August 2016

Arts & Letters

Stuck in a moment

By Anwen Crawford

The Avalanches. © Steve Gullick

The Avalanches’ ‘Wildflower’ isn’t the comeback we needed

Who can but marvel at the 16 years of work that has gone into creating Wildflower, the second album by The Avalanches? Nations are built in less time. Children born at the turn of the millennium, when the Melbourne-based electronic group first charted, are now hale teenagers. No one takes 16 years to make a record unless obsession has, at some point, gained the upper hand, and in the process the group has shrunk from six musicians to effectively two: Robbie Chater and Tony Di Blasi, with turntablist James Dela Cruz as a touring member. As if they were explorers who got lost on their way to a mythical city and have only just resurfaced, one commends, from a wary distance, their determination to press on.

The construction of Wildflower has been no less painstaking than that of the first Avalanches album, Since I Left You (2000), which featured something like 3500 individual samples. ‘Frankie Sinatra’, Wildflower’s lead single, incorporates a calypso singer, jazz clarinets, a tuba, ‘My Favourite Things’, miscellaneous cartoon zips and zaps, and guest verses from rappers Danny Brown and MF Doom. That isn’t even the half of it. So great is the scale of effort involved that it seems almost beside the point to wonder if The Avalanches’ energies might have been better spent. Did the world need a calypso–oompah–rap fusion with a garnish of Rodgers and Hammerstein? No. But here it is.

Sixteen years ago, when Since I Left You appeared, the first iPod was about a year away from commercial release. YouTube did not exist and Google barely did. But the internet had already dramatically altered the distribution of music by way of Napster, a peer-to-peer file-sharing service that allowed listeners across the world to trade digital versions of their music collections with each other for free. The scarcity model that had previously characterised music consumption – a limited amount of physical material at a limited number of stores, with choices further constrained by income and location – was overturned. Today, streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music operate on a similar promise of abundance, only they charge an entry fee.

At first the sheer amount of available music feels giddying, but it can quickly become a strain. There simply isn’t enough time, not even in one’s lifetime, to listen to any more than a fraction of it. And so the anxiety of choice returns, more acutely than when the decision was between two $30 albums at the record store. An ambient awareness of all the millions of songs you’ll never hear turns out to be petrifying.

Enter The Avalanches. Since I Left You arrived at a moment when digital plenitude still seemed a utopian prospect. “Since I left you / I found a world so new,” ran the title song, and it sounded like a kiss-off to the old ways. Goodbye to the 20th century and all that. The main vocal loop was sampled from a song by obscure ’60s pop group The Main Attraction, and a little of that decade’s optimism was secreted inside The Avalanches’ millennial fever. The sound of the ’60s has stayed with them, as we shall see.

Even better, The Avalanches had apparently scouted ahead, listening to everything – comedy albums, Broadway cast recordings, forgotten soul singles – in order to save the rest of us the effort. And though it arrived just in time to mark out a new type of online listening, Since I Left You owed its existence to the very analogue pastime of crate-digging. Sifting through thousands of vinyl records in dusty basements for just the right sample is the kind of activity that demands patience, discernment and an ear for the minutiae of musical history. The labour involved creates its own worth, and the praise that surrounded Since I Left You had as much to do with how it was made as it did with what the album sounded like – a laid-back, chattery kind of dance music, better suited to outdoor parties than to the dusky atmosphere of a nightclub.

Since I Left You regularly appears in lists of Best Australian Albums, Best Albums of the 2000s, Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, et cetera. (The ranked list, a staple of contemporary music criticism, is one method of choosing what to listen to amid practically infinite options.) How to follow up a record that has gone on to be canonised as a pop classic? After so long, The Avalanches have plumped for doing more of the same.

Take ‘The Noisy Eater’, which comes near the midpoint of Wildflower. It begins with a melange of cartoon voices, including what sounds like Cookie Monster. Then follows a whimsical little organ melody that repeats throughout the song, and snatches of a children’s choir singing The Beatles’ ‘Come Together’. (To clear the sample, The Avalanches’ members wrote directly to Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono to ask permission.) Over the top of all this arrives Long Island rapper and comedian Biz Markie. He has some obvious, food-related rhymes.

Such guest vocalists, the one new element in The Avalanches’ formula, emphasise the album’s uneasy tilting between hip-hop grooves (sluggish ones at that) and psychedelic spirit. None of the vocalists shines. The distinctively nasal tone of Danny Brown, for instance, is much better showcased by his own work, like the twitchy, suspicious ‘When It Rain’, released as a single in June. Jonathan Donahue, of the rock group Mercury Rev, has a turn on ‘Colours’, one of several tracks that recall not only The Beach Boys but also that group’s hazy West Coast pop lineage, which includes Wildflower guests Ariel Pink and Toro y Moi.

One might argue that all nostalgia is in pursuit of a unachievable ideal, but the nostalgia of The Avalanches feels especially rootless: a sound without a place. Sampling can be a tool of uncanny evocation, dragging the past into a new musical present so that time itself feels plastic. But it can also work to erase those temporal boundaries. In The Avalanches’ sonic universe everything happens at once, and for a listener there is no space left that has not already been annexed by yet more information. Wildflower has no end of detail, and a shortage of spatial depth.

Wildflower’s cover art references that of Sly and the Family Stone’s 1971 album There’s a Riot Goin’ On. The San Francisco psychedelic soul band’s album cover featured an American flag in red, white and black to make a point about the country’s fractured race relations. The Avalanches have added pastel colours to their version, and a little butterfly. Wildflower is being released, with a clear eye on the American market, at the height of a northern summer during which a billionaire with plans to build a wall between the United States and Mexico is the Republican presidential nominee. Two more African-American men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, have been killed by police officers, adding to a grim roll call that may well have been superseded by the time this goes to print. Police officers have been gunned down, too.

Online we become witnesses to all this turmoil, dividing and redividing our attention as the newest horrors unfold in real time. Political time has sped up, immensely, because of the internet: this morning’s news is already out of date. But the rate of innovation in popular music has slowed, almost as if the cumulative weight of the form’s history, now that it is so readily available, is something that artists and listeners alike struggle to carry forward.

In response, some of the most compelling contemporary pop music is being made by those artists who address the fraught experience of living in the here and now, even when their music uses past forms. British musician Dev Hynes, for example, released the outstanding Freetown Sound, his third album under the name Blood Orange, just a few days before The Avalanches released Wildflower. Blood Orange is as musically indebted to ’80s soul as the Avalanches are to ’60s pop, but the sampling on Freetown Sound speaks equally of the present, evoking a black diaspora from Sierra Leone to New York.

It would be both simplistic and unfair to demand that The Avalanches turn their attention away from their own well-constructed musical universe and towards the outside world – for many listeners, escapism of the kind the group offers would be very welcome. But, to paraphrase from a song released in the same year as Since I Left You, The Avalanches seem stuck in a moment they can’t get out of, when the 21st century was new and unblemished. Since I Left You and Wildflower have arrived 16 years apart and they sound essentially the same. But now the hopefulness feels misplaced. Call it bad timing.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

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