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The sweet side of wild animals

Animal Collective hand picks a fine selection of berries for its ‘Strawberry Jam.’

Recorded in Tucson, Ariz., the nine carefully selected songs on Animal Collective’s “Strawberry Jam” (many of which were performed in one embodiment or another during their 2005 and 2006 tours) seem to have absorbed the sprawling, beastly desert heat they were incubating in. The winds of weird, icy ambience still whistle slightly through them, but the overall result is like a cluster of melted crayons capable of being heard – fluid, vibrant, multi-hued – and they are some of the foursome’s heartiest offerings yet.

“Strawberry Jam” (their seventh studio disc if you don’t count live cuts) certainly has more traditional pop arrangements than the rest of Animal Collective’s catalog combined, but it’s impossible to ignore this new infectiousness (or to point sticky fingers toward the band’s heightened exposure or label shift, because that’s pretty unfair and way too easy). In fact, there’s still plenty of madcap experimentation and just-barely structured erraticism for the serving.

The album seizes quickly with opener and first single “Peacebone,” an instantaneous indication of the joyously eccentric sideshow songs soon to follow. While fur-covered feedback growls alongside spacey keyboard riffs and a jangling steel drum beat, you feel compelled to leap up and seize the day, a warm-weather reaction more than welcome as September starts to creep in.

“Chores” sounds like the end of an equation involving the Beach Boys and psychedelic intoxicants, a manic carnival swirl of sound effects and synth bleeps that loops and loops and leaves you exhausted but ready for more. Then comes the dazzling “Fireworks” with its wild-wolf chorus of “whoo-ooos” between singer Panda Bear’s request to “meet me after the whirlwind,” and you’re stuffed full with “Jam” and damn near short of breath – in the best way possible. “Cuckoo Cuckoo” lets you briefly come down for air with its woozy piano ballad beginnings, and then in a flourish of start-stop guitar fuzz, it lifts you up again into the cloudy terrains. Whew.

While the overall storylines of “Strawberry Jam” remain appropriately jumbled to suit the zoo of manic music, the album’s less-cryptic lyrics are easier to digest than previous Animal Collective chants and chirps. Playing off the toast-craving title, much of their narrative remains focused on food throughout (broccoli, cereal and Ö mildewed rice?) alongside the act of dining with one’s beloved (“the taste of your cooking could make me bow on the ground”), filtered through those gurgling golden throats.

The biggest difference here can be found in the dynamics, in more defined vocals, tighter instrumentation and grander conclusions. If the stranger, older Animal Collective is preferred, the shine of “Strawberry Jam” might be a little hard to stomach, but give this more mind-expanding, less head-scratching record a few more listens, and you’ll find yourself lost in its lively layers.

2005’s excellent “Feels” and the subsequent branching out of Panda Bear’s solo work seemed like tough acts to follow, but Animal Collective has managed to improve and expand on a sure thing. You can’t ever really tell what’s next (and that’s half the appeal), but you can at least count on their jovial sounds and stone-cold song-crafting to slap together another chiseled, dizzyingly beautiful album as easy as if it were your standard strawberry jam-filled sandwich.

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