30 December 2009

Animal Collective – Fall Be Kind

Domino Recording Co. (2009)

(A FACT presentation)

Here's an EP from low-key Maryland beat combo, the Animal Collective. They released a fine little album way back at the start of this year, Merriweather Post Pavilion, that could really have done with a bit more publicity. Perhaps it was just released at the wrong time: AC had written it as a summer album, whose modern-day Beach Boys primary-colour harmonies could have danced and pranced in verdant fields, drenched in the balmy golden sun of the season of love and picnics. As it was, the record lurched into the shops during an especially bleak January: a shame, as songs like 'My Girls' could really have developed a following, under the right circumstances.

Animal Collective are all too aware of seasonal context, so they have been careful to ensure Fall Be Kind (a pun on the daylight savings 'spring ahead, fall behind' mantra) comes out as close to Autumn, or 'fall', as is allowed by the vagaries of 'release windows' and 'schedules'. It is somewhat amusing that such a summery band is releasing all of its recent new music during the time of perpetual gloaming, but here we are. It brings a ray of light into our murky lives, at least.

Prominently featuring what sound suspiciously like pan-pipes is opener 'Graze'. While jarring, they're no more wacky than the tadpole chorus of MPP's equivalent, 'In the Flowers', so it's all good. Besides, the slight irritation of these hectic pipes is more than offset by the incredibly strong vocal melody. Simon Reynolds mentioned this year that Animal Collective are a 'middlebrow' act; accessible enough to blow up, but sufficiently experimental to retain their alternative cache (to admittedly CliffsNotes Reynolds' theory a tad). This writer doesn't entirely agree: MPP was indeed intelligently produced and arranged, but the vocal dominance on that record suggested pure, wonderful, pop.

Fall Be Kind is massively poppy once more, but again treads a theoretical tightrope. 'Graze's aforementioned lead vocal performance is narrative, with short phrasing, before soaring in spots, almost as though it was on Broadway. It is this kind of detail that suggests not just a fondness, but an intellectual approach, toward pop music craft that recalls Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson's 1982 albums, Imperial Bedroom and Night and Day. But then you get a song like the serene, life-affirming, 'What Would I Want? Sky'. It's a song of two halves, as the sweet opium fog of the opening couple of minutes clears, leaving a vocal hook-as-sample, which runs for the duration, while seemingly everything goes on around it. And not for the first time this year, AC remind your reviewer of Taja Sevelle on 'Love is Contagious'. I think it's the exuberant way the vocals pelt out any high notes, allied with that super-American enunciation.

It's probable, though, that mine are ears used to music that deviated from the norm, that 'poppy' does not necessarily equate to 'pop'. From the title to the subdued first half, 'What Would I Want? Sky' would realistically be described as weird by anyone outside the bubble of the internet music fan, a situation compounded by the next song. 'Bleed' is similar in mood and pace to the previous track's opening, but without the ecstatic pay-off. It's the equivalent to MPP's interval track, 'Daily Routine'. It's unclear whether Fall Be Kind is intended to represent a microcosm of the album, perhaps in response to the criticism that MPP was akin to a sugar overdose, but the parallel is there.

The difference comes in the closing brace of songs. 'On a Highway' and 'I Think I Can', rather than provide the shot of adrenaline of tribal-Underworld 'Lion in a Coma' or 'Brother Sport's anthemic car alarm rush, maintain the contemplative mood. But they're perfectly fine songs, and better to reflect the sombre tone of another year's death, than a big, thrilling, finale would achieve. This EP represents a firming-up of Animal Collective's position on their career trajectory. The mess of unfocused ideas that characterised their past is now more distant a memory; strength of song, streamlined in delivery, seems now to be the modus operandi. They still throw curveballs for the existing fans who wonder how tribal introspection sits, theoretically, with nods to Rihanna's 'Umbrella', during the record's semi-epic conclusion. But then, maybe they're not curveballs. Maybe neither the nod to Rihanna nor the curious structure are calculated: it's just Animal Collective doing what they do. If that is the case, it will be interesting to see where they go now something resembling a concrete aesthetic, and a respectable level of media attention, have been attained. How they would handle either an emergence into the pop light or retreat into the comfortable wilderness would be intriguing; one just hopes this notoriously eclectic group haven't reached a plateau.

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