By Dear Reader
I'd warmed to "Idealistic Animals" before I heard a single note. I like animals. Not in the way that would force Republican candidates to cry "It's unnatural!" of course but in the "They're ace!" sense. So any artist that gives an animal moniker to their songs as well as traditional song titles is alright by me. My animal interest was sparked watching Attenborough and reading Aesop's Fables as a child. My childhood copy sits on the shelf to this day and still captures the imagination, partly because of Arthur Rackham's illustrations but more down to the stories themselves. Funny monkeys, creepy crabs, enormous whale appendages, anthropomorphized morality and life lessons aside; I wanted to know why Cheri MacNeal adopted animals here and to see what the concept added to the music. But before I get into the music I should add some context to the album.
Cheri MacNeal had a religious upbringing and into her adult life found herself questioning the values and world view she'd previously taken for granted. What a place to start a musical journey of self-discovery; the realisation there are forces in and out of your control, unavoidable risk and dangers, reasons to question what's going on around you and seeing there isn't necessarily an order to things or a great plan for us. Perhaps life is just about living? These are things that came to Cherie in her early twenties and catalysed an album that tells of building a new life; a life built from the fragments of what she had thought life was about. In her own words this realisation led to disorder, frustration and her "worst fear being that life is completely meaningless and I have absolutely no control or power". I expected the album to map out a spiritual journey and pre-supposed the animal song titles were a way for Cheri to deconstruct life and the world around her into simple terms. Was I on the right track?
The album opens impressively with the broodingly atmospheric starter "FOX (Take Your Chances)" with its warm bass, an apparent innocence in the vocals and lots of very cool electronic noises that offer a sonic welcome somewhere between folk balladry and space travel as it was imagined by young boys and tv producers in the 1950s. On first listen it probably works for me as one of the more memorable "Track 1's" I've heard for a while which raised my curiosity levels. Literally speaking the song is about taking your chances but the ingenuous nature of the vocals suggest that taking chances is something Cheri finds daunting. Despite life being "dull as sin" it struck me that she was actually afraid of seeing what life is about rather than excited by it, hence that brooding atmosphere. The frailty of the vocals and the attitude of the music make for an exciting combination and although there's an element of Animal Collective to the sound in here, it's outweighed by abundant strands of originality.
Rhythms arrive, running with raunchy guitars and a rumbling bass in "MONKEY (You can go home)" and the repetitive piano phrases and strings add depth and maturity to the sound. It reminded of Kate Bush's "Running up that Hill" at points but the familiarity meant I was immediately tuned in to the lyrics. The monkey in space thing always fascinates me and maybe seeing creatures (people) doing things she didn't know they did was the link to the "animal" here for Cheri. The increasingly familiar and diverse range of electro-acoustic and atmospherics fit perfectly with the melody but the highlight is the climax which drains itself of energy and ends on a brilliantly sudden and very effective high.
"MAN (Idealistic Animal)" has less hidden meaning than in other songs and perhaps points more clearly to the "struggle to survive" as the main theme of the album. There's something unsettling about the synths; think of the re-worked classical pieces by Walter (Wendy) Carlos from the Clockwork Orange soundtrack and you're almost there. Tortured fanfare would be a fair label without making it sound too defeatist and this is something "MAN..." has in common with the final minute or so of "FOX..."
"MOLE (Mole)" is a slow, deliberately plodding number and there's more than a subtle reference to missed opportunities and sheltered upbringing in the words. There's a definite feel of characterisation through the music which works better through this song than it does elsewhere but maybe it depends what you're listening out for. Cheri then taps into the character of her "animal" to great effect later in "WHALE" through both the lyrics and fitting instrumentation but that may be the fact that I really like whales and was thinking about them at the time! Elsewhere I got the image of Blackpool Circus elephants marching along the prom and heading into the sea for their morning wash, on "ELEPHANT (Hearter)" which I hope was down to the captivating drums making me think of parading elephants rather than me simply daydreaming again!
"EARTHWORM (All hail our ailing mother)" achieves a loyalty to traditional hippy vibes whilst still sounding modern and fresh. Rattling percussion bolsters a brilliant backing vocal arrangement and results in a rich cuddle of a song leaving you feeling all good about everything. But for cute factor look no further than "GIRAFFE (What's wrong with us)" where nursery rhymes, charming horns and cheeky whistles meet power and fanfare-like resolve in perfect balance. Again, listen out for some out-there noises in "Giraffe..." none of which seem out of place but again sound more like something from space than the savannah. For more glorious backing vocals there's "CAMEL (Not black not white but camel)" which is one of my favourite moments on the album and if you fancy a more roots-spirited sing-a-long then kick back and enjoy the last track, "KITE (Soon We'll Light Up)".
After several full listens, Cheri needn't worry that life can seem aimless and lacking in direction. If all anybody ever achieved was intelligent lyrics and entertainingly creative music that makes people smile - the world would be a happier place.