Voices are, almost by definition, the humanizing instrument. Without them, you can certainly transmit thought, emotion and mood, but it's at a remove. Voices are the most direct connection, the way that one person's experiences travel musically to another person's heart. The problem comes when, through words, the brain interferes, making whatever voice A is singing about specific and concrete and not entirely applicable to whatever listener B has been thinking about music and love and life in general. It's at this point that listener B starts saying things like "I love that line" or "It's not really that way" instead of just feeling the feelings that were present in the music itself. It becomes an intellectual exercise, not an instinctual experience. Which brings me to the Animal Collective. The Brooklyn-based collaborative solves this problem by using voices in ways that are almost entirely divorced from words -- distorting, downplaying, yipping and doo-ing and dee-ing -- and that sweep you up into a nearly pure musical experience.
The Animal Collective is made up of Avery Tare, Panda Bear, Geologist and Deaken (and yes, these are definitely their real names), a quartet of psyche/folk/pop experimentalists who unleashed three albums of sweet, distorted sounds last year on various labels and to crescendoing levels of critical acclaim. Sung Tongs, the follow-up to 2003's Here Comes the Indian, builds from a base of acoustic guitar and swelling, vowel-based vocal harmonies, with strange sounds and rhythms creeping in from the corners. For example, the album opens with the breezy, Stereolabbish vocals of "Leaf House", evoking '60s French movies and light Brazilian jazz. It is not long, though, before this sunlit backdrop is punctured with glottal barks and giddy wordless swirls. Midway through the cut, a counterpoint of staccato "ahs" breaks out, caroming from one headphone to the other, until all sounds merge in a white-hot center -- and then, just as quickly, the song has switched course again, ending in a strange "Meow...Kitties....Meow....Kitties" coda.
"Who Could Win A Rabbit" starts with a single player's brash, strummed guitar chords, which are then picked up and echoed, slightly syncopated, by a second player. There's an attempt at rational, straightforward storytelling, as sweet harmonic voices intone, "You could win a rabbit/been working and put on good habits." But that doesn't last long. You can almost see a shrug of shoulders, a wild, daring grin as the singers break free of the words and soar off into sublime run of "do-dee-do-do"s.
The disc's longest track, "Visiting Friends", surfs an ebb and flow of strummed guitar chords, the chord changing only once a minute or so. Against this tranquil backdrop, Animal Collective superimposes a web of syncopated sighs, breaths and distorted words ("visiting old friends" "she's feeling cold"). You feel that there is something warm and worthwhile at the heart of the track, but that you cannot get quite close enough. There is a slightly removed, elegiac distance to this song, as if you are looking in on it from outside, through a steamy window.
Sung Tongs' standout track is the hyper-rhythmic, quasi-tribal "We Tigers", with its pounding drums, non-linear lyrics ("I'm Like this / You're Like this") and joyous whoop-whoops breaking out just when you least expect them. The whole thing would be, perhaps, a bit too Peter Pan and Tiger Lily, were it not for an occasional, rich and hooky choral melody that darts in and out of the arrangement. The sounds that Animal Collective get from voices are almost symphonically varied, from velvety harmonies to percussive beats to the high, animal-like ay-yay-yay-yay-yay chant that erupts like joy midway through the tune. There are words here, too, but they are hammered into symbols by repetition, as in the fevered closing "Tiger / tiger / tiger / tiger / tiger..."
Sung Tongs resembles the freakiest of '60s psyche, the outward fringes of Elephant Six-dom, the craziest excesses of Tom Ze -- yet it is a warm, deeply human work that winds its way into your heart. A wordless voice, a drumless beat, a folk song from a village that never was, it is a strange and wonderful piece of art that you can't readily explain or categorize.