It's surreal to think that it's already been nearly a near since Animal Collective released Merriweather Post Pavilion. I could just be thinking like a solipsist here, but 2009 has flown by, hasn't it? Nowhere has this felt more evident than in the music world, or anyway, the corner that I inhabit and follow. 2009 hasn't had quite as many truly excellent albums as 2008, and at the same time, everyone's already jumped the gun on their "best of the decade" lists and articles. Most of the world seems eager to finish December and be done with this decade, so leave it to the band who helped start off 2009, with what is arguably their best album, to finish it with what is arguably their best EP.
As I mentioned in my review of Deerhunter's Fluorescent Grey EP, Animal Collective are one of the few bands who think of an EP as a true venue for expression. They've always put forth the effort to offer fans something interesting and new, instead of just having a glorified single or remix depository. Their first, Prospect Hummer, was a wonderful coda to Sung Tongs with the legendary (in some circles) Vashti Bunyan in tow. People was interesting but inessential, unfortunately offering both a studio and live version of the title track. Last year's Water Curses, meanwhile, was the true proof that very few bands make EPs like Animal Collective. That release was arguably as good if not better than most of Strawberry Jam's tracks, something born out by the fact that I remember the band saying that the EP wasn't so much leftovers and B-sides as it was stuff that just didn't fit or flow well with the album.
The same could be said for Fall Be Kind. Its five tracks neither sound like retreads from Merriweather nor lesser material that was left on the cutting room floor. At a bit over 27 minutes, it's a substantial work with its own sense of flow and atmosphere. The band made some comments about how it was going to be "darker" than Merriweather, and while there is a bit more uncertainty, less obvious song structures, and more experimental textures to the EP, it's still just as poppy and frequently head nodding as the album. The first two tracks find resolution in brilliant samples: 'Graze' has euphoric pan flutes from Zamfir, while 'Why Would I Want? Sky' famously features the first legal Grateful Dead sample, from 'Unbroken Chain.' As for the rest, 'Bleed' is where most of the "darker" talk likely comes from, with its free-floating vocals and almost-sinister synthesizer sounds. The last two tracks are the kind of introspective and philosophical wonderings that the band is becoming synonymous with. 'On A Highway' is a road weary lament from Avey Tare, while the lengthy 'I Think I Can' is about needing to move on, ending with a 'The Little Engine That Could'-style repetition of the line "I think I can" in a vocal harmony that reminds you, once again, how Animal Collective can take an influence like the Beach Boys and make it their own.
In 2008, the self titled album and Sun Giant EP by Fleet Foxes formed an unstoppable duo that were collectively my favorite release of that year. I have no qualms about saying the same for Fall Be Kind. Judged by the EP format, Fall Be Kind is as brilliant, consistent, and well paced as Merriweather is judged by the album format. Forming a kind of unique symmetry, by design or otherwise, Merriweather was the best reason to move on to 2009 from 2008, while Fall Be Kind is the best reason to close the book on the year and begin reminiscing. For what it's worth, if I gave out an award for best EP of 2009, Fall Be Kind would easily win.