It's been four years since Noah "Panda Bear" Lennox released Person Pitch, but the unusually instantaneous influence its sound had on the rest of the underground never really gave us a chance to miss it. That record's tonal color was swimming-pool blue as seen from the bottom, or perhaps dust-swirl animated by pure sunlight. Lennox's vocals were so enveloping in their faraway prettiness that critics grasped for Brian Wilson comparisons, even though dads in car-stereo earshot were moved to ask: "Are you into religious cult music now?" (true story). The uniform mood it set was transporting enough that its relative slightness was overlooked, a pass not given to most Panda Bear imitators—chillwavers who everyone pretty much just got annoyed with. Tomboy, the Animal Collective member's long-gestating, oft-delayed solo return, is admirable for its attempts to avoid copying the winning formula. It's also enough of a letdown to wonder if maybe that was just an unrepeatable lightning strike in the first place. Tomboy is just flat-out not as pretty as its predecessor, in which overwhelming prettiness was the chief recommending aspect.
The places where the album works are those with the greatest emphasis on prominent rhythm. The limping thump of "Slow Motion" provides solid ground for which to bounce echoed vocals off. The treated guitar and beats of "Last Night at the Jetty" are pure rhythmic churn, crucial ballast for the record's most lovably sleepy melody. "Alsatian Darn" begins with a Serge Gainsbourg, anxious-in-Paris feeling, commendably tense for an artist who's regular M.O. is anything but. "Afterburner" is alertly active, even with a half-formed vocal. But there are more songs that don't quite amount to anything. Purposely underdeveloped sketches like the aptly named "Drone" and the bad-mood piece "Scheherezade" are overlong exercises in nothing much. It's a real problem that the vocal melodies aren't as strong as Person Pitch's, because the music is so muddy and the songwriting so persistently hookless. If, God forbid, Lennox's reverbed to eternity vocals aren't someone's cup of tea, the fuzzy synths of the title track won't provide a distinct point of interest. The sentiments expressed can't compensate either, and most are bent and elongated to abstraction anyway. True, Animal Collective has always walked a lyrical fine line between banality and sublimity. Would-be Zen koans like "Though waves come crashing, a good board can steady" on "Surfer's Hymn" are the kind of corny usually reserved for old hippies or kids' movies.