Sungenre Album of the Month – April 2019
Cows on Hourglass Pond is the third solo album from Avey Tare (David Portner), of Animal Collective fame. Portner delivers a real treat for fans of his brand of indie/electric/alternative psychedelic rock with a collection of ten songs which were committed straight to tape. With effective smatterings of the avant-garde, the record shines most brightly in its evocative reflections on the past, which prove almost meditative.
The opening track of makes quite an impression. “What’s The Good Side?” is slow-starting with a primal beat and a looped vocal soundbite of much static. In a deft touch, there is a cowbell voice worked into the instrumental – a voice that does consistently occur on the record, and which lends itself perfectly to nature of the piece. Also consistent throughout the album is Portner’s swampy vocal treatment, present in this track, which is quite reminiscent of the heavily flanged treatment of George Harrison’s vocals in The Beatles’ 1967 trip, “Blue Jay Way”, off Magical Mystery Tour. A remarkable aspect of the development of the track is its effervescent trajectory; the song is lyrically centered upon a bubble – a bubble analogous to Portner’s first person speaker, particularly in its conception, nourishment, and expansion. “What’s the good side?” he asks, looking into the experience to place a finger on the source of satisfaction, and passionately inquiring “are you catching all your sunset, trying to run your all, living in the moment, or trending with the dolls?” The acoustic guitar that breaks open and brightens the song is a masterful, sublime artistic choice.
“Eyes on Eyes” is next, which has a similar swampy feel. The percussive elements are probably the most interesting part of the song’s introduction, as they carry a rudimentary sound. Every sonic aspect of the song is heavily affected by reverb to a disorienting effect; to the forefront of this gesture is the wavy guitar tone (achieved by high frequency phasing) comparable to those of Tame Impala’s Lonerism (2012) deep cut “Sun’s Coming Up”. It’s the kind of foot-stomping tune that begs one to dance to – probably around a bonfire. Briefer and toned down but still carrying the tune, as it were, “Eyes on Eyes” follows up “What’s The Good Side?” nicely.
Nostalgia has a lot to do with the gesture of the record, and the theme is named in the title of track three. “Nostalgia In Lemonade” has Portner reflecting on past amorous exploits, vividly recollecting the scenes with acuity. The instrumentation throbs, pushing the song forward in heartbeat-like pulses, giving the song a distinct intensity. As the song drives forward in such a manner, the lyrics bring the listener to the dramatic refrain: “my only lemonade”, delivered in exclamatory fashion.
“Saturdays (Again)” steadily rolls along almost like a locomotive by the momentum of a classic Avey Tare beat with rustic, folksy chords on an acoustic guitar, a lazy picked electric guitar and what might even be an upright bass. Once again reminiscing, Portner here explores the topic of Saturdays. The track is then followed by the slow, stormy instrumental interlude “Chilly Blue”.
“K.C. Yours” joins “What’s The Good Side?” as being the only two songs over six minutes on the album, and it definitely requires all the time to develop. It is a looping riddle of a narrative that seems to intentionally challenge the listener to keep up. Portner ramps up the intensity with coarse cries of “K.C! K.C.!” – beyond the shadow of a doubt, this is a uniquely Avey Tare song.
“Our Little Chapter” focuses on friendship. Portner discloses the moment of recollection; “and then you call me friend, and we meet again, and I began to think about life without you and me, our little chapter”. The take is bittersweet, of course, but the sense of gratitude outweighs the dark curiosity. Even when regarding such simple subjects as this one – even exploring elements of the naïve – Portner’s offering is anything but jejune.
“Taken Boy” is structured around an active and soft-edged keyboard riff. The lyrical matter detaches him from the conventional world, indicating in an otherwise opaque way that Portner has been borne away by some force – borne away by a “taking world” that has him questioning whether “reality will stay a mystery”. But still he acknowledges, “it’s taken all my aching boy’ and is his “dream of choice”. Downers are mentioned, and imply his usage as being the primary occasion of the meditation, but the gendered personification of the “taken girl” may suggest other viable interpretations. Portner has delivered some exquisite songwriting here.
While the record has a boggy aesthetic and sound, “Remember Mayan” is a touch sunnier. It is a mythical tribute, at least at face value, to the Mayan empire. Even as the song seems at first glance to be intended so, on the heels of “Taken Boy” the listener should be careful not to immediately conclude with this exclusive interpretation.
The tenth and final track of Cows on Hourglass Pond is “HORS_”, which serves as a fine summary track for the record. Its instrumental voices of the wild and primal (most concentrated in the percussion and synths), working hand-in-hand with ambient sounds and comely acoustic guitar chords, are almost like a wilderness easement. The record steadily draws to a close, and the listener feels like they have completed a sojourn through a diverse musical terrain.
Cows on Hourglass Pond explores a dramatic and theatric space between the familiar elements of what is soothing and inviting, and what is primitive, wild, and unpredictable. The listener feels this double-sided sensation of being both subdued by chill, relaxing sonic vibes while also perplexed and even uneasy by the strange and experimental harshness it carries. Thematically, there is something for anyone who listens; Portner’s lucid recollections of various past scenes and brushstrokes of artistic allusion evoke genuine catharsis. It is just that element of the album that makes the record so worthwhile and, in places, so masterful.