Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Animal Collective- Fall Be Kind (2009)

Animal Collective- Fall Be Kind (2009)

I think I can speak for Mike here also when I say reviewing Animal Collective is tough. Of course, reviewing a favorite band or album is always a difficult task. I always find myself rewriting sentences, attempting to make them more elaborate or grandiose to mirror the way I feel about the piece of music I’m reviewing. But, I feel that it is this certain intangibility and incomprehensibility that makes these albums such masterpieces.

My relationship with Animal Collective is a particularly strenuous one. My freshmen year of college, I became more or less obsessed with 2007’s Strawberry Jam, in my opinion, the band’s crowning achievement and one of my favorite albums of all time. From there, I explored the band’s prolific back catalogue and found myself being blown away with every new song/album I listened to. My familiarization with the band was a fast paced, high intensity one and within months (weeks?), I was listing them as one of my favorite bands. For me, the band opened hundreds of musical doorways through their delicate combination of twisted folk and psychedelic pop, constantly flirting with the line between abstract and concrete, melody and cacophony, sane and insane. On Feels and Strawberry Jam, the band had seemed to find the balance that they had been searching for on their early releases. Although they represented valiant forays into the gray area between drone, folk, noise and pop, album’s like Danse Manatee and Here Comes The Indian often got lost in their indulgence in abrasive noise or endless loops. But in present day, the band seems to have succeeded in converting their love for sampling, loops and strange psychedelia into a digestible, compelling brand of alternative pop.

That being said, the band’s 2009 effort Merriweather Post Pavilion was simultaneously a huge success and minor disappointment for me. When compared to Strawberry Jam, Merriweather Post Pavilion wholeheartedly succeeds in creating a distinct flow and concise sound. Whereas Strawberry Jam jumped seemingly from genre to genre, with songs like the sunny “Derek” and the terrifying, droning “For Reverend Green,” Merriweather Post Pavilion experiments within a distinct bass-heavy, bubbly tropical pop not much different than the aforementioned “Derek.” The result is a smooth, easy to listen to album that is both engaging and soothing. “My Girls” is undoubtedly the group’s crowning achievement. “My Girls” is by far the band’s 'best' track, simply because it succeeds at doing what all the other tracks are attempting to do in the best and most catchy way, that is, utilization of loops, heavy percussion and bass, and melodic, catchy vocals. It is undoubtedly the quintessential Animal Collective track, the perfect execution of the concepts and ideas they have been building their music around for a decade now.

Strawberry Jam showcased Avey’s vocals, with him handling primary vocal duties on almost every track. Merriweather Post Pavilion was a beautiful display of what Panda Bear and Avey could achieve when they combined their contrasting voices. I feel like these are the things most commonly cited in the glowing reviews that the album has received. However, though admittedly I was enchanted with the album when it was first released, its appeal has worn off thoroughly. Celebrated for its cohesive flow, I think that the attempt to stick within a more specific genre/niche leaves the album feeling tedious, particularly once you get past its spectacular and superior first half. Strawberry Jam is such an exciting, adrenaline packed album that keeps you guessing what will come next. It establishes a clear flow, direction and sound while varying within that theme. Avey’s lyrics are finally up front where they deserve to be, considering some of the brilliantly vivid pictures he paints in songs like “Fireworks” and “Peacebone.” His delivery ranges from schizophrenic ranting to hair-raising screams. On their new LP, much of this is sacrificed for a much more traditional singing style, mirroring Panda Bear’s hazy moans and syllabic repetition.

Perhaps its all just personal preference, but I can’t help but stick by my feeling that Strawberry Jam is the best executed and most dynamic of the band’s albums. Merriweather Post Pavilion is ambitious but there’s a sense of claustrophobia, that perhaps the band is backing into a corner as they self-indulge in their newfound sense of direction and success. And for a band that I fell in love with because of their bold genre experimentation and ability to continually reinvent and push the boundaries, this simply can’t be a good thing. There was a point to that lengthy introduction though. You wanted to know about Animal Collective’s new EP Fall Be Kind, which is available today on iTunes and physically on December 15th.

The album begins on a quirky note, with the formidable track “Graze.” After Avey and Panda Bear’s echoing vocals swim their way through warm piano lines reminiscent of Feels, the song moves into its second movement, certainly one of the album’s most interesting moments. A magical pan flute lines unfolds and is soon joined by Geologists thunderous blasts of bass and some nice harmony work between the two vocalists. I still really haven’t made up my mind about the pan flute bit; I enjoy the ambition of the group but it does come of sounding a little gimmicky. The strong vocal work and catchy percussion save the track though. Following “Graze” is “What Would I Want? Sky,” the album’s far and away best track. After a fast paced first movement of vocal loops and heavy percussion, the song moves into its second part, a delightful, poppy jam based around a clever sample of the Grateful Dead (the first ever licensed). Again, as much as I dig the strange time signatures and the band’s ability to craft an infectious beat out of the sample, Avey’s vocal melodies are pretty stale, at some points flirting with a corny semi-rap delivery, the melodies something that wouldn’t be out of place on the radio. But again, despite its shortcomings, the song is engaging and finds success in the same way “My Girls” does, juxtaposing poppy vocal work with dancey loops and percussion.

The last three songs are equally confusing paradoxes where despite some small saving grace, they feel weak, flat and only half thought out. “Bleed” finds merit in its similarities to Panda Bear’s barely heard yet awesome b-side “Bonfire Of The Vanities,” with its psychedelic vocal overlaps and call and response theme. However, the song’s basis around two dark organ chords seem a bit simplistic, even for Panda Bear who excels at combining minimalism with delicate layering. While cool sounding, the song never evolves or goes anywhere, especially when compared to its predecessors “Graze” and “What Would I Want? Sky.” “On A Highway” is one of my least favorite compositions the band has ever done. Avey sputters and whines over 4 and a half minutes of echoing chords. “I Think I Can” manages to end the album on somewhat of a good note. Panda Bear’s repetition of words and fast-paced but poppy vocal lines succeed in engaging the listener, though unlike “Bleed” which never develops, “I Think I Can” accomplishes in 7 minutes what could have easily be done in 4 or 5.

So looking at the album as a whole, what can I surmise? At times, it seems as if the band is becoming a parody of themselves. The compositions just don’t seem as strongly written. Part of me tends to connect this with a trend that I see with almost all of Animal Collective’s EPs. Water Curses, while featuring some novel ideas and memorable moments, ultimately felt like leftovers. Tracks like “Bleed” and “On A Highway” definitely have a similar feel; an idea is presented but never really expanded upon. “Graze” and “What Would I Want? Sky,” whilst being examples of the band’s incredible knack for crafting psychedelic pop and neat transitions, simply feel like they are employing the same old tricks they used on Merriweather Post Pavilion. I simply don’t see any progressive movement here. And that worries me.

The EP feels confused at best, contrived at worst. Perhaps I am being too critical of the band, but the songs do not strike me even in the way that “Summertime Clothes” still does. Besides, when I love a band this much and have such a deep respect for their decade-long back catalogue of genre-bending masterpieces, isn’t it fair to be more critical? Fall Be Kind feels as stagnant and out of focus as its murky, brown cover art. I’m interested to see where the band heads next.

Click on the album artwork to sample Fall Be Kind but make sure to buy it on iTunes or when it comes out next month! Also, stay tuned for Mike's view on the album.