Experimental pop musician Noah Lennox, better known by his stage alias Panda Bear, has been making waves in modern music scenes that range from pop to folk to electronic to psychedelic since his self-titled solo debut in 1999. He is best known for his role as percussionist and vocalist of experimental music band Animal Collective, a duo that quickly turned into a quartet and became one of the figureheads of 2000s oddball pop tunes. Using his pure tenor to paint vibrant vocal harmonies, Panda Bear’s trained choral-boy vocals meld with lead vocalist Avey Tare’s daring leaps and antics in a way that keeps the spirit of the Beach Boys alive in a present-day pop context. As a percussionist, his hands behind the kit provide a solid rhythmic backdrop for a band that deals in arrhythmic, sometimes amorphous sonic textures created by a farrago of synthesizers and samplers.
The band hit mainstream success with their 2007 album Strawberry Jam, and then proceeded to explode in global popularity with 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion. These two albums attempt a marriage of sugary pop music with abrasive experimental electronics, taking samples from nature and generating blaring walls of noise as Panda sings elegantly alongside Avey Tare, like a more melodic, gentler counterpart to the 1960s’ Silver Apples or the United States of America. Catchy guitar and synthesizer hooks mixed smoothly overtop the spasmodic electronic soundscapes and samples are a pairing that creates not only countless sing-alongs but also nearly endless replays, as the songs weaved together by Animal Collective are unlike anything else on the pop market.
As a solo act, Panda Bear received rave reviews for his 2007 solo effort, Person Pitch, a deconstruction of contemporary pop music which plays as a travelogue of samples and sound collages. Panda singing through a board of various effects and manipulations is emphasized, as his voice takes every position from lead melody to non-lexical backing instruments. He followed this up with 2011’s Tomboy under his solo moniker again, this time calling upon Peter “Sonic Boom” Kember of seminal psychedelic pop band Spacemen 3 to create an electronic spin on the early dub of Lee “Scratch” Perry as well as the palm wine jams of S.E. Rogie. Writing and producing these two albums while still performing and releasing music in Animal Collective full-time kept Lennox churning out new material that covered a variety of genres at an expeditious pace. [pullquote align=”right”]Despite questioning his own clock and staring at the Grim Reaper himself, Noah Lennox is a musician clearly full of life.[/pullquote]
January 2015 finds yet another solo effort from Noah Lennox in Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, a collection of songs about aging and personal growth. The title is truly all-telling, as today’s Noah Lennox is not the same man as the ambitious and energetic Panda Bear that helped form Animal Collective in 1999. A husband, as well as a father of two, coming face-to-face with mortality and the onset of age manifests itself lyrically in a family-centric cynosure. “Only you can fill those spaces,” Panda seemingly sings to himself on “Selfish Gene,” reminding himself of a father’s salience in the life of a child. Built off several snippets of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nut Cracker” score, album centerpiece “Tropic of Cancer” revisits Grim Reaper’s lyrical motif of life as a finite resource as Noah Lennox revisits the life and premature death of his father. The song finds him recounting his own fear of an early grave when he has a family of his own to look after as his voice moves contrapuntally to a lovely ascending harp part.
While lyrically Lennox tries to encompass those around him, Grim Reaper is a sonic exercise in self-restraint. Gone are the extensive adventures of Person Pitch’s “Bros” or “Good Girls / Carrots” that were demarcated by several changes in mood, color, and tempo presented on a platform created by samples of children cheering and hands clapping. Also absent is the messiness of Centipede Hz., the last studio full-length from Animal Collective. That album infamously sacrifices its cohesion for layer after layer of electronics in a soupy neo-psych romp hampered by poor mixing in the studio. Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper’s tracks, however, are rife with memorable hooks, like the pitter-patter echoes of Lennox’s singing on the refrain of “Boys Latin” that move smoothly over a Moog sub-bass synth. Another highlight is the stepwise vocal staggers of “Mr. Noah,” which incorporates wah bass, subtle piano flutters, and even sporadic dog barks to create a nuanced, but cleanly produced tune.
More than just the hooks, Grim Reaper’s compositions are built off simplistic pop chord progressions, but embellished with extensive production techniques and an array of influences with Peter Kember once again on board for production duties. The tremolo effect applied to the bright piano of “Crosswords” compliments the down-tuned vocoder that serves as the bassline. Both of these elements hang and pivot over hip hop percussion that would not find itself out of place on an Immortal Technique track. Revisiting “Selfish Gene,” the opening synthesizer chords come across as a punchier, noisier version to the opening of Miley Cyrus’ single, “Wrecking Ball” in a major key. Unlike Cyrus, Lennox chooses to add shekere and afuche percussion in addition to applying light reverb to his own singing.
As a vocalist, Noah Lennox represents one of the most consistent and technically proficient singers of the past fifteen years. In Animal Collective, while Avey Tare was taking risks belting out screams or jumping an octave and a half in a singular phrase, Panda Bear provided reliable harmonic support, as tracks like “Summertime Clothes” or “Grass” would not feel as anchored with Avey’s frenetic vocal acrobatics alone. Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper reinforces Lennox as a virtuosic soloist as well, with cuts such as “Mr. Noah” showing his wonderful ear for writing both melody and harmony, and songs like “Lonely Wanderer” demonstrating a pristine level of control over his range and a seamless ability to transition between full voice and falsetto.
Is Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper an early contender for an album of the year spot? Just starting February, it is far too early to say, but that does not detract from Grim Reaper being a solid release. Vocal virtuoso and Animal Collective founder Noah Lennox has a warped take on pop music, tinging it with psychedelic vibes and jolts of noise. Peter Kember aides in programming and production, as vocal effects, vintage synths, and sampled sounds are found in abundance. Despite questioning his own clock and staring at the Grim Reaper himself, Noah Lennox is a musician clearly full of life.
Jeffrey Holmes is a third-year student double majoring in English and philosophy. He can be reached JH791223@wcupa.edu.