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Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Avalanches: Wildflower


1) The Leaves Were Falling; 2) Because I'm Me; 3) Frankie Sinatra; 4) Subways; 5) Going Home; 6) If I Was A Folkstar; 7) Colours; 8) Zap!; 9) The Noisy Eater; 10) Wildflower; 11) Harmony; 12) Live A Lifetime Love; 13) Park Music; 14) Livin' Underwater (Is Something Wild); 15) The Wozard Of Iz; 16) Over The Turnstiles; 17) Sun­shine; 18) Light Up; 19) Kaleidoscope Lovers; 20) Stepkids; 21) Saturday Night Inside Out; 22) Frankie Sinatra (extended mix).

Perhaps the weirdest thing about The Avalanches' second album and the 15 (!) years that separate it from the first one is realizing that The Avalanches did not, in fact, break up over any significant time period in the interim. They'd always been a fairly loose collective, and the only current members are the core duo of Robbie Chater and Tony Di Blasi, while other people came and went, but there never really was a specific timeframe in between 2001 and 2016 when The Ava­lanches officially «did not exist» — so one cannot technically call Wildflower a «comeback», especially given the fact that some of its tracks had been conceived as early as 2000.

So — fifteen frickin' falls, a period over which most of the band's original adolescent fans gradu­ated from college, got themselves steady jobs, got married, settled down, grew some new or shaved off some old facial hair, only to wake up one fine morning and learn that there was also a parallel reality in which nothing has changed: Wildflower not only picks up from exactly where Since I Left You had, in fact, left us, but it goes on to walk a crooked mile in order to leave us, one hour later, at the exact same starting point once again. As if you needed one more argument to show how little has changed in the world of music since the 21st century introduced us to the concept of Artistic Deep Freeze, the Avalanches are here to teach us a lesson in how «it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place», to quote a truly immortal line.

To be fairly honest, if this reaction can be called «enjoyment», then I «enjoyed» Wildflower ab­so­lutely no less (and probably no more) than I did with Since I Left You — a reaction that could hardly be said to agree with the overall critical and fan response to the record, where most people said that it was sort of okay but no Since I Left You. The reason for that seems to be on the sur­face: Since I Left You struck a chord with its novelty factor — few, if any, people up to that point made plunderphonics sound so fun, so light, so danceable, so accessible, and yet so absolute in terms of focus and dedication. There was a certain inspirational whiff to it that may even have led some people to entertain odd thoughts about how this would be the future of music, etc. But now that fifteen years have passed and, while sampling as such remains firmly embedded in our conscience as one of the most heavily (ab)used modern musical means, plunderphonics remains on the fringes of that conscience — and it kind of looks like it was a dead end after all. A fun dead end to find oneself in every once in a while, but hardly one where you can give a slight tap to the magical wall at the end and find yourself in musical nirvana.

But perhaps this assessment — «nice, but nothing particularly new or mind-blowing» — is un­fair, and all it takes is a few attentive listens to uncover progress? Well, they do seem to be a little more open to integrating some new sounds in the patchy canopy of old: for instance, rappers Danny Brown and Biz Markie came along for some of the sessions to record vocal parts for several tracks, along with a few other less familiar faces. Indeed, Wildflower goes much heavier on the raps than its predecessor, though it hardly ever feels like a hip-hop record because its «plunderbase» is so much more antiquated than is typical of sampling in hip-hop. That's pretty much the only substantial difference — other than that, Wildflower offers you still the same dizzying kaleidoscope of instrumental and vocal overdubs that find their sources in little-known old vinyl grooves. You will get educated, for sure, as they revitalize long-forgotten niceties: ʽBecause I'm Meʼ, for instance, is all based on loops from ʽWant Adsʼ by The Honey Cones, a cool dance-soul number from the sunniest corner of 1969 (sold a million copies back in the day, by the way, but who remembers that now? Well — The Avalanches do!), while ʽFrankie Sinatraʼ exploits Wilmoth Houdini's ʽBobby Sox Idolʼ and reminds you of how ironically fun classic calypso music could be back in the day, with Danny Brown supplementing Houdini's trembling croak with his own humorous take on the Frank Sinatra thing ("Like Frank Sinatra, bitch, do this shit my way" — welcome to 2016, ladies and gentlemen).

On the really obscure side, ʽSubwaysʼ will teach you about the 1980 EP by "Chandra", a pre-teen artist who might be regarded as sort of Eighties' equivalent to Rebecca Black (no, really, I mean it: the original ʽSub­waysʼ is such an embarrassing piece of pseudo-New-Wave/disco-mash-up that it is almost ama­zing how The Avalanches managed to take out a couple lines and make them sound alarming and troubled); and on the «null void» side, ʽThe Noisy Eaterʼ features a hilarious live recording of ʽCome Togetherʼ as performed by the choir of Kew High School in the band's own native Melbourne, mashed with a Biz Markie narrative about a «noisy eater», with language stuck midway between British folklore and gangsta rap. Sounds intriguing, doesn't it? Well, I can tell you that the surrealist absurdity of it all does come through, and I'd be lying through my teeth if I said this wasn't at all entertaining. Plus, there's always the game challenge — how many of these bits and pieces will you recognize on your own? I totally suck at this, but I was at least proud of my Beatle-lore when my ears perceived a snippet from the carnivalesque Lowrey organ of ʽBe­ing For The Benefit Of Mr. Kiteʼ on ʽFrankie Sinatraʼ, or the vocal harmony bit from Ram's ʽUncle Albertʼ on ʽLiving Underwaterʼ (alas, Spirit's ʽWater Womanʼ that constitutes the backbone of the track was stuffed way too deep in my memory to resurface on its own).

So yes, it's all fun. They have a good ear for «tasty bits», and if there's a lesson in here that even bad-to-mediocre obscurities can have moments of impressive musical dynamics that might very well work outside of the original context — count me in. The problem is, it still does not work anywhere other than in its own post-modern frame, and aren't we living in a post-post-modern frame already? (Or perhaps even «post-post-post-modern», I've honestly lost count...). Fifteen years have not taught these guys how to plunder their phonics in a way that would truly create an alternate psychedelic reality to which I could, you know, relate or something. There's a lot of fussiness here, for sure, and meta-melodicity, and even some atmospheric warmth, considering how they usually concentrate on life-asserting dance-oriented R&B and sunshine pop for their sources, yet none of this makes the resulting collage properly meaningful on an emotional level, once you've savored the joke.

To be honest, I cannot blame them for not having made much pro­gress because I fail to see how it is even possible to make any progress in this direction — al­though, on the other hand, maybe if they had introduced some jarring mood shifts (for instance, added a «dark side» to the bubbly psychedelic frolicking by plundering, oh, I dunno, some death metal archives?), this could help focus our attention? Whatever. In any case, I'd be very surprised if somebody (Danny Brown fans excepted) honestly and flatly preferred Wildflower to Since I Left You — ultimately, it just feels like a bonus hour for those who thought that 2001's Australia summarized the highest points of Western civilization as we knew them. For everybody else, it's mostly a good way to remem­ber Wilmoth Houdini — and Chandra.

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