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Ballet Slippers

Pieced together from four Merriweather Post Pavilion-era sets, this live album reinforces the weirdness of the band’s pop heyday.

A decade since Merriweather Post Pavilion, the qualities that once made Animal Collective singular—their gleeful nitrous-oxide harmonies, their cascading drums, their interlocking hooks—are as familiar as Instagram filters. The success of “Peacebone” and “My Girls” has overshadowed their unruly previous decade to the point where it can be hard to remember just how wild and transgressive Animal Collective were for so long.

Those splendid eccentricities surface again on Ballet Slippers, a 12-song live mix culled from four shows a decade ago and sequenced into a simulacrum of a single concert. They begin with the hiccuping samples and strangled static of Merriweather opener “In the Flowers” and kill the sequences 90 minutes later after the tessellated jumble of Merriweather closer “Brother Sport,” wishing the crowd well. Between these bookends, things get weird, often subtly so. A tambourine and acoustic guitar meet so high in the mix of “Who Could Win a Rabbit” that it sounds like the microphones are being hit by snow chains. A noise collage erupting inside “Bleed” suggests a basement show circa 2003. And “Daily Routine” turns into a slow-motion tug of war between a fetching hook and surrounding chaos.

Throughout, Animal Collective split the difference between fidelity to the songs on Merriweather and nuanced improvisation. A Las Vegas crowd squeals as the kaleidoscopic sequences of “My Girls” rise from primordial goo, a pointed reminder of just how alien but magnetic that inescapable song felt in 2009. They give the hit its space, pushing the interweaving harmonies high above the drums to emphasize the basic humanity of Panda Bear’s early-Obama-years request—just to be a good person with a safe place to raise a family. Freed from studio safeguards, “Lion in a Coma” feels particularly frantic and urgent. Avey Tare’s vocals tunnel through cramped electronics, emphasizing the song’s existential agoraphobia.

At the other extreme, Animal Collective treat “Banshee Beat” like its own world, with an atmosphere of droning guitars that shift like summer winds and synthesizers that slip like sunlight through storm clouds. A month or so after the recordings that shape Ballet Slippers, Animal Collective made history by licensing the first-ever Grateful Dead sample. If that’s always felt like lip service, their extended sweep between “Lablakely Dress” and “Fireworks” provide the bona fides. The skipping drums, the shaky vocals, the woozy electronics: Over 20 minutes, a dozen tiny parts coalesce into a hero’s journey from one of the band’s early abstractions to one of their most radiant anthems. And if the idea of a heroic Animal Collective guitar solo feels absurd, it arrives halfway in, a circuit of trebly notes transmuted into ecstasy by sheer repetition.

Despite such extraordinary highs, Ballet Slippers is not essential. If you’re not a zealot, chances are that these recordings—as with most live records, a tad distant and dependent on the power of suggestion—won’t convert you. And if you are already on board, Animal Collective’s ability to jam will come as no surprise; these takes will, instead, transport you to a past place and time, previously accessible through bootlegs or YouTube or your memory. But the best of this set serves as an essential reminder of how, on Merriweather Post Pavilion, Animal Collective successfully folded a decade of experimentation into 11 engrossing pop songs that sounded like little else—and then, on the road, let it spill back out for big crowds looking to party to “My Girls.”


Buy: Rough Trade

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