Review Summary: Nearly sixteen years after the release of their monolithic debut opus, Since I Left You, The Avalanches retool their signature production style to deliver a surprising, but equally rewarding sophomore effort that oozes with psychedelic minutia.
Cut back to late 2000, when The Avalanches created a veritable shock wave in the music industry with the success of their outstanding debut, Since I Left You
. It’s easy to see why that album, so seamlessly collaged from the disparate sounds of hundreds (if not thousands) of decades-spanning records, made such an impact in the wake of critically acclaimed releases by artists such as DJ Shadow and Massive Attack, who pioneered and simultaneously canonized the sample-based approach to music production. Since I Left You
, however, was not merely a product of its time and influences. Instead, it was a refreshing, dance-forward utilization of this approach to music making; triumphant in its exuberant and life affirming naiveté, and in some ways an early (and artful) forebearer to more mainstream mashup releases.
And so, for years, fans remained steadfast in their devotion to this sole full-length release as The Avalanches slid back lithely into obscurity. After all, creating a worthy follow-up to an album so lauded as Since I Left You
is the sort of endeavor that takes massive effort, methodical planning, resources, and above all else, time
, so that these elements might foment into something that is more than their sum. And time they were given. However, the patience of even the most die hard fan has its limits. Ten years had passed, and the musical zeitgeist had begun to roil with doubts and insecurities. After an entire decade, what news of this nebulous, theoretically possible LP was there, really? A brief description in 2005 from now-departed member Darren Seltmann likening its contents to “ambient world music,” (a comparison that turned out not to hold water, given the album’s end result) and an infuriatingly vague press release from Modular
, which no doubt proved equal parts titillating and frustrating for fans who yearned to slake their thirst for any sort of substantive news. A mysterious demo, "A Cowboy Overflow of the Heart," consisting of unsettling spoken word supplied by The Silver Jews’ David Berman laid atop muted instrumentals, which floated through the ether in 2012, left people wondering just what the hell The Avalanches were doing. And – as if all of this wasn’t enough – in June, 2014, Jennifer Herrema, who would ultimately feature on the follow-up’s penultimate track “Stepkids,” issued a statement that this still
unnamed album would be released in just three
weeks. Talking about twisting the knife.
Now, cut forward almost exactly two years. After all of the ambiguity and red herrings, everything starts to fall into place. Within the span of just a few short weeks, The Avalanches drop not one, not two, but three
new singles set to appear on their imminent release – which, incidentally, finally receives a name: Wildflower
. The buzz and the hype surrounding the upcoming LP that permeate the internet are, understandably, butter thick. Illegitimate leaked rips are uploaded, and subsequently removed from well-known private torrent trackers multiple times. However, after sixteen long, difficult years, the day finally arrives: Wildflower
is officially released.
At this point, the question arises:
was it worth the wait? Well, in a manner of speaking, yes.
To be clear, those looking for a carbon copy of Since I Left You
will most likely be disappointed. Although the group pulls many of the same tricks with respect to their production and stylistic embellishments, they are put to a different use. Both albums are suffused with the same youthful, wide-eyed worldview; however, where Since I Left You
manifested these feelings via energy and movement, Wildflower
paints a more pastoral picture, washed in the gentle warmth of sunlight, teeming with spontaneous, organic minutia. While it may not be as tightly constructed as Since I Left You
– in which every piece, no matter how small, felt deftly placed and integral – it is truly impressive that The Avalanches were able to so effectively re-purpose their trademark sound toward different ends with Wildflower
This album is sprawling, at times amorphous, and exceedingly psychedelic. Instead of focusing on beat-heavy dance music, Wildflower
puts creating lush soundscapes at the forefront. Sometimes, these effects serve as compelling adornments to melodically rich pieces of music, as with single “Colours,” to which Mercury Rev guitarist/vocalist Jonathan Donahue lends his voice. Donahue’s voice feels perfectly in place with the layers of acid-washed instrumentals as he croons about mermaids, urban surf and neon colors. The result of this union sounds like a blissful, hi-fi rendition of My Bloody Valentine’s best output. Elsewhere, these sonic vignettes are wholly contained, serving as textural interludes between the more substantial pieces on the album. Eponymous “Wildflower,” for instance, provides a soothing respite from the visceral track “The Noisy Eater,” segueing languidly into the beautiful “Harmony.” Featuring pleasing choral vocals that switch stereo channels, the song culminates with a distinctly sixties aesthetic comprised of strummed acoustic guitar chords accompanied by woodwind instruments and theremin trills.
Unfortunately, the transitional pieces on Wildflower
feel overly present at times, and contribute to unnecessary bloat. Some tracks, like “Light Up” sound effete and forgettable; others seem pointless. The inclusion of opener “The Leaves Were Falling,” for instance, which runs at a mere fifteen seconds, comprised of muffled guitar (presumably from a live show), background chatter, and a single cough, is puzzling. It isn’t that these tracks are poorly executed, but rather that they take up too much collective run time, given the function that they serve. Where these sorts of mood pieces felt genuinely atmospheric and affecting in Since I Left You
, they can occasionally come across as overindulgent exercises in texture on Wildflower
. Some full-length tracks also suffer from too much attention to detail in their production. The aforementioned “Noisy Eater,” for instance, a trifling song centered around eating cereal, would be humorous, were it not jam packed with unpleasant, abrasive sounds. Additionally, “Kaleidoscopic Lovers,” for the most part a beautiful track, is so incredibly saturated with layers of delayed instrumentals and unfurling harp glissandos that the melody underpinning it becomes too easily lost in the hazy swirl.
Still, given that most of these pieces are genuinely pleasing to the ear, this is a relatively minor criticism of an album that is chock-full of creativity and novelty. Although the group had already played with hip hop influences in the past with tracks like “Flight Tonight” and “Frontier Psychiatrist,” The Avalanches have incorporated these elements in a much more integral and direct manner in Wildflower
. Camp Lo’s rapping feels tailor-made for album highlight “Because I’m Me,” a track resplendent in its carefree joviality. Perhaps the most direct throwback to the infectiously catchy music of Since I Left You
, it combines triumphant horn stabs, funky guitars and disco string samples to great effect, much in the same fashion as the titular track from their previous offering. “Live a Lifetime Love,” featuring Ariel Pink and rapping from A.Dd+, is one of the more lyrically serious pieces of music on the album: “And now they just call the police… They say I'm a thief/They callin' me thug/They say I'm a killer,” A.Dd+ opines, repeatedly invoking all-too-ubiquitous perceptions of African American youth in society, and the disproportionate presence of law enforcement in their lives.
Sixteen years is quite a period of time for expectations to build. So long, in fact, that it’s almost impossible not
to preemptively expect the worst. And that’s only compounded by the fact that the object of expectation is the follow-up to one of the most successful and universally acclaimed electronic music albums ever created. The fact that just the opposite has occurred – that people are surprised at how good
this album is – should speak volumes about its quality.
“Because I’m Me,” “Subways,” “Colours,” “Sunshine”
Least favorite tracks:
“Frankie Sinatra,” “The Noisy Eater,” “Stepkids”