For some reason or another, I just couldn't get into Strawberry Jam the first several times that I listened to it. There were certainly tracks that stood out, but as a whole the album didn't grab me immediately as much as past releases like Sung Tongs and Feels. It's perhaps a bit odd that it took even more listens to really start to click with me, because Strawberry Jams is easily their most pop-oriented album to date. It's a direction that they've been moving in now for the past several releases, toning down their more overt blowouts and screams (although they're still here) while at the same time piling melodies, melodies, melodies everywhere.
Everyone in the group has been busy, and while Panda Bear released the flat-out stunning Person Pitch earlier this year, Avey Tare teamed up with his wife Kristin Anna Valtysdottir on the truly awful Pullhair Rubeye. The good news is that Tare is back and at 'em on Strawberry Jam, taking the lead vocals on just about every track and showing a range and dexterity that's pretty astounding at times. "Peacebone" kicks off the release with a blast of electronic squiggles but soon lurches into a stomp as Tare belts out some of the most sing-songy vocals from the group to date as everything from kettle drum samples to pitch-bent monster growls spill out from the corners. "Unsolved Mysteries" is downright pretty, with more sparkling electronic washes that are held in place slightly by cracking drums as Tare goes from warm baritone to high tenor and even adds some great falsetto harmonies. As usual, there are everything from cartoon sound effects to guitar feedback swirling in the mix.
"Fireworks" is another of the more measured songs on the album and it shows just how far the group has come as overlapping electronic loops, guitars, and drum fills all slide together into something that's constantly building, but never obvious. When you add in the great vocals from Tare (with lyrics that touch on a sort of appreciation of everyday beauty), it's obvious that this whole "freak folk" genre that people have tried to pigeonhole the group into still has plenty of room to expand. At seven minutes, the song doesn't feel a bit long, and pays off multiple times during its running length. At just under three minutes, "Winter Wonder Land" sounds sorta like a more dreamy "Grass" (from Feels.), and it's even punctuated with the same sorts of bursts, but even it pales in comparison to the dense "Cuckoo Cuckoo" which builds from soft, chamber music loops to a dense, powerful piece with massive drums and all kinds of insane layering.
All of the above said, Strawberry Jam stumbles a bit in a couple places. "#1" layers together cascading arpeggios and a bunch of pitch-bent vocals into a swirling mess that never really goes much of anywhere, while "For Reverend Green" works into a couple fine moments but simply runs far too long at nearly seven minutes. In listening to the release the past couple weeks, it doesn't seem quite as strong as Feels, but also seems like the group might be on the verge of something even better. Given that the group has been playing songs that are even newer than this album at shows recently, we might not have to wait long to find out.