Paw Tracks, 2011
REVIEW BY: Ken DiTomaso
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 04/16/2011
It’s been four years since Noah Lennox, aka Panda Bear, last released a solo album. Now with Tomboy, he’s gone solo once again and we finally get to see how his band’s recent successes have affected his own music. Unfortunately, it hasn’t changed for the better. If anything, Tomboy is a regression compared to what came before. It’s absolutely drenched in reverb and delay to the detriment of the audio fidelity. Animal Collective’s music also uses a lot of reverb, enough so that it’s one of their most characteristic elements, but they always keep it to a healthy level that only enhances the music. Here, it only serves to distract and muddy the songs.
The majority of the music consists of a heavily affected guitar backed by a bare-bones drum machine. A few tracks throw some synthesizers into the mix, which add a lot of character to the songs, and I wish there were more since the guitar tone barely changes through the whole album. On Person Pitch, Panda Bear relied on samplers in a big way and that had a major role in varying the album’s sound and making it interesting to listen to as a whole. Tomboy doesn’t do anything in particular to keep the album interesting in long stretches; it’s just one reverby chug after another.
The vocals are buried in the mix and the lyrics are almost completely indecipherable through the entire album. That’s not a problem necessarily – one could argue that this isn’t the type of music where the vocals need to be upfront – but the lush, layered harmonies Lennox creates seem to demand at least some degree of vocal clarity. There just isn’t enough going on in the instrumentation and arrangements to really demand your attention if the vocals aren’t doing the job.
Thankfully, Panda Bear’s innate gift for melody remains intact. All of the songs in the first half of the album are very hummable for sure. I’ve had “You Can Count On Me” stuck in my head ever since I first heard it, same goes for “Slow Motion,” “Surfer’s Hymn,” and several others. The primary issue I have with the songwriting is that in most cases, Lennox doesn’t do anything with these catchy melodies once he’s established them. If you hear the first thirty seconds of any of these tunes, you’ve basically heard the whole thing. Everything could have been so much better if only he fleshed out his ideas a little more. “Last Night At The Jetty” easily snags the position of best track on this album for me. Not only does it have a stunningly beautiful melody, but it develops extremely well as it progresses, one of the only songs to do so.
Early versions of over half of the album’s tracks were released on singles before the album’s release. The new versions of these songs are across-the-board improvements from the originals. So those who already have all the singles should probably still grab the album. But that’s pretty much the only added value since the four tracks that didn’t appear on the singles are all among the weakest material on the whole album. “Afterburner” initially seems the most interesting of these but as it goes on it just repeats the same backing track and the same non-melody over and over. A few things fade in and out of the mix at times but it’s too little too late at that point.
I know Lennox probably labored over this music for months, yet it still sounds as if he just lazily recorded a few instruments and put some “x-treme reverb” preset on everything. It just doesn’t work, and flat out wreaks many tracks that are otherwise quite good. The melodies get obscured, arrangements get muddled, and the rhythms loose definition, resulting in nearly an entire album of samey-sounding aural mush. Avey Tare’s recent solo album Down There suffered from the exact opposite problem; the production and effects used on his album were stellar but the songs weren’t particularly interesting. Lennox is a fine songwriter but he can’t pair his songs with compelling sounds. It’s no wonder then that the two pair so well together in Animal Collective where their strengths cancel out their individual weaknesses. Tomboy isn’t a bad record per-se, but coming from a man at the forefront of modern independent music it does seem rather slight. I’ve read comments online that Panda Bear sounds like The Beach Boys played from the next room over, and while that’s far from a perfect comparison, there is a grain of truth there. However, when it comes right down to it I really just want to be in that room hearing that music firsthand.