Album Of The Week

Album Of The Week: Panda Bear & Sonic Boom Reset

Domino
2022
Domino
2022

What’s in the beginning of a song? As Panda Bear and Sonic Boom see it: possibility. Noah Lennox and Peter Kember, the men behind those names, have a long history of mining old music to create something new — Lennox as Panda Bear and part of Animal Collective, Kember with the pioneering psych-rock group Spacemen 3 and, more recently, with his excellent 2020 solo album All Things Being Equal. They first worked together on 2011’s Tomboy; they linked up again and deepened their working relationship on 2015’s Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper. Reset, their first true collaborative album, came about after Kember moved to Portugal in 2018 to be closer to Lennox. He brought his extensive record collection along with him.

While playing familiar favorites in a brand-new location, those records took on a new texture, sounded recontexualized and revitalized. Kember began fixating on the beginnings of songs — those first notes imbued with potential — and he started to sample and loop these. He then sent these loops to Lennox, who would write melodies on top of them. In a recent interview, Kember likened this process to “deep dreaming.” “If you heard the original loop with just the vocal, it had most of the powers already,” he said. “Right from the start, you could tell that something was happening.”

On Reset, Panda Bear and Sonic Boom tease out and build on the tension of those first few moments of a song. They harness the weightless anticipation that comes with something just starting out. The list of samples on the album run the gamut between instantly recognizable and esoteric (and all presumably expensive): the Everly Brothers’ “Love Of My Life,” Eddie Cochran’s “Three Steps To Heaven,” the Troggs’ “Give It To Me,” Randy & the Rainbows’ “Denise,” the Drifters’ “Save The Last Dance For Me.” As the pandemic set in, Lennox and Kember found comfort in the predictability of these warm, hopeful songs, made out of ’50s and ’60s records that channeled an optimism that they also recognized was, on some level, a mirage. Though the music sounded sunny, it was made during a time when the apocalypse seemed imminent — ring any bells?

“We were trying to do something that’s sort of nostalgic for a past that never existed and a future that never will exist,” as Kember so succinctly put it. With Reset, the pair set out to make something that felt positive but still reflected the tumultuous times in which we live. They find true magic in the older songs that they repurpose, a buoyancy that traverses the decades. The songs make me feel like it’s 1960 and 2009 and present day all at once. Trading on nostalgia for both the midcentury and the heyday of late-aughts indie — when Lennox was involved in making enduring albums like Person Pitch and Merriweather Post Pavilion — Panda Bear and Sonic Boom have made an album that’s screwy and bright, filled with lysergic pop songs that break down time. They embellish their samples with synths and whirrs and syrupy melodies; every song feels like they’re messing around in an expansive sonic playground.

But while the music evokes the soft lens of nostalgia, the lyrics reflect a rot that’s at the core of the American experience that’s packaged all over the world. Put together by two expats — one from Baltimore and one from England — they sing about teetering on the edge of all-out chaos, sensing an ever-present danger, feeling like a whirlpool is pulling them down and they’re gonna drown, drown, drown. The album’s opening lines: “Like a Coca-Cola in the system/ I’m letting it engineer the atmosphere.” There’s a fizziness about the songs they make on Reset — and there’s also an undeniable darkness, one that feels insurmountable. “Go On,” for all its hypnotic placidity, is ultimately a song about inequality and revolution. “Lifelong sittin’ in a bank/ Lifelong sharpenin’ the axe/ One dude’s bread is another’s tax.” “Go on, give it to me,” they goad. “You’re gonna get it/ You got it comin’ now/ Over and over and over.”

The disconnect between what these songs are saying and how they sound is part of what makes the album so great. There’s humor and levity on Reset, even as (and maybe especially because) they’re engaging with the anxieties of the moment. “Edge Of The Edge,” a song that circles around a mental breakdown, feels like floating. Closer “Everything’s Been Leading To This” takes this to the extreme, a giddy and goofy song about the inevitability of collapse: “Well, times are tough/ And the draw is raw/ We’re skidding through/ A closin’ door.” By burying themselves in the past, Panda Bear and Sonic Boom have made an album that feels like the beginning and end all at once — one with a sense of possibility.

Reset is out 8/12 (digital) and 11/18 (physical) via Domino.

Other albums of note out this week:
• Danger Mouse & Black Thought’s Cheat Codes
• Boris’ Heavy Rocks (2022)
• Erasure’s Day-Glo (Based On A True Story)
• Hudson Mohawke’s Cry Sugar
• Italians Do It Better’s After Dark 4 compilation
• Osees’ A Foul Form
• Tony Molina’s In The Fade
• Sylvan Esso’s No Rules Sandy
• Rod Wave’s Beautiful Mind
• Kiwi Jr.’s Chopper
• Rat Tally’s In My Car
• Life’s Question’s World Full Of…
• Faye’s You’re Better
• Doll Spirit Vessel’s What Stays
• Goo Goo Dolls’ Chaos In Bloom
• Pale Waves’ Unwanted
• Danny Elfman’s Bigger, Messier
• Max Tundra’s Remixtape
• Bella Poarch’s Dolls
• Gel & Cold Brats’ Shock Therapy split

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