grooves, sometimes adorned with layers of wordless echoed vocals that created big, catchy dub mantras -- functioned more as connective tissue between the gleeful pop explosions, including new standouts such as "My Girls," "Summertime Clothes," "Guys Eyes" and "Brother Sport." In keeping with a group devoted to evolving at every show, these tunes changed in concert, becoming slightly more mechanical and less organic ‹ "The Man-Machine" meets "Pet Sounds." (And if you think that's an unreasonable mix, remember that electronic pioneers Kraftwerk earned the nickname "the Beach Boys from Dusseldorf" during their mid-'70s heyday.) By the time the band ended the set proper, Avey Tare had blown out his voice, and Panda Bear and Geologist returned without him for a quick one-song encore. But no one left disappointed, and Animal Collective had not only lived up to its long-building buzz, it had delivered a live experience as strong as its new album, thrilling the dancers, the rockers, the hippies and the critics alike.