What do you do after you’ve made the best album of 2000? If you are The Avalanches, you wait 16 years, then produce a follow-up that is every bit as good. I found listening to Since I Left You for the first time a stunning experience. (I’m not the only one.) Wildflower, its successor, which finally appeared this summer, burns more slowly, but is in its way equally brilliant.
Pop music as we know it is around 60 years old and life, sadly, is too short to listen to it all. Indeed, in a niche-marketed world, most people stick to their comfort zone. In that sense The Avalanches are like curators of a musical museum, expertly digging out rare jewels, then displaying them in a way that simultaneously offers us unexpected pleasures and challenges us to widen our horizons.
Robbie Chater, Tony Di Blasi and Darren Seltmann came together as Alarm 115 in Melbourne in 1994. After that group broke up they performed gigs as Swinging Monkey Cocks, Quentin’s Brittle Bones, and Whoops Downs Syndrome, changing to The Avalanches for their fifth gig, in 1997. It seems appropriate that their name was taken from an American band whose one album, made in 1963, is the kind of LP you might have found tucked away gathering dust at the back of a charity shop. Here’s the title track.
For Since I Left You, The Avalanches acquired their material from any and everywhere – from obscure soul and hip-hop records to downright odd pop songs, show tunes, snippets of old TV and radio shows and adverts, the spoken word – then painstakingly wove hundreds of samples together to make a musical collage that was cool, funny, moving, and, despite being entirely assembled from existing material, somehow completely original.
The beating heart of the album was dance music. You could put it on at a party and get on down for the best part of an hour (perhaps taking a break to refill your glass during Frontier Psychiatrist).
Since I Left You was critically acclaimed and sold reasonably, especially in the UK, but I wouldn’t have thought it made enough money for the band to live on for a decade and a half working on a handful of EPs and mixtapes and then a follow-up. (For their own explanation of what they’ve been up to, this interview with Alexis Petridis has the gory details.)
By contrast to its predecessor, the inspiration for Wildflower is California sunshine pop in its psychedelia-tinged 1968 manifestation. It’s not an accident that the track names include Colours, Harmony, and Sunshine, and the artists sampled include The Association, Harpers Bizarre, and Spirit. But this time there are real musicians and vocalists performing Chater and Di Blasi’s fine compositions; the samples are fewer, more nuanced, and once again perfectly judged.
The song Subways gives an indication of the way The Avalanches work. There are nine writing credits, in four separate partnerships (one of which is Chater and Di Blasi). The two main samples are Subways, a 1980 track by the then 12-year-old Chandra Oppenheim, and Warm Ride, Graham Bonnet’s version of the Bee Gees song. The Doobie Brothers’ Black Water is in there too, along with The Bar-Kays and The Fly Girlz. The result is something that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Light Up is essentially a mash-up of World of Fantasy, a lovely soul ballad by The Five Stairsteps, and Harpers Bizarre’s sweet-and-sour take on Randy Newman’s The Debutantes Ball. The Wozard of Iz includes more Harpers Bizarre, the guitar intro to Cotton Candy Sandman, and Lost in Your Eyes, when Tommy James and The Shondells started to psych out. Incidentally, I thought I was Harpers Bizarre’s only surviving fan; I was wrong: this great harmony group are sampled several times on Wildflower and Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donahue, who sings on several tracks, sounds rather like their lead singer, the great Ted Templeman. You can hear him on Colours, one of the standout tracks. The song also features samples from Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color and the Brazilian singer and guitarist Tuca. George Martin would be proud of the backwards vocals.
I defy anyone to listen to this album and not learn something. I had no idea, for instance, that “Juggalos” are hardcore fans of Insane Clown Posse. As with Since I Left You, you hear some new, perhaps tiny, detail every time.
It’s clear from the comments online that people have been inspired by Wildflower to explore the samples and discover, or rediscover, the hidden gems that lie within, such as the largely forgotten soul classics Leave It All Behind Me, by The Fuzz, and Want Ads, by The Honey Cone. Listening to The Avalanches is a musical education.
The city of Melbourne is on a roll at the moment because there’s every chance that the band of next year will be the remarkable King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard (and not just because I love the name). Look out for their five – yes, five – new albums scheduled for 2017. As for The Avalanches, we may have to wait a while longer for their next offering but, even if it takes until 2032, it will be worth it.
Last modified: January 23, 2017