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Growing up in San Diego you hear kids toss around the name Rafter Roberts with a hushed kind of reverence. Little later those same kids get older and when the dude comes up in conversation, he’s just that–a dude, a bro, a likable, lovable, redheaded guy you’ll find dancing at the Whistle Stop with his lovely lady or just walkin’ around in the good clean morning sunlight, smiling and healthy and right with the world.
The reverence I felt as an impressionable San Diego kid was for the albums the man produced and engineered. Black Heart Procession, Tristeza, Rocket from the Crypt, all the big guns were there. Later, he helmed records for folks like the Shaky Hands, the Fiery Furnaces, and label-mates Castanets, Sufjan Stevens, and DM Stith. (His credits are far too lengthy to list here but, let it be said, the guy has worked his share of wonders.)
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Now, because he’s not the type of man to toss his merits in your face, it might take a while for an impressionable San Diego kid to learn that Rafter makes his own solo music. From my own experience it was years before I knew the guy’s personal stuff (aside from the excellent art-punk-pop duo Bunky.) For the vets and first-timers, then, welcome Animal Feelings, Rafter’s fourth LP for Asthmatic Kitty, and watch as it comes busting out of the gate like a dozen thundering palominos carved from gold, alabaster, and pure stoke.
Animal Feelings is a pop record and we can front how all we listen to is “nothing but, y’know, noise and improv stuff, man,” but let’s not delude ourselves here; good, respectable pop music is earthly magic. We can talk artsy and we can drop names but at the end of the night it’s not Merzbow or La Monte Young we’re shouting out into the darkness while we speed-peddle our bikes, leaning face-forward into the wind, smiling with our wine buzz. It’s POP. Like a trusted friend, a good pop song will stick with you all your life.
Animal Feelings is 11 pieces of R&B/pop fantastic. The record begins with “No F**king Around” and Rafter talk-boxing the title line of the song. Set to a grooving, silky, R&B stomp straight out of Rihanna or D’angelo, Rafter sings “For all of your boldness/for all your coldness/for all of the things that you triiiiied but never showed anyone.” The chorus is, of course, the title, with regular-Rafter and talkbox-Rafter dueting over sweaty, arena-ready sex-beats. (And the title of the song is a maxim here; where previous Rafter releases trafficked in feedback and noise-informed experimentation, this one struts cleanly from one balls-out jam to the next, speakers blowing, bodies moving, club lights flashing.)
The second track is “A Frame,” a big, hulking electro stomp with regular drummer Andy Robillard (Gogogo Airheart, Enon, Album Leaf) holding it down. “Timeless Form, Formless Time” is an ode to taking your best girl out on the dancefloor. Up next is the hand-clap beauty “Fruit,” the album’s first single. Says Rafter, who recently married his sweetheart, photographer Lizeth Santos, the song is about their courtship. “Fruit” is pop songwriting at its best; economical, free of clutter, and fortified with lyrics that say something real.
The title of the next song, “Feels Good,” could be another maxim for Animal Feelings. The four minute track is a slow, sexy, near-falsetto jam anchored by a nice minimalist Jackson 5 bassline. “Animal Feelings,” the romping, hard-charging title track is up next. If this song were an animal it would be a rhinoceros, focused, single-minded, and forward-moving. But the DNA would be skewed and dosed to reflect the swinging grace and joy of a tree full of happy, chittering, crap-throwing apes. As the song hits its breakdown, Rafter veers into Dan Deacon singalong territory, and it’s a house-party right up to the end. (A party that is, forever, all-inclusive. Scene hero that he is, Rafter’s one of the most non-elitist guys you’ll ever meet.)
“Paper” is up next, another FM-ready pop gem playfully sabotaged by Rafter’s foul mouth. “Never Gonna Die” is a clicky, tropical, rainbow-spectrum jam with some of Rafter’s best lyrics on the record. It’s a Clash-flavored pep talk and an acceptance of death, a celebration of the love you can find before the big black comes down and knocks over your sandcastle for good.
As Animal Feelings runs its course, the simple, mantric interlude “Only You” starts with a wash of subdued noise, echoing the sentiment of the opening track, before the rude, brash “Love Makes You Happy” growls into the forefront with Rafter delineating a list of heinous shit that might ruin your day if being in love didn’t overshadow it all. As a lyrical statement, it’s an umbrella in a downpour. But there are holes in the canopy. Small ones. (Rafter’s too smart to deal in black and white truths; there are no definites on the path of the fateless.)
Animal Feelings ends with the buoyant, spirited, shaker-heavy “Beauty, Beauty” and its look at the various slings and arrows that keep us from finding solace and direction. Like the rest of the record, it’s a dancefloor smasher full of questions–and that’s what makes Animal Feelings so good. It’s the juxtaposition of great sex and wild introspection, of worrying about your life but knowing that, beyond all else, what you must do is stop bitching, grab somebody pretty, and dance until you feel right again, until you find your place in the world (or at least accept the violence of it.) There are no hard answers here because there are no hard answers. Animal Feelings is about livin’ it out and looking for love while your days move forward; because your days will move forward and they’ll move forward fast. It’s how you fill up the in-between time that counts. –Adam Gnade