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Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Avalanches: Since I Left You


1) Since I Left You; 2) Stay Another Season; 3) Radio; 4) Two Hearts In 3/4 Time; 5) Avalanche Rock; 6) Flight Tonight; 7) Close To You; 8) Diners Only; 9) A Different Feeling; 10) Electricity; 11) Tonight; 12) Pablo's Cruise; 13) Frontier Psychiatrist; 14) Etoh; 15) Summer Crane; 16) Little Journey; 17) Live At Dominoes; 18) Extra Kings.

It is not difficult to understand the concept of «plunderphonics»: all you have to do is to agree that, in art at least, the total does not always equal the sum of its parts. If you take sample A from one artist and sample B from another artist and put them together, you are not performing a crude act of «stealing» as long as you acknowledge the sources — you may be trying to generate a new meaning. As in — sample one of Hitler's speeches over ʽStar Spangled Bannerʼ and you will de­finitely be generating a new meaning, albeit one that might cause you some headache if thrown about in the public sphere.

It is much more troublesome, though, to understand if the very art of «plunderphonics» has, in it­self, anything to do with «music». The Avalanches themselves, a merry bunch of Australian DJs with a heavy interest in old used vinyl, would, and have, understandably argued that it does. After all, Since I Left You — their debut, and, so far, their only record — is not merely something that has to be perceived through one's ears, it is also something that is targeted at provoking a rhyth­mic reaction from your body: stuff that you should, and could, dance to, and it is fairly hard to dance to anything other than music. Even architecture.

On the other side, it can hardly be argued that Since I Left You is «just» a dance-oriented pop album. Its composition — a super-complex kaleidoscope of over 900 different samples — all by itself positions it as a work of art, to be processed and analyzed through your mind just as well as it could be picked up by the irrational nerve centers in your body. And this is where one begins to have problems with viewing it as «music»: from this point of view, Since I Left You becomes an analogy of something like a Duchamp readymade.

The hour-long album, all of it structured like one long track, without a single break between the separate tracks, seamlessly flowing in and out of each other, is mostly rooted in the groovy sounds of generic 1970s R&B — so generic, in fact, that I confess to not recognizing any of the samples involved (supposedly, there has to be a bit of Madonna's ʽHolidayʼ in here somewhere, but I don't remember where exactly). Part of the band's preference for these obscure funk / disco grooves probably stems from the understandable fear of getting sued by the big gangstas of pop entertainment (they'd rather be sued by the small ones), but part of it is symbolic — as some sort of adepts of the Andy Warhol school of pop-art, they find their interest in dragging out long-for­gotten chunks of routine mediocrity and going the "it ain't art because it's inherently fabulous, it's art because we are inherently fabulous and we say it's art" route with them.

On the outside layer, having chopped up, remixed, and loop-de-looped those R&B grooves, they mix them with miriads of sound effects, everything from neighing horses to movie soundtracks to phaser blasts from crappy (or not so crappy) 1980s video games, and offer it for our attention and appreciation. The overall effect, if there is an overall effect, could only be described as «The Mad Hatter's Disco Ball» — an experimental, sprawling panorama of sonic absurdity, completely open to analysis, interpretation, admiration, derision, or the occasional flight of a rotten tomato. Unfor­tunately, there is nothing «revolutionary» in this approach per se — «plunderphonics» as a con­cept dates back to at least John Oswald's invention of the term in 1985, or, to a smaller extent, to the works of The Art Of Noise in the early 1980s. So one can only evaluate the merits of The Avalanches based on a question like «so, what exactly are they doing here to convince us that the art of plunderphonics deserves further existence?»

My brief personal answer to this would then be something like «uhhh...». A longer answer would involve mumbling out phrases like «well, I guess they can sound funny at times», «you know, it doesn't really sound all the same if you really put your ear to it», and «hey, sometimes it is more productive to ask questions than to give answers».

In all honesty, I do not «get» this album, and have no reason to think that anyone does (at least, certainly not based on the actual glowing reviews of it that I have read). I do remember myself, in early childhood, playing two tapes on different tape recorders and recording the results on a third one, just for pointless fun — the results could sometimes be unpredictably hilarious. I have very strong suspicions that this here is simply a case of several overgrown kids who somehow re­mained stuck in the same mood, only with access to far superior technologies and far larger data banks. Consequently, the results are essentially the same: sometimes, through sheer chance, it works, sometimes it doesn't, but what works and what doesn't work will most likely be complete­ly different and unpredictable for different people.

On one thing there may be no disagreement: a heavy shitload of work went into the creation of this whole project — several years of toil and trouble, in fact (and the real curious thing about The Avalanches is that, while they are still alive and kicking, they have by now spent more than a decade planning and recording their follow-up record). Serious plunderphonics requires serious skills at plundering — which may be one reason behind all the positive reviews: even if these overdubs make little sense, they are all fitted together quite smoothly, so that the album never ever becomes truly cacophonous. Crazy, but not dissonant or chaotic. The horses are neighing in all the right spots — where somebody else would have probably inserted a repetitive lead guitar lick or synth loop. Even the video game phaser blasts on ʽA Different Feelingʼ are all blasting out on time and in perfect harmony with the disco beats.

In other words, I am quite ready to agree that Since I Left You is a triumph of form — and an awesome soundtrack for a party that has to combine opportunities for dancing, hip intellectualism, and an atmosphere of whacked out surrealism. But on the other hand, I do not wish for a second to overestimate this stuff — for instance, by trying to over-analyze and «interpret» any of these tracks (and, given the complexity of their structure, treating even one of them in this manner could take a long time and make the writer look seriously afflicted). You have your own perfect right, for instance, to regard the record as a symbolic expression of pop culture's diversity, or as a symbolic expression of pop culture's vanity and cheapness, or as a symbolic expression of pop culture's trashy beauty and seductiveness, or as a brave statement saying that nothing that goes into the wastebasket is guaranteed to forever stay in the wastebasket...

...whatever. It's all puzzling, curious, and intriguing, but there is also something disturbing in the fact that Since I Left You so often ends up on people's lists of «best-of-the-decade» albums — a rather desperate, if not depressing, decision, I'd say.

Check "Since I Left You" (CD) on Amazon


  1. Hipsters don't lie. They just trim their moustaches.

  2. Great review, as always, but if you can go back to "A" while you're still working through "B", I have to wonder why you haven't moved on to "C" yet. Come on, let's see some Can on this blog!

    1. Going back is always easier than going forward. Besides, it is necessary to keep a good alphabetic balance between all seven sections.

  3. Lovely album. I hate to sound cheesy, but Since I Left You does feel like a sort of musical journey. The sound is both smooth and intricate, I love that. I'd say that if you want to get away from it all for an hour or so, this is about perfect. The title track and "Frontier Phyciatrist" are the highlights, but individual songs are your least concern here.
    Wouldn't be on my list of decade's best, but I love pulling this one out once every three months or so.
    Also, I heard about a follow-up several years ago - I guess there could be some competition with Wrens there.

    1. Sounding like a "musical journey" isn't cheesy at all if it's in the stated record that the album began envisioned with a globe-trotting story about a boy chasing after a girl (ah, love) but eventually got backgrounded to make way for the sampling antics, like that Madonna bassline that crops up right after Track 2 (Stay Another Season) is born out of the opening title track.

      There's a deep ideological rift over the effort and value of creating something from pre-existing parts. The Duchamp analogy would maybe be more akin to a less deft example of sampling, like, er, MC Hammer doing his thing over "Superfreak" by Rick James. And even in the laziest cases, sampling (done right) has always been acknowledging the value of the constituent parts and transporting that into the newly-made context. Ask anyone who makes music this way and they'll tell you straight off the bat the debt owed to the source material. And I don't just mean the licensing payments.

      I don't want to be pithy, but I wish George would "listen again" and try to pick out some of the subtleties. The recurring samples, reappearing themes, the lingering thematic elements that can all be teased out, that stuff. It's a bit like a Magic Eye poster; you have to line the similar bits up, but ultimately let it blur together and fixate on the whole, as a completed composition, or you'll only see the squiggles and stripes instead of the hidden image that jumps out at you. In any case, watch the music video for "Frontier Psychiatrist" at least once if you haven't. (Applicable to anyone.)

      P.S. the old archives seem to be MIA... is this a temporary downtime or are the ancient tomes lost for good?

  4. "That boy needs therapy." It's an interesting album but it's hard to get any real emotional pull from any of it.