In Brief: I missed out last fall, but this wonderfully weird EP has certainly made my spring a lot kinder.
I checked out Animal Collective on a total whim last year. I’d heard of them before, and was almost certain their experimental brand of electronic music would be too difficult for my ears to handle, but based on their output on 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion, that assumption was clearly wrong. The Collective served up a good musical meal on that album – maybe there occasional spots that were a little too tough for me to chew, or flavors that were a bit too overpowering, but that album slowly become one of my favorites of the year – not a Top 10 contender, but certainly an honorable mention. Having heard that MPP was a bit of a pop-oriented departure for the band, I wondered if my favorite songs on that disc were the exception to the rule. So I wasn’t sure if I was invested enough in this band to check out anything other than a major album release. EPs are generally departures, right? I wasn’t sure I was up for that level of experimentation, given some of the oddball tracks that sort of tested my patience on the one album I’d heard.
One small taste of the Fall Be Kind EP, which was released later in the same year that MPP dropped, was enough to change my mind. Sure, I was a slacker and didn’t get around to giving the full EP a listen until the spring of 2010, but then I’m not one of those critics who obsesses over being the first one to the party. For whatever reason, the 5 songs that comprise Fall Be Kind were either deemed to not fit into MPP’s song cycle, or not written/recorded in time to make the cut. I’m not sure which. But you could have stitched these songs into that album’s track listing, and aside from it making the album unusually long, I probably wouldn’t have noticed. Sure, it’s experimental, at times even completely changing up moods in the middle of a composition. It’s a bit more sprawling. But check out “In the Flowers” and “Daily Routine”, long-ish tracks from MPP that go from sparse to intense and hectic to dreamy, respectively. This isn’t an unprecedented move. Fall Be Kind‘s short list of 5 tracks is a fine enough dessert after that solid meal. It’s satisfying enough to be enjoyed as a listening experience in its own right, and I’ve indulged enough recently that I sometimes have to remind myself about the album preceding it.
With one lone exception, the compositions on Fall Be Kind are longer and generally spacier than the beat-driven material on MPP. They can still work themselves up into a rhythmic frenzy when they want to, but it’s not a non-stop dance party. There won’t be another “My Girls” coming from this little disc, but there might be another “Lion in a Coma” (which was actually my favorite track on the album). The album’s also noticeable for some left-field samples of other recordings that work surprisingly well within the context. It can take a few listens to get the hang of it all, but aside from one track right in the middle that’s a bit of a downer, I’m quite tickled with the results. Avey Tare‘s innate weirdness and Panda Bear‘s keen sense of melody have teamed up once again to deliver some of those most bizarrely addictive soundscapes that you’ll ever blog to. (Or perhaps do less innocent activities that I can’t specifically condone. You know who you are.)
The opens with almost pure ambiance – a pleasant sonic wash of electronic sunshine and slightly out-of-focus vocals herald the arrival of a new day full of joyous music and innovative ideas. If you know past Animal Collective songs like “My Girls”, then your sixth sense will tell you to expect all of this to coalesce into something very danceable at a critical, climactic moment. And you’d be right, though it’s about 3 minutes into a 5-and-a-half minute songs before this actually happens. At this point, the mood shifts completely, with the drums lightly dancing about and synthesizers dancing as the lively melody of a pan flute, of all things, sets a tone so happy that even a bunch of Care Bears celebrating Cinco de Mayo would be jealous. Turns out they sampled Zamfir, of all people. Yeah, frigging Zamfir. The last time I heard his name, it was used as a punchline only because making fun of Yanni was starting to get old. Maybe he’s actually pretty cool, for all I know, but either way, Animal Collective sure makes joyous use of this recycled performance. It’s one of those moments of mad genius that sounds like nothing else I’ve ever heard.
2. What Would I Want? Sky
The intro here is more ominous than moody, leading to a pretty cool mixture of breakbeats and sampled vocals cascading down the scales, all in 7/8 time as if this were the most logical and natural rhythm in which to play a song. Animal Collective can do off-kilter rhythms in their sleep without sacrificing the groove or making it sound forced in any way, so this is delightful to my ears. The first few minutes of this song loop around, simply meditating on the words “good deeds” for a while, then about halfway through, there’s another shift in mood when the beat turns into more of an easy-going, clap-your-hands sort of thing (still with the weird time signature!), with a vocal sample from the Grateful Dead looping in the background. This is apparently the first authorized use of a sample of the Dead’s music, and I had to go back and look up the original song (“Unbroken Chain”) just for context. That one looping line sounds totally different out of context, but as the backbone for this euphoric, transcendental song, it works perfectly, in its own futuristic, psychedelic way. I said when reviewing Merriweather Post Pavilion that Animal Collective tends to swing back and forth between beautifully repetitive and annoyingly repetitive… but there’s nothing annoying about the whirlpool of beautiful sound they’ve concocted here.
Oh wait, here’s the annoying part! This one’s a real downer, from the pitch-shifted spoken words at the beginning (which sound an awful lot like some shadowy figure being interviewed on an episode of America’s Most Wanted or something) to the fuzz-washed vocals, which find Avey and Panda trading off lines, which are basically a minimalistic reflection on feeling a lot of hurt and shame. The vocal ping-pong brings “My Girls” to mind again, since that song played with the two of them going back and forth before it “kicked in”, but this one never lifts itself out of the muck. While the vocals are interestingly layered, the song ultimately goes nowhere, feeling like three and a half minutes’ worth of an interlude. And 5-song EPs are no place for wasting time on interludes.
4. On a Highway
This one fares much better, as slow, ambient pieces go. Electronic pulses whiz by, seemingly in 6/8 time, as if to imitate the whooshing of cars passing one another on a road. As you might expect, this is a song about travel, particularly the long, straight flat variety where a passenger finds himself staring out the window, finding entertainment in the little slices of ordinary rural life he notices along the way. I’ve been on enough road trips, so I can relate to the need for the mind to amuse itself on such a dull stretch of road. Avey’s interpretation is actually pretty dreamy, though he indicates that he’s “Jealous of Noah’s dreaming” (that’s Panda Bear’s real name), as if to say their minds approach the world in different ways. Because it wouldn’t be a good Animal Collective song without a beat, there’s hand percussion and the clackety-clack of what sounds like wooden sticks, insisting on 4/4 even though the synthesized rhythm already established still bucks the trend. I like it. It gives the song a feeling of things being out of sync and yet meeting up and working in tandem on occasion. I could do without references to using hash and passing by “some workers p!ssing”, but those are minor nitpicks.
5. I Think I Can
The Collective saves the best for last in this final space odyssey of a song, generously stretching out to seven minutes with its odd-angled rhythm and its handclaps conspiring to make sure you get lost trying to figure out the pattern, with the drums chiming in every now and then to accentuate the dramatic stomps that coincide with the stuttering vocals. Despite the bumpy ride, it’s actually quite a smooth and slick song – the melody and rhythm might be totally oddball, and yet it’s relaxing and exciting all the same. The lyrics are simply about not wanting to ruin a good mood, and while they’re basic, the genius of the song is in the way they’re looped and layered. These guys really know how to make the best of two voices that, left out in the open with no accompaniment, could well be acquired tastes. As with the two songs that opened the EP, there’s a noticeable mood shift anyway through, but this time it’s a shift down rather than a shift up, as the stomping and clapping falls away and we float farther out into the cosmic ether. “Will I get to move on soon?” Panda Bear repeats again, which is followed by the refrain, “I think I can I think I can I think I.” It sounds goofy, but there’s something fun about the way that rolls off the tongue. For being so abstract and obscure, these guys have quite a gift for putting me in a good mood. Is that the sound of birds chirping as the song fades out, or am I imagining things? Animal Collective’s music is a rather appropriate soundtrack for imagining things, I guess.
It’s a good sign when an EP runs out and I wish there could be a lot more. When a group can generate B-sides this strong, that means they have a lot of potential, and they didn’t just blow all of their creative energy on one highly acclaimed album. This probably bodes well for how I might react to older Animal Collective albums, so maybe I’ll peruse the back catalogue or one of Panda Bear’s solo discs someday. I’d definitely recommend that any fans who got on board with Merriweather Post Pavilion check out Fall Be Kind as well. While the vibe is different, it’s pretty much the perfect companion to that album.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
What Would I Want? Sky $2
On a Highway $1
I Think I Can $2
David Portner a.k.a. Avey Tare: Vocals, guitar, samples, keys, percussion
Noah Lennox a.k.a. Panda Bear: Vocals, percussion, samples, guitar
Brian Weitz a.k.a. Geologist: Electronics, samples, vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.