Review Summary: Chillwhat?
Although he was always one of its most visible figures, Chazwick Bundick never seemed particularly comfortable with being part of the chillwave genre. It's evident in his interviews - "I've kinda gotten past that sound," he says. It's evident in his music, too; his debut album as Toro Y Moi, Causers of This
, was a crisply produced gem that had more in common with the instrumental hip-hop of Nosaj Thing and TOKiMONSTA than Bundick's peers within chillwave. With his sophomore effort, Underneath the Pine
, Bundick takes a slightly different route, aiming for a more exuberant AM pop sound; the enormous electronic beats and thick synthesizers are eschewed in favor of Rhodes, acoustic guitar, and live drumming infused with a heavy dollop of funk. It's more convincing than one would expect, given Bundick's blatant pandering to the pseudo-hipster demographic - the album is streaming on Urban Outfitters' official website - and it's an immensely pleasant listen.
The strongest moments on Underneath the Pine
come when Bundick's voice takes center stage. Songs like "Still Sound" and "New Beat" depend on their vocal harmonies as much as on their tight arrangements, and Bundick's croon evokes a sense of time and place that's vague enough to feel nonspecifically retro
, in the best sense of the word. When the vocals escape the spotlight, the songs feel less focused; "Light Black", lacking a strong melodic anchor, simply meanders along for three minutes, propelled only by superfluous bursts of psychedelic keyboard and overbearing drumming. These weaker moments are at least partially salvaged by Bundick's excellent production, which is just lo-fi enough to coat the record in an appealing haze. And besides, Bundick has some tricks up his sleeve; the penultimate track, "Good Hold", at first seems to be a staid piano ballad, but then it hits a vocal peak and filters out, panning to one side for a crucial moment. It's a bit of a shock to listen to at first, almost extreme enough to make one feel physically uncomfortable, but it makes sense; written and recorded shortly after Bundick attended a funeral for a friend, the song is quiet and melancholy, and its production flourish provides a moment of catharsis.
It's a small pity that Underneath the Pine
doesn't have too many of these unexpected moments. By and large, the songs on this album progress as expected - which isn't to say that they're boring
, per se, just unsurprising. But criticizing this record for being uncomplicated is silly, especially since its loveliest song, "Before I'm Done", is also its simplest. The song opens with delicate strains of acoustic guitar before a gorgeously understated flute line enters with Bundick singing longingly, "He never was too kind / he never would apologize". Unexpectedly moving and perfectly contained, "Before I'm Done" is easily the most effective song off of Underneath the Pine
, and its simplicity is instrumental in its success. So while Toro Y Moi's second album may be inoffensive and ostensibly less interesting than the cut-up beats of Causers of This
, it's hardly an example of sophomore slump. It's simply the next turn in Toro Y Moi's musical journey, one that further reveals that Bundick isn't terribly concerned with the cultural trappings of his aesthetic - and that's something that ought to be commended.