Having moved 200,000 units in their native US alone, the band are faced with the question of how to follow such rampant success. Panda Bear (Noah Lennox) and his girls have long lived in Lisbon, Avey Tare (Dave Portner) lives in LA, Deakin (Joshua Dibb) did charitable work in Mali and Geologist (Brian Weitz) owns restaurants in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Since Meriweather came out in 2008, they've gotten together to record and tour every few years. There was 2012's frenetic Centipede Hz, and now Painting With, an album that clings to Animal Collective's spontaneous charm as it succumbs to the aesthetic guidelines they laid out long ago.
Like Centipede Hz, Painting With sounds like it was bashed out quickly. It fosters the sense that Animal Collective have adapted an enviable groupthink. Lennox's drumming is bouncy and rock solid. Portner has tamped down his yelping vocal style, instead wrapping himself up in complex four-part harmonies. The group is preternaturally tight after thousands of live shows.
Unfortunately, that core competency provides few of the strange highs that drew so many to the band in the first place. It results in a collection of solid but unremarkable songs that might only appease Animal Collective's most ardent fans.
The primary colors here are Lennox's floor tom-heavy rock drums, burbling synth patches and child-like, impressionist lyrics. On opener "FloriDada," the chorus is thrilling and propulsive, but also hints at the band's existential crisis. "I don’t even know where to begin, or how I should start these days," Portner sings. "On Delay" opens with Lennox's dulcet tenor, building momentum with the kind of breakneck tribal drumming that's made for some of Animal Collective's best songs. The incidental synth chords and two-note bassline that kick things off blossom into fleet-fingered piano arpeggios and a proggy vocal bridge—the Animal Collective of the past, the band that wrote 2007's "People," would have stuck to the simple theme and let it ride far past typical pop song length. The exploratory jamming that brought the band stumbling into catharsis—not unlike their spiritual forefathers, The Grateful Dead—is largely absent on Painting With. Which is perhaps because these grown men aren't smoking weed in practice spaces for weeks on end anymore.
The influence of Scottish psychedelic folk group The Incredible String Band looms over Painting With, but a short snippet from anywhere on the album the album would be immediately identifiable as Animal Collective. But its distinctive signposts like these that ultimately hold the band back. How difficult it must be to forge ahead when your back catalog has superfans screaming through the intros (just listen to "Did You See The Words" from last year's excellent Live At The 9:30 Club). For sure, Animal Collective still have plenty of whimsical creativity left in them, but on Painting With they mostly color inside the lines.