Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Review: Fall Be Kind by Animal Collective

Animal Collective
Fall Be Kind (EP)
Domino Records
Release Date: November 23, 2009 (Digital)
December 15, 2009 (CD/vinyl)

Haven’t you done enough already, Animal Collective? You released one of the year’s best (if not the best) and oft-discussed albums of the year…and you can’t leave it at that? Most bands would be content with releasing the best album of their career in a given calendar year. Animal Collective are not most bands. A little-known album, Merriweather Post Pavilion, was officially released this past January, but its monstrous impact (such as Pitchfork naming it #14 on its list of albums for the decade) makes it seem like it has been around forever. Regardless, a scant ten months later, fans are treated to five new songs in 2009 by the successfully experimental band.

Fall Be Kind is a bit more of a cohesive (and better) EP than Water Curses, both of which sound influenced by the LP that preceded it. In other words, maybe that opening statement comes as no surprise (nothing against Strawberry Jam or Water Curses, both were fantastic.) Album opener “Graze” begins like it should be on the latest Disney soundtrack or something, with lilting, slow strings and Avey Tare’s hypnotic vocals. It is a pretty typical A.C. track, along the same pace as MPP opener “In the Flowers.” While the latter erupts into transient euphoria, the former does something completely unexpected. At around three minutes in, everything sort of stops…and a Renaissance Faire-type flute chimes in. Um, what? When I first heard this, I almost called “Shenanigans!” Of course, though, A.C. almost truly can do no wrong. They pull this twisted 180 into something that works, as the rest of the track gels nicely.

The clear standout is “What Would I Want? Sky”, the awkwardly-titled, six-minutes-and-change “My Girls” of the EP. It opens so light yet persistent, propelled by the background drums that sound as if they don’t want to wake the neighbors, the spiraling synths, and the repetition of “Good deeds!” It is an intoxicating three-minute introduction, until the rest of the song kicks in, with the first-ever licensed Grateful Dead sample repeating “Sky! What would I want?” Animal Collective seem as though they want to try and twist anything they can get their mitts on into a pop gem, and once again, they succeed. The song continues so peppy and poppy, it is hard not to smile a little bit. The constant chime flourishes, the as-usual amazing harmonies, the foot-stomping drums, the tambourine: All of these ingredients add up to a near-perfect out-of-left-field pop jam, where the only flaw is that it has to end.

“Bleed” changes gears and slows things down for the remainder of the EP, leading into “On A Highway”, an interestingly introspective song detailing what sounds like scatterbrain thoughts from the tour bus, backed by a considerably more sparse sound (flashes of A.C.’s past work come to mind.) “I Think I Can” rounds out the album, rather impressively, with lots of different tricks coalescing into a solid closing trip. It opens and closes almost eerily, but the song picks up and builds to the titular chant. As is usually the case, Animal Collective’s best instrument is their heavenly vocals, which is consistently top-notch here and throughout the album.

Animal Collective have had quite an eventful decade, bursting onto the scene as literally nobodies near the beginning, and riding high on their magnum opus and its offspring EP at the end. They have built such a sturdy reputation that they seem like they can do no wrong at this point in their career. Of course, this is quite pretentious to perceive, especially considering that the band experiments on every album and could very well go the opposite direction. Somehow, though, I have a feeling they will do wonders and make it work. Certainly makes anticipating their next album interminable. At least there is Fall Be Kind to hold us over until then, everything an EP should be and miraculously not a letdown in the least from MPP. There are a lot of great albums this year, but 2009 was Animal Collective’s jam.

Animal Collective - "What Would I Want? Sky"

Rating: 4/5

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Review: Raditude by Weezer

Release Date: November 3, 2009

It is on the verge of unthinkable that Weezer have been strumming power chords in our eardrums for fifteen years now, but alas it is the case. The Blue Album and Pinkerton seem eons ago, two albums that forever cemented Weezer’s importance in the music landscape for the time: The former an exercise in memorable, near-perfect power-pop, the latter a sophomoric seismic shift in sound dismissed by many initially, but later rediscovered as a cult classic and the potential ground zero for the birthplace of that genre they call “emo.” The 21st century hath wrought a grab bag of efforts by the band, from downright awful (Make Believe) to passable (last year’s The Red Album) to decent (Maladroit and The Green Album). With all of the frustrations that have come, every new Weezer album is still an exciting possibility for the prospect of a return to glory, or perhaps the unthinkable: Artistic development. Instead, we have Raditude, one of the most frustrating to decipher, polarizing albums of the year.

Maybe I’m simply reading between the lines too much. Maybe I so desperately want to find legitimacy in Raditude. I’m not entirely sure, but this is what Rivers and Co. have provided us this year: Ten tracks of mostly typical, mostly simplistic power-pop from the guys who basically own the blasted hyphenated subgenre. Rivers Cuomo is a damn Harvard graduate, yet instead of lyrical masterpieces, we get some of the most vacuous content this side of the Top 40. To recap thus far: Nothing groundbreaking.

Negative much? Well, here’s where the frustration starts to come into play. It is no secret that Cuomos loves pop music, and it would be ridiculous to think the power-pop sound of Weezer would just up and go away. That being said, going into the album cognizant of this, Raditude is pretty up to par. In fact, it is pretty sharp. The lengthily-titled “(If You’re Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To” is a fantastic example of this, pulling out all the stops to deliver a quite humorous tale of teenage romance (I mean, look at the title), all set to foot-stomping drums, light and breezy guitar strumming, and an effectively infectious chorus. The overwhelmingly emotional inability to pull the proverbial trigger has never seemed so fun and funny.

After this, the opening track, things get a little less certain except for one simple fact: Almost every song immediately sticks with you. Power-pop tends to do that. The song titles and subject matter are a bit questionable at best (“The Girl Got Hot”? “In The Mall”?), but amidst all of this simplicity and borderline inanity is some humor and some legitimate humming to be had. “Put Me Back Together” is a halfway decent attempt at sincerity without sounding too cheesy or forced, as is the apropos closer “I Don’t Want To Let You Go”. There are no major attempts at grandiose this time around (à la “The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived”) but Weezer dared to try something different by doing something that literally every current musical artist in existence has done: Have a song featuring Lil’ Wayne. The result is “Can’t Stop Partying”, a definite head-scratcher to say the least. Obviously, there is some sarcasm and irony being thrown at us, but it’s not like it’s even that amazing. On the other hand, I can’t get the damn song out of my head. Catchiness should never, ever be mistaken for quality, but maybe at the very least this can be considered a hyper-guilty pleasure. The only other break from the typical is “Love Is The Answer”, what with its Indian influence on a slow jam that sounds like something U2 might do in ten years. The cheese factor is too great to ignore here. To recap thus far: A few legitimate good Weezer-type songs, some okay ones, and a few groan-inducing ones. Or, nothing surprising.

The whole mindfuck comes into play when the following is considered: Is this all a joke? Is there something bigger at play here? We are hearing a near-40-year-old man sounding like a pubescent boy on half of these tracks, using words like “homie” that when you hear them, it is all too reminiscent of that one older relative that tries too hard to be hip and fly, too, son. Is there some riding metaphor here or is this just pathetic? Is this actually album through the lens of a teenage boy? Considering the artwork, the lightning-bolt album title font, the album title itself and its songs, it would not be a shocker. Better yet, is this an album of an über-intelligent middle-aged man realizing his dissatisfaction with the prospect of his newfound outlook on life, and the only way he can cope is to act and think like a child? That would certainly put a hell of a spin on it.

Whatever it is that I can’t put my finger on, this album just doesn’t seem like a big “fuck you” to its listeners. It just feels like there is something more than meets the eye. In the end, it has me coming back to it again and again. There is something to be said for that ability of an album. Raditude can be thought of as a complete entity way more than Weezer’s past efforts, at the very least. It might not be spectacular, it might not be the most sonically or lyrically complex album this year, and it might not be easy to defend, but dammit…it is a decent slice of, dare I say, fun, something Weezer always seem like they’re having. Put it on with the right set of mind and enjoy some solid pop jams and a few laughs.

Weezer - "(If You're Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To" - YouTube