Looks that kill

Britney flubs, Animal Collective shines. Plus: Yo Majesty, Ad Hawk, Maserati, Bonfire Madigan, and more


SONIC REDUCER When does music news boil down to a form of disaster reporting? Behold the universal slagging that accompanied the tepid Sept. 9 Video Music Awards performance by a sluggish, underwear-clad Britney Spears, postpreggers bulgy and freshly toasted from a supposed turn at Burning Man (yet another sign of the event's apocalyptic death throes, scuttling my long-dreamed-of plans for a Playa Hater's Camp at Black Rock?). OK, Brit is a mess — the nonstop media slam dance is starting to nauseate me, despite Spears's unconvincing pleas to give her more.

But maybe in a microfragmented, nano-niched pop universe, we're all just looking for a few things to agree on, like: Rihanna embodies class (is it the Posh Spice asymmetrical bob?), Justin Timberlake looks good next to his Mickey Mouse Club ex and his Sept. 12 Shark Tank opener Good Charlotte, and Spears needs a handler she can trust so we can cease critically burning her. There is such a thing as too much freedom — as several Mötley Crüe-dites have proved of late. San Jose native Nikki Sixx's collection of '80s journal entries The Heroin Diaries — out Sept. 18 — shows that it's never too late to exploit one's excesses, while Bret Michaels from Poison's VH1 series Rock of Love takes The Bachelor's formula to a skanksome low, as his prospective mates — coldly self-promoting, sharky rock chicks all — manage to outshine the shameless star with their backbiting, bitchery, and oh so many looks that kill.

Yet it doesn't have to be this way. Witness, a galaxy away, the communal, mammalian planet Animal Collective. Much has been made in the past five years or so of the collectivist spirit infusing art groups like Hamburger Eyes, Royal Art Lodge, and Space 1026. Music collectives have been overshadowed, although San Francisco's Thread Productions collective seems to be finding its rhythm via Tartufi, Silian Rail, Low Red Land, Birds and Batteries, and Sky Pilots, and a few art ensembles like Forcefield persist via recordings.

Through it all, though, Animal Collective have continued to fly their fellow-feeling flag high, despite multiple solo outings, loudly thumping the drum for the notion of continual artistic exploration and Strawberry Jam (Domino), their latest, almost poppily upbeat album. All the members possess the freedom to leave anytime they want to — and to combust messily all over blogosphere gossip sites if they care to — but they choose to stay and play with their happily bent song structures.

Panda Bear, né Noah Lennox, has seen his share of success with this year's solo Person Pitch (Paw Tracks) and has had to struggle with the tug of his Lisbon, Portugal, home, where he's lived for more than three years with his wife and daughter, and touring with the loose collection of onetime Baltimore schoolmates now scattered between New York City and Washington, D.C. Stuck in traffic with Avey Tare (David Portner), Geologist (Brian Weitz), and Deakin (Josh Dibb) outside Toronto, where they have a show, the 29-year-old Lennox says earnestly, "I hope people show up. I get nervous about performing — it takes over from the worry about whether people are going to be there."

Strawberry Jam's title came to him during a dreamy airline encounter. "On the little tray of food was a packet of strawberry jam. I opened it up and looked at that stuff," he explains. "It was futuristic looking, gooey, but it also looked sharp in a way.

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