The MVPs of 2009 bookend the year with their best EP yet.
You would think delivering an instant classic like Merriweather Post Pavilion and touring the hell out of it would be achievement enough for one year, but Animal Collective can’t seem to sit still. These guys are hopelessly predisposed to productivity and action. Over the last decade, they have released eight albums, four EPs, and numerous solo projects, all while operating as a perpetual touring machine. Not to mention, all those releases represent one of the most awe-inspiring creative streaks of the ‘00s. Animal Collective’s latest release, Fall Be Kind, is a companion EP of leftover material from the Merriweather Post Pavilion sessions. However, nothing on Fall Be Kind sounds like b-side fodder, and one song, “What Would I Want? Sky”, is already canon bound.
Dave Portner (a.k.a. Avery Tare) preemptively described Fall Be Kind as having a “darker vibe” befitting the season, and that is partially true. Of the EP’s five tracks, the last three (“Bleed”, “On a Highway” and “I Think I Can”) reside in minor-key territory. The mood and texture of these tracks is the antithesis of Merriweather Post Pavilion. Still, the first two tracks, “Graze” and “What Would I Want? Sky”, share Merriweather’s aqueous ambiance and general sense of euphoria. Due to the band’s particular brand of alchemy, all five songs manage to form a cohesive whole that stands as Animal Collective’s strongest EP to date.
The ebullient opener “Graze” first appeared as the “Pan Flute Jam” on bootlegs from the Strawberry Jam tour. That place-holding title refers to the pan flute sample that loops through the song's second half -- a joyous culmination of the first half’s giddy build. Somehow, that frantic little flute never becomes cloying, and remains simply infectious. Much of the credit must be given to Geologist for dropping in that monolithic bass to provide ballast. By itself, any individual element of the song -- the loop, cymbal splash or beat -- would just sound awkward, but, when all those cogs are put in place and set into motion, minds get blown.
“What Would I Want? Sky” features the first officially licensed Grateful Dead sample: a two-second snippet from “Unbroken Chain”. Impressively, the song is hardly reliant upon the sample: its function is to serve the song, not provide the basis for one. “What Would I Want? Sky” is broken into two distinct halves -- the first a blissed-out intro full of DJ Shadow-esque drum breaks; the second eddying swirls of cumulus melody set to 7/8 time. Although this song was ostensibly composed by Portner, it might be the Animal Collective song most clearly indebted to Panda Bear’s Person Pitch. Throughout the song, Portner wonders aloud “what is the right way?” and pines “I should be floating but I'm weighted by thinking” -- unexpected sentiments from such a serene tune.
“Bleed” and “On a Highway” both illustrate Animal Collective’s ability to straddle the line between mood piece and genuine song. It’s a perilous balancing act that Animal Collective has mastered over the last decade. On “Bleed”, Noah Lennox’s (a.k.a. Panda Bear) vocals completely carry the ephemeral melody over washes of gauzy, electronic ambiance. The song finds him feeling alternately “hopeful” and “shameful” about various ambiguities. “On a Highway” works a similar formula, but with a greater song to mood piece ratio. The hazy travelogue of life on the road (from Portner’s perspective) reveals the band to be refreshingly normal dudes: “On a highway / The leaves are green forever / I let some hash relax me / Get lost in human pleasure” and later “I’m sick from too much reading / Jealous of Noah’s dreaming / Can’t help my brain from thinking.”
The EP closes with Lennox’s “I Think I Can”, a song pretty much without precedent in the band’s catalogue. It’s a nightmarish funhouse chockablock with jagged beats and martial percussion. I never expected Animal Collective to traverse into the Knife’s sound world, but I’m not surprised that it works. Over time, the band has proven themselves to be musical chameleons with few peers. While shadows lurch around him, Lennox admits to knowing “how too many tough times / Can ruin the day from good ways” before the song reaches its sanguine coda.
Throughout Fall Be Kind, Portner and Lennox are preoccupied with internal struggles. This prevailing theme of anxiety certainly marks the EP as “darker material” and it has been far more seasonally apt than, say, “Summertime Clothes”. Like the rest of the band’s catalogue, there is an underlying current of hope and an inextinguishable lust for life on Fall Be Kind. These things are not always explicitly expressed in the lyrics. They are often felt in a dramatic drum crash, in the way Portner and Lennox’s vocals support one another or even in particularly soothing wash of amniotic sounds. Fall Be Kind just so happens to end on a sonically and lyrically positive note: Lennox repeating the mantra “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can” as his voice ascends ever upward.