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PANDA BEAR
Tomboy
Paw Tracks
Format: CD / LP / Digital
Release Date: April 12, 2011
By Steve McPherson August 12, 2011

The day I first dropped the needle on Panda Bear’s Tomboy, the carpets in my apartment building were being cleaned. This entailed butter yellow vans idling on the street for hours while giant, snakey tubes ran all through the building, soaking, soaping, and blowing dry the carpets. The voice of Noah Lennox (aka Panda Bear, also of Animal Collective, yadda yadda, you know the drill) rose up from the speakers chanting, “Know you can count on me” but sounding like “No you can’t count on me.” The lyrical confusion seemed entirely appropriate, given Panda Bear’s often impressionistic approach to music.

2007’s Person Pitch (Paw Tracks) was a digital swatch of compelling sonic confusion, the kind of album you wanted to drop at your DJ gigs but couldn’t decide where anything began or ended. Tomboy is not like that, not exactly. The songs are more or less discrete units: “Tomboy” itself sounds like a refugee from a 1980s sci-fi soundtrack, discovered and nursed back to health by a tribe of aborigines living in a canyon; “Slow Motion” wouldn’t be out of place on The Beta Band’s The Three E.P.s (Astralwerks, 1999); “Drone” is just what it says, like an early M83 track that forgot the drums — and not in a bad way. Lennox’s unwavering commitment to that drone for the track’s final minute is admirable.

But if the music is more variegated than on its predecessor, Lennox’s vocals are just as washed in echo throughout, resulting in reverb fatigue over the distance. When the music itself was more impressionistic, this over-effected vocal approach was more effective and less affected. In places, melodies do manage to rise above: “Alsatian Darn” has a gently insistent vocal curve in what you might call the chorus, as does “Tomboy.” But overall I found myself wishing for more abstraction in the music, as on Person Pitch, or less abstraction in the vocals.

Not that the music is without its abstract pleasures. Repeated listens, especially with headphones, reveal aural treats aplenty, and on that first day I played the LP, as it spun towards the conclusion of side two, I realized that the last song was never going to end. “Benfica” ends in a locked groove on the vinyl, meaning if you never pick up the needle, the last droning seconds of the song will loop endlessly. When I finally went to stop it, it became apparent that one of the sounds I had thought was part of the record was actually the gentle hum of the carpet cleaning vans, rising and falling outside. Your reaction to that anecdote probably tells you everything you need to know about whether this record is for you.

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