Prints’ Kenseth Thibideau and Zac Nelson make the kind of homespun psychedelia that invites obvious comparison with Animal Collective. Multi-instrumentalists, the ubiquitous falsetto, layer on layer of backing vocals, a penchant for banjos: the similarities can of course be drawn. Yet despite this, Prints manage to creep out from under the Collective’s despotic blanket and carve themselves a unique sonic niche. This is thanks largely to a beguiling throwback road-movie-rock groove that infuses much of the music here. Second track “Too Much Water” for instance, rocks a particularly Lynyrd Skynyrd roadworthiness with its steady two-beat and insistent eighth-note guitar thrum. The lyric “Too much water” perhaps expresses a yearning for the dusty desert highway, the reassuring solidity of asphalt under rubber, as opposed to the slippery disingenuousness of water. Yet the highway feel never overwhelms, remains a reference, not a paradigm. Thankfully, Prints do not simply settle uninterestingly into the mold; the soaring chorus on this song showcases a real melodic inventiveness that lies outside of the road-rock genre.
There is also a funkier element on this record that distinguishes it from its campfire bedfellows. If you didn’t know better, you could be forgiven for thinking you were listening to an Isaac Hayes tune as the opening bars of “Blue Jay” unfold. A crisp funk bass lick, Harvey Mason drums and lush strings invoke the spectre of the much-loved larger-than-life loverman, though here they underlie whimsical vocalizing as opposed to grave declarations of horniness. The following track, “I Wanna Know” continues to mine the funk seam, this time with a rawer, bluesier tack, possibly intended as a nod to Led Zep at their heaviest, though Prints sound a little too restrained to reach that band’s level of raucous exuberance. It is also this song that sees Prints at their most Animal Collective-esque – a passage of darting nimble vocal harmonies, though well-executed, sounds a bit too similar for comfort.
For me, it is the most traditional track that is the real stand-out. “All We Knead” finds Prints at the beach, waves rolling in the distance. A spangled acoustic guitar weaves some tantric riffing, Zac (sounding a bit like Jimmy Page) wails some tuneful elemental gibberish over the top and an assured floor-tom enforces the pulse and the primitivism. This develops into a hypnotic down-tempo groove with vocals chanting “All We Knead”, mantra-like, over and over, til guest flautist Mark Lacsamana’s beautiful flute appears, playing a snaky bewitching riff harmonized in tri-tones, an intoxicating piece of wind-sorcery. On this track the mysticism works, on its successor, final track “End”, it is not quite so successful, at least not at first; the opening bars, with their phased synth-pad and pseudo-ethnic howling recall the least tasteful end of the New Age canon. However, it does settle down into some fairly attractive electro in the last few minutes, all the more appealing for its variance with the rest of the album’s general texture, percussive rave-synths and a drum machine bringing the album to a most un-campfire close.
Prints is a charming piece of work, but for all its charms, it feels a little inconsequential. There are some great moments, the fuzzed-up Rhodes on album-opened “Easy Magic”, for example, or Mark Lacsamana’s flauting. But the music on the whole sounds a little too intuitive and unreflective. On “Easy Magic”, Zac inquires: “If its easy, is it magic?”, a question which one feels may be leveled at the duo’s method of music-making. Evidently, Prints are a couple of very talented musicians, at ease spanning the genres, with a gift for melodic writing and a solid understanding of harmony. But it feels as though they are all too happy simply to follow their instincts, settling into making the music that comes most comfortably to them. This reluctance to step outside of their intuitions is what leads to the unforgivably dull clunkenfunk of “Pretty Tick” and the thoroughly pedestrian cod-mysticism of “Meditation”. For Prints to really take themselves somewhere exciting musically, they need to follow that line of questioning which they themselves unwittingly opened up: “If its easy, is it magic?”