Sung Tongs

It takes about three seconds to realize what an otherworldly album you’ve stumbled into. “Leaf House” begins with the sound of a digital ripcord pulling, but gravity is upside down, so the hallucinatory folk song that emerges from there keeps threatening to float away. It’s anchored, though, by tribal percussion and a sense that some cosmic entity keeps hitting reset every time the wild ceremonial singalong settles into staccato skipping. These creatures — whoever or whatever they are — are singing about a house that is sad because its owner seems to disappear whenever anyone is at the door. Then they’re engaging in a sort of twee hippie call-and-response: “Kitties!” followed by “Meoooooow.” Then the song is over, but the adventure has just begun.

Sung Tongs, released 10 years ago tomorrow, was my introduction to Animal Collective and the beginning of a series of albums that made them one of the most influential forces in indie rock. It’s no coincidence that this is also the album when the group — in this incarnation, just Avey Tare (Dave Portner) and Panda Bear (Noah Lennox) plus producer Rusty Santos — first steered its experimental folk/noise/psych toward something like accessibility. It was the beginning of a trend in that sense. Up until 2012′s Centipede Hz, every album Animal Collective released was received by some listeners as the band’s big pop gesture, the moment when they translated their utter strangeness into a sound the general public could more readily appreciate. This was the conventional wisdom about 2009′s Merriweather Post Pavilion, by far the group’s biggest hit to date, but you could find people hailing the approachability of 2007′s Strawberry Jam and 2005′s Feels too, and none of them were entirely wrong. Animal Collective did spend the better part of a decade getting poppier and poppier with every successive LP. But “pop” is a relative term, and even the version of the band that made waves with “My Girls” was still utterly, unrepentantly strange — which just goes to show how outright fucking weird they were back when Sung Tongs came out. You wouldn’t ever hear Ryan Seacrest throwing it to “Who Could Win A Rabbit,” know what I mean?

That song wasn’t a hit, but it packs a punch. Much of Sung Tongs comprises gorgeous acoustic strumming, gentle coos, and bizarre atmospherics — music for zoning out, meant to be explored. “Rabbit,” on the other hand, explores you. It is less than two minutes of mouth-foaming Simon & Garfunkel feral howls, The song builds from twisted human speech to aggressive strums to the sound of freewheeling pixies giddily swarming around you, begging you to loosen up. “Sometimes I can’t find my good habits,” they sing, as if to assure uptight doofuses like me that it’s OK to let your guard down and cut loose. Elsewhere they promise us that we don’t have to go to college after spending 40 seconds showing how much they’ve learned from the school of Brian Wilson. Even as someone who was smack in the middle of college at the time and quite liked it, I appreciated the sentiment.

Every generation needs albums to remind the squares that there’s more than one way to live life. But Sung Tongs was not as revelatory for its subject matter as for propagating a completely alien sound. “Freak-folk” was becoming a talking point by the time this album came out. Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, and Sufjan Stevens had just released inspired albums, each one a weird and wonderful world unto itself. None of them were as freaky as Sung Tongs, though. By peeling back much of the clatter that defined their first three albums — no electric guitar, gentler strains of noise, mostly hand percussion — they revealed their music’s glowing core. It was unlike anything I’d ever heard; I almost would have believed you if you tried to convince me this music actually was made by woodland creatures.

Portner and Lennox hadn’t calcified into distinct identities yet. They still sounded like a single unified amorphous entity here, more of a communal gathering than the array of individuals implied by the word “collective.” The music they made together — the bouncing lo-fi symphony “Winters Love,” the frantic drum circle “We Tigers,” the gorgeously sprawling “Visiting Friends” — often had a mystical quality to it, as if it couldn’t possibly have been recorded by twenty-first century human beings in a concrete room under red light. Occasionally, they lowered the veil to reveal how strikingly simple and real this all was. Closer “Whaddit I Done,” with its Donald Duck baby-voice effect, sounds every bit like a handful of young visionaries goofing off brilliantly.

Visionary’s the word, really. Few bands grasp at new possibilities in sound like these guys did over the course of their first decade together. Sung Tongs represented a change of shape, something Animal Collective would undergo many more times down the line both in terms of the group’s sound and the lineup producing it. The one constant has always been that powerful creative chemistry between Portner and Lennox. They are the nucleus, and witnessing the two of them race fearlessly into the future has been one of this generation’s great privileges. The fact that these same guys were responsible for the synthetic dreamscapes of Merriweather Post Pavilion just five years after this supernatural campfire music is close to unbelievable. But even if Sung Tongs hadn’t been a snapshot in a breathless metamorphosis, it would stand as a masterpiece in its own right. It is Animal Collective’s most compulsively listenable, intrepidly unhinged, just plain beautiful collection of music. They are the kings of the jungle, and this is their crowning achievement.

Comments (20)
  1. Auto  |   Posted on May 2nd +6

    Classic album. I think I lost my copy when a lighting strike frazzled my hard drive a few years ago, might have to go find myself a new one…

  2. As much as I love MPP and Centipede Hz (yes, I love it), it’s always so refreshing to go back to Sung Tongs and Feels. There’s an almost punk-rock vitality and youthful energy to those records, even in Feels’ long, quiet songs.

    • Watching everyone go from being super psyched during that Centipede Hz radio stream to turning on the album a week or two later was certainly one of the more odd developments I’ve seen on Stereogum. Even if it’s probably the post Sung Tong’s album I return to the least, I think there’s still some really good stuff on there.

      • I was excited for CHz for sure, saw them play the new songs live and listened to the live stream. I liked things about it, but I felt the production didn’t help some of the songs and a few of the tracks really just don’t have a ton of substance there. It’s got GREAT moments (New Town Burnout, Applesauce, Today’s Supernatural), but AnCo fans have incredibly high standards since they’ve been on such a run.

      • Rightfully so, though. Centipede Hz is a mess.

  3. Feels is my favorite, but I still love this album so much. When I saw them post Merriweather Post Pavilion, they played a few songs off of it, and it was really interesting to see how they adapted the sound.

    Also, though I have no way to prove it, I’ve long suspected that Avey Tare and Panda Bear must have really liked Goblin’s soundtrack to SUSPIRIA. When I finally got around to watching that movie a few years ago, I was struck with how much the main theme made me think of AC in horror mode. Well, up until the theme transitions into its psycho-rock thing.

  4. This is my favourite Animal Collective album, and maybe one of my favourite albums of the 2000s. It’s just lovely.

  5. I love this album so much. It feels like they are trying to fit so many ideas into those 53 minutes that they are splintering and folding back on themselves. If any album demonstrates the fine line between genius and insanity it’s this one.

  6. Simply one of the most important albums of my life. (Feels too)

  7. Sung Tongs and Feels are both such great, weird things. They’re the best AC albums, in my estimation.

  8. This is the best Animal Collective album. Some days, especially today, I’m convinced it is simply the best album.

  9. I forgot about the who could win a rabbit video, I love it so much. I love that song so much. :)))))))

  10. Right around when Merriweather came out and Animal Collective was the biggest band in the indie world I stumbled upon this album in my record stores used cd section. The cd was 5 bucks and I was instantly drawn to that weird cover art. Looking back its one of my favorites finds in that used cd bin. It was an album I wasn’t sure I was gonna like since Campfire Songs, imo, is an incredibly boring album. I was hooked after I heard “Who Could Win A Rabbit” and there are only a few songs I don’t really like on here. “Mouth Wooed Here” took me a while to get into but its become one of my favorites by them. As much experimenting that goes on in this album there a lot of good love songs. “Winter’s Love” has to be the most romantic song they’ve done next to “My Girls”. Great album and cheers to them for never caring if they came off as experimental weirdos cause this album works on so many levels.

  11. I wouldn’t say it’s my favourite album of theirs; the album’s second half is uneven, Whaddit I Done is just plain silly, and I’ve always found Visiting Friends to be a bit of a momentum killer. But with that said, the first half of Sung Tongs might just be the greatest run of songs AC have ever put together. Who Could Win A Rabbit, Winter’s Love, Kids On Holiday and Sweet Road are just delightful, life-affirming songs. Leaf House is a stunning opener, and always a live fave. But it’s The Softest Voice that always gets me; the way the melody winds up and unwinds itself makes it sound like it’s being played from some sort of magical toy music-box. I’ve always felt that the much-overlooked Campfire Songs is a great companion piece to this album too.

    • “Learning How to Dive” would have been a better closer but I’ve personally never understood the hate for “Whaddit I Done”. Though songwriting might not be up to par with the highs of the album, it has that right mix of bittersweetness, quirk, and imagination that complements the preceding songs pretty well.

      But yeah, Sung Tongs a great companion piece to Campfire Songs as well as to Prospect Hummer (their greatest EP, IMO). Man, thinking about this era of Animal Collective gets me excited over the fact that Avey Tare recently discussed the possibility of there being another acoustic, AC-related record on the horizon.

  12. Undeniably, the greatest album of all time.

  13. Animal Collective are my favourite group, and while this isn’t as fantastic for me as some of the other albums of this period (Here Comes The Indian is a shade better for me, and Feels is their masterpiece, which sadly kinda overshadows this one, great as it is), there are still some really choice tracks here, like the opening one-two punch of Leaf and Rabbit, my back-to-back two album favourites which are Winters Love and Kids On Holiday, and the aurally stunning Visiting Friends, one of AC’s most hypnotic tracks which I think just gets better with age. I’m not really in love with anything after that on the album though, save for Mouth Wooed Her, but I still hold this album in damn high regard.

  14. KIDS ON HOLIDAY

  15. Anyone else want to live inside “Winter Love”?

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