Are The Avalanches Too Late To Their Own Party?
The Avalanches came to their second album with 16 years of silence weighing down on them. True believers had been savoring rare glimpses of the Australian band (a remix here, a minor contribution to the 2013 King Kong soundtrack there) since 2000, when their swirling debut, Since I Left You, became an instant landmark of plunderphonics. But for a decade, and then half of another decade, that initial hour of stitched-together Franken-music was all there was to hear of The Avalanches.
A sleeper hit in the first years of the millennium, Since I Left You reinvigorated dead music, or at least brushed the dust off of audio that most of The Avalanches’ listeners would otherwise never have heard. Radio dramas rushed into orchestral swells; snippets from arcane instructional videos and old-school hip-hop beats throbbed together in the same space.
The mythology around The Avalanches holds that they lifted anywhere between 700 and 3,000 samples from dollar-store vinyl to make Since I Left You, and they estimate there are even more borrowed sounds on their 2016 follow-up, Wildflower. But 16 years is a long time to lie dormant within turntablism, a genre explicitly dependent on music’s relationship with technology. And while The Avalanches haven’t changed terribly much between their two studio albums, the rest of the world sure has.
Here’s a band that stored the DNA of their first album on floppy disks, only to pupate and reemerge in an era when everybody carries around the storage equivalent of 3,000 floppy disks every day. In 2016, sampling can be done with a matter of a few keystrokes — no need for that decades-in-the-making library of vintage vinyl. Digging for obscure old records, for producers and listeners alike, is often as easy as logging in to Spotify.
Except for a few stalwart acts, like underground hero Kid Koala, the turntablism of the 1990s seemed to hit a dead end in the era of Ableton Live. Producers began supplementing turntables with laptops, trading analog grooves for encoded data. Instead of playing exclusively with real records that scratched and hissed and popped, acts like 2 Many DJs started cementing their mixes in Pro Tools, finding life in incongruous songs that somehow fit together on a gradient. Peaches flowed into The Velvet Underground on 2 Many DJs’ seminal 2002 record As Heard on Radio Soulwax Pt. 2, the new and profane crashing into the canonical and somehow resonating. Before long, other mash-up artists had eliminated the need for actual, physical records at all: All that was required to knit together a hailstorm of hooks was a laptop and a decent pile of mp3s.
In the mid-aughts, producers like college party favorite Girl Talk and Grey Album engineer Danger Mouse crossed over even further by gluing together pop music touchstones into hyperactive currents of referentiality. Instead of digging through crates or showing off their indie cred, these artists pilfered from songs that had already been exhausted on commercial radio. Ludacris and “Wonderwall” hung in the same air on Girl Talk’s jams, while Danger Mouse’s confluence of Jay Z and The Beatles teased out the humor in throwing together very well-known music from wildly different contexts and seeing just how neatly it could jell.
It’s hard to imagine Feed the Animals coming to be without Since I Left You before it, even though Girl Talk and The Avalanches work on dramatically different philosophical principles. You’re supposed to know just about every sample in Girl Talk’s music — the pleasure in it comes from the rapid-fire glimmers of recognition when you hear The Carpenters blend into Lil’ Mama. (This mechanic's roots go back to old-school hip-hop, where producers including Prince Paul, EPMD, and The Dust Brothers repurposed recognizable funk, rock, and soul samples to glorious effect.) But you don’t have to know any of The Avalanches’ samples to follow their curiosity, their humor, their relentless pursuit of satisfying pop moments. The Avalanches took dust and spun it into gold; Girl Talk crushed gold into Molly.
So what happens to The Avalanches now that our pleasure centers have been firing on all cylinders for years, now that there’s more music than silence? For Wildflower, the Aussie group — whose ever-shifting lineup settled into a tight trio after losing core member Darren Seltmann last year — incorporated a few new strategies into their composition process. They recorded original guest vocals, for one, and they decided they weren’t above sampling music guaranteed to be widely recognized. The Sound of Music’s “My Favorite Things” makes an appearance on the record’s lead single, “Frankie Sinatra.” Later, so do The Beatles.
These moments inject some humor into the album, but they don’t define its dominant mode. Like Since I Left You, Wildflower works like a DJ set in that it lives and dies on the flow from moment to moment. It’s a continuous hour of music with barely any breaks between songs, which means it’s better listened to on CD, mp3, or vinyl than through an inevitably throttled Wi-Fi connection. It also tends to complicate its own moods, overlaying humid loops with verses about police harassment and racism performed by Danny Brown (“Frankie Sinatra” and “The Wozard of Iz") and North Dallas rapper Paris Pershun (“Live a Lifetime Love”). “Please, Mr. Officer, I only had some vodka / Little marijuana, just a few Vicodin,” Brown raps over a lumbering tuba on “Frankie Sinatra.” And on “Live a Lifetime Love,” Pershun competes with background vocals from alt-pop provocateur Ariel Pink to deliver the lines, “They just call the police ’cause I'm 23 and black and won't pull up my pants / They say I’m a thief / They calling me thug / They say I’m a killer / I just say, ‘What’s up?’”
While these lyrics supply some of the most salient moments on the album, they end up feeling rushed as The Avalanches cruise to the next idea. “Live a Lifetime Love” clocks in at two and a half minutes, while the bulkier “Frankie Sinatra” lets a playful Calypso loop take up more space than Brown’s off-kilter bars. Wildflower’s languid atmospheres don’t quite allow the guest rappers to reach the urgency they achieve in their own works, but, in a way, these artists close the gap between the roots and the reality of The Avalanches. The Aussies sampled the stylish, slang-slinging ’90s hip-hop duo Camp Lo back on Since I Left You; now, Camp Lo supply guest raps on “Because I’m Me.” A band whose career sprung from techniques pioneered by black American musicians is now working directly with black American musicians, though as the architects of the album, The Avalanches still get the final say on how these voices are used, and which moods they’re mired in.
The Avalanches’ influences and nostalgic tendencies have always pulled them toward pop escapism, and Wildflower’s notes of fear and pain tend to get sidelined. At its center, there’s a wistful nostalgia for summers long locked inside single-megapixel flip-phone cameras. “Colours” and “If I Was a Folkstar” feel like they could have bubbled up halfway through 2009 (the latter even features vocals from the prince of chillwave himself, Toro y Moi). The same brand of neo-psychedelia that rode an MGMT-size wave into the Billboard Hot 100 at the end of the aughts presents itself again here: chirping synths, loose strands of acoustic guitar, faraway tinkles of piano and percussion. Everything is OK inside these songs — a little melancholy at worst — as if they were vacuum-sealed away from the world into which they’ve been released.
There’s nothing wrong with using music to tune out a nightmarish present, but these gestures feel like feeble callbacks to a time when musicians tried and failed to turn songs into escape pods. “Where do all the mermaids go? / Everybody’s got their somewhere,” sings Jonathan Donahue (of ’90s neo-psychedelia act Mercury Rev) on “Colours,” a couplet that would have fit neatly into the impossibly twee work of 2005 indie breakout act The Boy Least Likely To. Ten years ago, twee could serve as a distraction from the wars and the political machinations that would end up cooking 2016, but now it sounds like a long-lost relic from a time when the adult world was easier to ignore.
At the tip of that extreme, “Stepkids” indulges a Juno-core cuteness reminiscent of mid-aughts breakouts like The Go! Team. There’s energy and forward momentum in these songs, but there's no danger — which mutes the impact of Brown’s and Pershun’s verses elsewhere in the album. The tense conversations between black men and police officers in their lyrics are smoothed over by the thick, rose-colored glaze of other songs; the real and present danger of those scenarios sits unresolved, the microphone quickly turned over to other guest artists who will never feel it.
Wildflower closes with a few words from David Berman, Silver Jews frontman and indie rock’s poet laureate, who muses on meeting the woman of his dreams — “the fulfillment of a 10th-grade prophecy” — in an intermittent spoken word performance. “We inaugurate the evening, just drumming up a little weirdness,” Berman says, and behind him plays an effortlessly lovely melody, its treble carried by an unplaceable sound, like a voice barely drifting through a detuned radio.
The album only has so much weirdness to offer, though, and its hunger for balm over catharsis and transformation leaves it lodged in a sweet-smelling torpor. Winking samples of the vocal hook that Will Smith’s producers used for “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” and a choral cover of “Come Together” sit on the same plane as frank accounts of systemic anti-blackness, though even those are delivered with some levity. Since I Left You offered humor in its contextless juxtapositions, but Wildflower’s sharp contrasts tend to undercut its most prominent voices. Everything’s swirled together in the same lukewarm goo, until pain and pleasure alike start to feel like complacency. The record might be a pleasant incubator to sleep inside, but when it’s done, you leave without much new armor against the world to which you inevitably return.