Review Summary: The Avalanches mostly make good on years of promise and deliver one of the feel good records of the summer.
Sixteen years is a long time, especially in the lifespan of a musician. The music landscape is an ever changing behemoth that awaits even the slightest misstep from any active band so that it can drag the group down into the abyss of artistic obscurity. To survive a decade and a half in said maelstrom is an impressive feat that requires a number of skills. First and foremost, the act must stay together. Obvious enough. Second, they must evolve in a way that new developments in sound or style don’t render them obsolete, for though hair metal may have dominated the eighties, those bands came out looking like fools when the grunge titans from Seattle came out and called them on their mediocrity. A band will also need to stay financially stable, for even in the last year or so we’ve seen many great acts break up simply because they weren’t selling enough records, (Trophy Scars, Falling Up, and Fair to Midland being some particularly gut-wrenching cases).
But if an artist can do all this, they might make it out alright. However, there is one last rule that tends to apply and that is that they are presumably, you know, releasing
music while all this is going on. Well, not so in the case of The Avalanches. Following in the vein of Dr. Dre, My Bloody Valentine, and Guns n’ Roses, Australian electronic group The Avalanches took a breathtaking sixteen years to follow up their most acclaimed release, Since I Left You
. That album, released when Pluto was still a planet, served as the group’s breakthrough and turned them into immediate stars of the electronic world. It even managed some solid commercial success outside the typical electro music crowd, hitting number 8 in the U.K. and 31 on the Billboard Heatseekers. Not bad for a dance record.
Part of the album’s acclaim was due to the incredible way in which it was made. See, The Avalanches make their music almost exclusively through use of samples. They have used everything from 60s pop records, to jazz horns, to political speeches. But while most songs using this technique will be built on two, maybe three samples, Since I Left You
contained an estimated 3,500+ samples across its eighteen tracks. Think about that for a second. 3,500 samples. That’s around 200 samples per song
. I’ve always been a vocal opponent of the art of sampling when used in music; I think it’s cheap and it smacks of lack of originality, yet even I see this as the point where I have to break down and admit that this is unbelievably impressive. Because of its methods of composition, Since I Left You
is now one of the most universally acclaimed albums of the 21st century. An essential release.
After knowing all this, I suppose the long break before its follow up, simply called Wildflower
, is understandable. For once you hit a certain point of artistic accomplishment it becomes less a question of what you will do to advance musically and more how can you even advance musically. After an album like their last, almost anything would be seen as a disappointment, and the group seemed to know it too, because they took forever following it up. Even tales of the Wildflower
recording sessions indicate that they were still tweaking this release until they were literally forced to leave the studio. Plus, after sixteen years of work, who knew if the album would even sell? For all we know the world may have moved on and Wildflower
will fall by the wayside. It would be unfortunate, but it may happen. As I said, sixteen years is a while. But those who like the group, or any group with a saga like this will understand that that isn’t what really matters. What matters is whether or not the ensuing release ends up living up to its promise.
As can be expected, Wildflower
, like its predecessor, is a collage of different sounds from varying origins that come together to form its songs, and boy the songs they form. From the very first notes, this album is just gorgeous. This is one of the most sonically challenging and downright beautiful records to be released in years. The music ebbs and flows like a symphony created through disorder, and that’s what gives the band their greatest appeal: no other artist can claim to craft single compositions like them, at least not in the same way. Opener “Because I’m Me” showcases this perfectly. The song features a string section, horns, guitar, various drums, base, bells, a rap verse, and a nice chorus melody. I can’t tell if that last part is sung by a young child or just a high voiced woman, but I don’t care because with all that goes on around it, this song sounds amazing. And that’s just it, because even the worst songs on this record are surrounded by such rich soundscapes that they can hardly help but be enjoyable.
Another thing to be noticed on this album, which really plays to the fact that it was recorded over a decade or more stretch, is how diverse it is. “Frankie Sinatra” sounds fresh out of a circus, with bells and the sounds of the audience ringing overhead and painting a clear visual to accompany the music. “Subways” is a dance hall ready cut reminiscent of “A Different Feeling” which sound be sure to serve any DJ well when playing to a crowd. “Harmony” introduces yet another new mood with its bells and wood instruments giving flare to a track clearly more suited to individual listening. At times it can seem like whatever the group tries it works. They take a children’s chorus version of the Beatles’ “Come Together” and it works. They take spoken dialogue from the documentary Streetwise
and it works.
That’s not to say there aren’t missteps. Likely the most frustrating part of this release is the myriad of vocal pieces featured throughout. Since I Left You
only had one track that was built around vocals, and they led off with it, yet just over half the songs on this album feature guest artists, mostly rappers, on top of the music. Now this is fine when it succeeds. For instance, Camp Lo does a fantastic job on the aforementioned opening track, and “Colours” is given a nice extra helping of melody courtesy of its chorus of singers, but when the features fail to aid the music it becomes very obvious. “The Noisy Eater” is rendered almost unlistenable with some godawful lyrics about food that even 90s Will Smith wouldn’t have touched. And if it’s not offensive, sometimes the vocals are just plain standard. Certain raps on this album could have been dropped on any old mixtape, (whatever those are), and no one would have noticed. Though the music can be glorious, it is not above being undone when the guest artist is substandard. I don’t think “ball so hard” were lyrics I ever needed to hear on an Avalanches record.
Yet these occasional concerns aren’t enough to cause one to lose their focus. As the record nears its end, the music begins to wind down and we hear some of the moments of sheer elegance that made the previous record so memorable. The soft vocals of “Sunshine” are placed amidst swirling strings and a laid back rhythm while “Kaleidoscope Lovers” channels the very best of Pet Sounds
era Beach Boys, perhaps Avalanches’ clearest influence. “Stepkids” has a soaring midsection bookended by soft acoustic parts while “Saturday Night Inside Out” ends the album on a well-paced jam accented by a spoken work piece and with that, the album comes to a close. Sixteen years on we have another completed Avalanches record. The Euro may have come and perhaps gone in the time between, but we finally have the new msuic. Yet, the all-important question must still be answered: does it live up to the hype? Thankfully, it mostly does.
Admittedly, Since I Left You
is still the more accomplished record, but Wildflower
rewards in most of the same ways and its long recording process and selection of tracks cut over several years provides fascinating insight as to how a record like this comes to be. This is a rare piece of music that can impress a listener no matter their musical preferences. At times funky and upbeat, at others mellow and somber, Wildflower
is an impressive and diverse artistic showcase which should certainly live up to any praise that comes its way. While it is still difficult to envision where the group will go from here, there seems to be promise in the future that maybe their turn of the millennium classic won’t be all they’re known for.
Best Tracks: “Because I’m Me,” “Colours,” “Sunshine”
Worst Tracks: “The Noisy Eater,” “The Wozard of Iz”