We have reached a point where “these guys sound just like Animal Collective” has become the painstaking equal to “Webster’s dictionary defines such-and-such as.” Neither overwrought cliche is clever or insightful, yet some subjects — the opening line of any speech backed by a PowerPoint presentation, a ra-ra business meeting, or the resounding thud of Keepaway’s Black Flute — leave us so sapped of creative will that they are all we can muster.
To be fair, Black Flute isn’t just a generic facsimile of Sung Tongs-era Animal Collective. It borrows, shamelessly and to a startling fault, the atmospheric stylings of Nurses and hipness of Vampire Weekend as well, though at no point in the album’s frustrating duration does it come close to accurately recreating any of their best efforts. Of Keepaway’s myriad of hiccups, nothing keeps them anchored more than their inability to carve out any semblance of unique identity.
The Casio synthesizers of “Cake,” nasally and repetitive vocals of “Stunner,” and Nick Nauman’s emotionless, high-pitched delivery on “Vital” seem designed to be memorable high points but instead land as reminders of how many other bands have executed these exact same techniques so much more successfully. There’s certainly a saccharine quality to the construction of these songs, but even as catchy as a track like “Hologram” is, it is far more likely to inspire a spin of Feels than another go-round for Black Flute. Even when a hook does manage to latch on, it is more the result of being beaten into submission by familiarity and repetitiveness.
Muddling things further is the way in which the album’s lyrics regularly trip over their own cuteness, relegating the vocals to serving as an instrumental accompaniment on par with some of the random studio effects and blips. Even after many repeated — and forced — listens, it’s difficult to cozy up to anything emotionally. Nauman begins by stating that “everything tastes like lemons,” which is either a clumsy ode to “Everything In Its Right Place” or a silly-at-best emotional or pharmaceutical reference, and proceeds to migrate further and further away from tangible metaphors and imagery from there. “Royal Jelly,” when it isn’t randomly experimenting with electronic xylophones, waxes about elephants, and, well, whatever royal jelly is, while other songs awkwardly string together words and phrases seemingly at random as if they hold no meaning at all (the “can I make you find the milk on the tip of my tongue?” line on “Vital” jumps to mind). Animal Collective may have strangely-crafted lyrics, but they can at least be decoded and, at worst, wrangled into coherency. No amount of twisting and turning brings value to Keepaway’s words.
Black Flute is appalling in its ability to frustrate and confuse. In almost every tangible way, this album is an opportunistic lab experiment gone wrong, a record designed to leech off the success of other identical, but creatively superior, acts. It is your grocer’s cheaper, plainly packaged Froot Loops knock-off. The general lifelessness and the way in which every note, harmony, effect, and arrangement seems unabashedly borrowed renders no other logical explanation.