As if he hadn't blessed us enough already with January's beautiful Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper LP, Noah Lennox is back again already with a sweet little surprise Panda Bear EP of additional material. First up is an alternative mix of one of that album's lightest and loveliest tracks, "Crosswords." Now deeper and dubbier than before, this version is even greater than the original. Listening to it is like bobbing up and down in a warm ocean while brightly-beaked puffins fly past carrying Groan Tube toys to build their noisy nest.
Last year, David Kinney released a book called The Dylanologists that chronicled obsessive fans of Bob Dylan and their myriad attempts at unlocking the mystic truth within their idol’s music. They would obsessively listen to albums, tape any and every show, converse endlessly, and even go through the man’s trash. The closest I’ve seen a fan base come to this sort of obsession is the acolytes worshipping Animal Collective.
Ever since his proper debut, 2004's mostly forgotten (but still quite good) Young Prayer, Noah Lennox's solo work has followed relatively narrow parameters. Where his first record was acoustic and much of it was recorded live in a room, his music since has mostly consisted of him singing over loops, constructing songs from other songs. The fact that the backing tracks mostly consist of processed samples gives Lennox a wide palette to work with, and he's able to keep his music varied by how he approaches texture and arrangement.
Swiftly following Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, Noah Lennox's most direct, straightforward collection of songs yet, the Crosswords EP continues in much the same direction, with his reverb-doused Mike Love-ly vocals pleasantly floating over bubbly, lightly funky electronic rhythms. The EP's title track is barely altered from its LP version, replacing some of the more growling synth textures with trippier ones. More exciting are the kicking beats and smeared, messy noises of "No Mans Land," as well as the lush, swooping synths of "Jabberwocky." Closing track "Cosplay" deviates from the rest of the songs, slowing the tempo down to a trudge and repeating the lyrics "marijuana makes my day" over slightly creepy whistling synth sounds.
Noah Lennox no doubt works tirelessly on his music, which has been refined into these busily layered soundscapes, the now-signature pop of Panda Bear in the PBVSGR era. That album has aged neutrally, and only a handful of its tracks (“Lonely Wanderer,” “Tropic Of Cancer”) capture the sort of sound-bending imagination of his past songwriting or the candid ugliness of his live performances. But I don’t want to exhaust my own criticism that these songs collectively amount to “an exhaustion of his sonic palette.
At this point, the number of songs surrounding Panda Bear’s most recent album, this year’s Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, is more than the album’s actual track list. Before the Animal Collective co-founder’s hypnotically crunchy fifth LP came out in January, the Mr Noah EP arrived in October (featuring a feral title track would eventually appear on Reaper); and the EP PBVSGR Remixes landed just as startlingly — and was just as much of a pleasant surprise — the following summer. Now, from the remix sessions comes the Crosswords EP, a motley collection of songs old (“The Preakness” can originally be found in the box set for Panda Bear’s 2011 LP, Tomboy), borrowed (“Crosswords” first appeared in a different mix on Reaper, while “Cosplay” appeared in very different form last year), and new (the other two, “Jabberwocky” and “No Mans Land” have never been heard before).
Like his other albums, Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper had a lot of big statements if you're willing to wrestle with it. Pinning it down is part of the appeal for fans, and it can feel like true immersion to venture into his soundscapes and puzzle out what he's saying about death. So where does that leave a surprise EP? Crosswords, as a collection of loose leaves, doesn't have the weight of Grim Reaper but that also means it doesn't have the pressure.