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Animal Collective
Fall Be Kind Ben Graham , December 10th, 2009 10:04

Despite pretty much inventing the form, America never really got punk. Sure, there was CBGBs in '75/'76, and lively local scenes everywhere from Cleveland to LA, but the punk aesthetic never grabbed the whole nation by the balls the way it did in the UK. America in '77 was all about Saturday Night Fever and the first Van Halen album; hard times hadn't kicked in and the whole Woodstock Nation concept still made sense in a way it never really did in rainy old Blighty. Following the success of Nirvana, Thurston Moore dubbed 1991 the year punk broke, but I was studying in upstate New York when Nevermind was released, and what shocked me as a punk-informed English indie kid was that my American equivalents were still listening to the Grateful Dead and following them religiously on tour. The affluent, arty, white middle-class college kids who made up the alternative scene were a bunch of pot-smoking, hacky-sack playing sweethearts who certainly didn't seem to be reeling under the long-delayed onslaught of punk; come to that, if those long-haired heavy metal whingers Nirvana were punk, then me and Thurston really weren't reading from the same page at all.

In any case, even grunge quickly receded, and Alternative America was able to settle back into its spaced-out hippy comfort zone, as hazy as the fog over the San Francisco Bay. Just check out a copy of Arthur magazine if you don't believe me; or sit and listen to this new EP by Animal Collective, who have developed their 'Brian-Wilson-with-a-sampler' sound over the last decade to become the cherished darlings and freak-flag bearers of the whole contemporary scene. A scene which over the last few years has seemed woollier and beardier than ever before, with the likes of Devendra Banhart, Espers, Fleet Foxes and Vetiver setting up their yurts and tepees all over the cultural landscape. It's always seemed to me that Animal Collective have more in common with these mellow, close-harmonising spiritual children of David Crosby than with the electronic avant-garde they're more usually linked with: frequently wonderful, and groundbreaking and innovative in many ways, Animal Collective nevertheless seem bound to a late 60s musical and cultural aesthetic which is often anachronistic and even unhelpful in a 21st Century context.

Officially, Fall Be Kind is a companion piece to this year's rightly-lauded Merriweather Post Pavilion album, built up from outtakes that were considered "too dark" to sit on the parent LP proper. But is it too whimsical of me to imagine that Animal Collective have deliberately released lead track 'Graze' in late December as some kind of leftfield bid for the Christmas Number One? I really want to believe that this is a Christmas song, such is the twinkling, soft-focus ambience conjured up by its woozy, orchestral surge. Even the lyrics suggest a child waking up on Christmas morning, with a sleepy-eyed optimism and a sense of gradually realised joy in a sparkling winter landscape; not a real winter landscape of driving wind and rain and grey slush and broken central heating, obviously, but an imaginary one of bright blue skies and the ground crisply blanketed in white. After three minutes it turns into a flute-driven jig, the band bursting into carousing, carol-singing rounds before disappearing finally into a blizzard of digital snow.

Sadly, the seasonal theme is less apparent on the remaining four tracks. 'What Would I Want? Sky' is based around a sample from 'Unbroken Chain' by the Grateful Dead, apparently the first time the Dead have ever allowed one of their precious creations to be abused and manipulated by a modern artist in this way. The first three minutes consist of atmospheric, ambient build-up; only then do the hypnotically repetitive vocals of the song proper begin. This is an Animal Collective trademark, and one I always find slightly disturbing and regressive: there's something oddly infantile about this clinging to repeated, circular refrains like a comfort blanket, like a passive, thumb-sucking refusal to get up and deal with reality. I picture the band all hugging themselves tightly and rocking to and fro to the rhythm. The melody and tone as well have a Laurel Canyon, white soul complacency to them, one step away from FM radio blandness, with lyrics about being a "daydreaming dude" and other such brushed denim platitudes.

'Bleed' is the only number that delivers the promised darkness, beginning with a sinister slowed-down spoken vocal before the bad-trip harmonies swoop in over a bed of washed-out sound and rumbling cello scrapes, finally fading out into breathy goblin mutterings. It's a relatively short highlight of the EP, and is immediately followed by the weakest track, 'On a Highway.' It's never a good thing when bands start writing songs about life on the road, and AC's contribution to this dubious canon sees them on musical autopilot, a narcotic puddle of indistinct womb-sound lapping warmly around crashing, echoing drums and a swooping choral chorus, as Avey Tare delivers a gritty, warts-and-all account of the debauched adventures of a modern rock n' roll band on tour. Given that this is Animal Collective however, it's hardly Hammer of the Gods: Tare tells us how he feels car sick from trying to read, and hopes they pull over at the next service station because he really needs a wee.

The set ends with 'I Think I Can,' which is extra-terrestrial alien gospel: happy-clappy worship music for creatures that only have tentacles and flippers to slap together. See them lift their strangely-perforated snouts to their homeworld's twin moons, newly risen in the vermillion night sky! Hear their weird, unearthly song! Does P. Bear really sing 'Will I get to the point soon?' in a repeated coda in rounds, or am I hearing my own inner voice interpreting the fuzzy lyrics for me? This pertinent query is answered with the song's title: "I think I can, I think I can I think I can," puffed out in a childlike flurry, over and over, like Thomas the Tank Engine's determined refrain as he chugs up the hill.

It's this cloying, pink-skinned infantilism that spoils Animal Collective for me. For all the strange, fascinating beauty of their sounds, I just want to give them a shake and a slap. There's the same wilful naivety that Lou Reed sneered at when looking around at his peers on the late 60s US punk scene, where the Velvet Underground's cynical, literary intelligence stood out like a raised vein. At the close of 2009 this kind of head-in-the-sand navel-gazing is even less acceptable, no matter how physically impressive it would be if you could actually carry out that mixed metaphor as a literal action. The fact is, Animal Collective are highly educated young people from the richest nation on earth, wearing masks and pretending to be pandas while effectively pissing around in a sandpit. The patterns they make are often exquisite. But it's not enough.