Album Review: Animal Collective – Fall Be Kind (Domino)

fall be kindHow can Animal Collective follow up on Merriweather Post Pavilion, and all the hype that came with it? Remember all of that? Everybody was gushing about how great it was going to be. The Web Sheriff roamed the internet and sent cease and desist orders to any blog that dare leak it, causing somebody to literally hack into Geologist’s e-mail account and write a fake e-mail saying the band wanted the whole thing out there so it could be properly heard as a full album. Eventually Grizzly Bear’s Ed Droste got caught in the Sheriff’s crosshairs when he posted “Brother Sport” on his band’s blog and got involved in a strange internet battle that ended with him issuing an apology letter.  MT-frickin’-V.com wrote an article (there wasn’t enough Miley Cyrus news that day?) about how the vinyl might land on Billboard’s Albums Chart (it didn’t).

Then it finally came out. The CD version did, however, make the Billboard Albums Chart, and the band got caught up in a whirlwind of buzz and media attention that vaulted it to being one of the most talked about acts in indie rock, opening them up to a whole new audience. Some declared it the best album of 2009 back in January, and ever since it has been dissected and rebuilt by fans, bloggers, and critics alike. A contingent of the band’s older fans, including our own Nolan Conaway, lamented that the album lacked the same elements that caused them to fall in love with the band in the first place (more on this later).

That about brings us up to speed, where we now receive Fall Be Kind, a five-song EP comprised mostly of Merriweather-era leftovers. EPs are usually pretty insignificant when considering a band’s entire body of work, but Animal Collective has spent their entire career putting out EPs that sonically differentiate from the albums that preceded them while still remaining equally as challenging. Fall Be Kind is perhaps their best. And unlike most EPs released by any artist, this seems to have a natural flow and cohesion that make it far more than just a collection of what was lying around from the studio sessions.

Although the method of using layers of samples, some vocal trickery, and more adherence to song structure was utilized to make both releases, Fall Be Kind does not come off as something you could shoehorn into the Merriweather track list. At points this feels darker, more melancholy, as was promised by Avey Tare in interviews. Instead of being an add-on to its predecessor, it serves as a character foil. Where Merriweather gave us songs on the joys of being in love, Fall Be Kind affirms the truism that absence makes the heart grow fonder.

“Graze” opens the EP, beginning with shimmering strings and some Avey verses about the sunny optimism of a lazy morning. Then Panda Bear’s verse kicks in: the previously upbeat sound is overtaken by the solemn notes of a cello,  and the way he inflects his lyrics sounds so… morose. In it, we find what appears to be a meditation on all of the chaos surrounding the events listed above:

“How does a band turn into such a thing?/ If I had a hand, what would you say about/What’s in my face that warrants all this sass?/And to have a band that cracks the point of fame/ Why does the band make me less settled in?/Rounding up my friends, we might not feel so bad/ Once in a while I’ll think of you to smile/ Some daydreams marked by many little strikes out.”

In spite of its darker tones, “Graze” ranks among the most beautiful moments the band has ever created. Those who have heard the song live in recent years know that a merry pan flute sample soon kicks in, taking the song in the direction of a soundtrack to a mystical children’s film– so much so that some enterprising YouTube user has already added it on top of an old Disney commercial hawking an Aristocats DVD. But this bubbly sample is  juxtaposed with lyrics about longing to be with a loved one who is away from life on the road.

This theme is touched upon again inWhat Would I Want? Sky,” a song built around a repeating, methodical drum and cymbal beat and a sliced up sample of a Grateful Dead lyric, that finds Avey with his head in the clouds. It builds on the BBC recording and live versions by adding more layers and new Panda vocals, taking an already rich, complex song to its full potential.

Starting with “Bleed,” which features an eerie strings beat that seesaws between two low, dour notes, the darker aspects of the album reach their zenith. Panda Bear and Avey trade off singing lines like “Heart pain/Hurtful” and “I’ve been/Shameful.” Though the track kind of feels like an incomplete sketch that could be fleshed out even further, it is brought to life by the contrast in vocals, which drives the song as much, if not more, than the backing track, and lends its almost a haunting feel.

“On a Highway” offers us the other side of the band’s rising profile over the past several years, featuring Avey painting a series of vignettes about the utter boredom and isolation that is the life of a touring musician. Each verse, laid over a dreary electronic beat, is transfixed on a nameless highway, as we see the scenes from the tour bus windows of other people who seem much more content to travel the same pavement-covered path. The mind continues to wander, until boredom once again sets in. But the one driving thought throughout the months traveling from town to town is the Odyssesus-like yearning to return home.

It isn’t until the very end of the final track (“I Think I Can”) that we get a return to the sense of optimism from the EP’s opening. Here, Panda assures himself that he can move on from a staid position and the frustrations of that feeling of being stuck.  Perhaps it is an allusion to a feeling Panda expressed about using samples in a recent interview: “I’m trying to ween myself off it, because I’ve done that process so much that to keep doing that would be lame for me.” And we get a taste of that here, as the track features a warbling keyboard backing track and driving drum parts reminiscent of songs on Feels or Strawberry Jam.

None of this is to say that Fall Be Kind is the polar opposite of Merriweather Post Pavilion. A lot of the pop sensibilities that made the latter such a fantastic album are employed on this EP to varying degrees. There are still some great hooks, incredible harmonies (God, do these two singers harmonize so well together) and lush samples and backing music from Geologist that give the songs incredible depth while keeping them accessible.

The review of Merriweather that ran on this blog built the analogy of the album being a lid on their “bottle of joy.” And it’s true that when there wasn’t a lid, there were some incredible results. But at times, the contents spilled out of control and created a rather nasty stain (See: most of Danse Manatee or “Visiting Friends”), which is another way of saying that structure and restraint aren’t a bad thing. I would submit to you that two other bands tapped their inner pop song writer to great effect with two of the year’s best albums, Veckatimest and Bitte Orca. The same formula has yielded two incredible works from Animal Collective.

Label: Domino

Release date: Nov 23 2009 (digital)/ Dec 15 2009 (CD/12″)

Track listing:

  1. Graze
  2. What Would I Want? Sky
  3. Bleed
  4. On a Highway
  5. I Think I Can

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