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Courtesy of Astralwerks

July 25, 2016

TEST SPIN: The Avalanches — Wildflower

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The last time The Avalanches released a full-length album, George W. Bush was just elected president, the internet was still in its infancy compared to the totalizing social presence it ballooned into in the mid-naughties and Sept. 11 hadn’t happened yet. Since I Left You, the group’s debut, is as danceable as it is radical in form. The Avalanches methodically overlaid 3,500 samples to create a funky, rich album that is easily playable at a party, yet also deeply rewarding to listen to while alone. Released initially to moderate success in their native Australia, the album has since grown internationally to be revered as among the sharpest examples of contemporary plunderphonics, a genre of samples-based music.

Sixteen years have passed and, after a few rumors from the late 2000s alleging the imminent release of their follow-up album, Wildflower has finally arrived. Instead of crafting another album primarily for the party-focused, The Avalanches have produced a work that melodically evinces an easy-going, mostly pleasant mood in line with the psychedelic and sunshine pop from which it draws inspiration. It is an immensely enjoyable album to appreciate on first listen for its ostensible “upbeat-ness,” but is crafted with enough depth that repeat listens reveal a wider variety of emotions. In this subtly intricate work, it is possible to hear both the celebratory melody that immediately hooks, and the sense of ethereal detachment which inevitably comes with listening to cultural fragments of the past.

We commence with a soulful, uplifting track, “Because I’m Me,” an accurate introduction to what we learn is the album’s tendency to glide between kinesthetic pop and psychedelic meandering. In “Because I’m Me,” the singer sounds like he is skateboarding down the main street of his suburban neighborhood, orientating us to the different tones, melodies and characters we are to eventually meet.

In contrast to their first album, Wildflower combines its samples into an album that feels much more organic in form. This is not to say that Since I Left You is robotic, but rather that Wildflower weaves its multiple samples into a more seamless tapestry. In Since I Left You, there are a couple of moments throughout when it seems as though The Avalanches were calling attention to their virtuosity as craftsmen of sonic collage — not in any way abrasive, but rather in self-reflexive celebration. With Wildflower, it feels as though the group has made it an additional aspiration of theirs to not only cobble together a coherent narrative, but also to elicit that feeling of “a borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered [60s/70s/80s/90s],” to appropriate a line from LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge.”

It is a shame that the second track, “Frankie Sinatra,” no doubt a skillful fusion of silly-sounding hip-hop lyrics, brassy beats and mild calypso, quickly tires after merely a couple of passes. This is not unusual for the most immediately infectious of album singles. However, the track is worthwhile at times, like when it crystallizes The Avalanches’ innate preoccupation with pop-culture artifacts in its fleeting display of a famous melody from The Sound of Music. Nonetheless, we swiftly veer back to a layered track with “Subways,” whose sense of movement is furthered by an even more danceable song, the disco-influenced “Going Home.”

The album then suddenly, yet almost unnoticeably, slows in “If I Was A Folkstar,” acclimatizing us to a thoughtful pace. Indeed, with the album’s shift in tempo comes a shift in mood: the song features a simple, but effectively synthesized melody that catches our attention while alluding to the forthcoming sense of melancholy we undeniably feel by the track’s conclusion. The following song, “Colours,” marks the official beginning of the album’s psychedelic wanderings, distorting voices into a high-pitched, Lennon-esque sermon that conjures the euphoria of drugs and surf of half a century ago. The album briefly returns to a more grounded rhythm in “The Noisy Eater,” featuring vocals by comic rapper Biz Markie that, as Mark Richardson of Pitchfork accurately describes, is impressive for its “sheer commitment to its evocation of childhood, sounding like some bent version of a Nickelodeon jingle.”

The short, eponymous track, “Wildflower,” returns us to the drug-induced trip after that brief come-down, setting off what is arguably the most rapturous song in the whole album. Aptly-titled “Harmony,” it is brimming with so many good vibes that even the nostalgic-inducing repetitions within the song are deeply buried beneath a celebratory tone. The next significant change in tone comes in “The Wozard of Iz,” among Wildflower’s most lyrically interesting songs. A beguiling chorus of fuzzy voices repeats “There is magic in the splendor and desire to surrender,” before nostalgically confronting us with the line, “Every moment we’re together makes me hope it lasts forever.” Afterwards, an innocent-sounding female voice croons “I have been over the rainbow/And I found nothing there.”
Later, “Over the Turnstiles” reminds us of the temporal and spatial environment of the past, before we then return to the sense of drug-induced contentment felt earlier as we sail through “Sunshine,” “Light Up,” and “Kaleidoscopic Lovers,” pleasant tracks that just feel a little forgettable in the context they’re placed.

The final two tracks of the album, “Stepkids” and “Saturday Night Inside Out,” re-emerge as pop-influenced meditations on the impending conclusion of not just the album, but also the youthfulness the album represents. Anthony Fantano labeled these tracks an anticlimactic conclusion. Disregard him, for they are arguably the most emotionally turbulent of the whole work. In the former, we hear a man’s voice, distorted to sound almost like a child’s, as he murmurs over a melody that feels as if it were pre-empting an end credit sequence. His barely-legible lyrics speak with affection for adolescent hooliganism — “I got the smokes and a can of spray-paint … light firecrackers while we crack cans of beer” — with a tonal recognition of the fact that the days they could shoot the shit “by the water [where] we can hang out all night long” are numbered.

The final track of the album, “Saturday Night Inside Out” feels like the end credit sequence, mourning and yet celebrating what has passed in its fuzzy reverberations, as if we were listening to an old, dusty tape-recorder of a now-grown man, who I have since learned is David Berman, narrate his memories. Some of what he says is incredibly poetic, such as the seemingly inconsequential observation that “It gets late so early now,” and “Teardrops were standing in my eyes / Like deer before they bolt.”

Wildflower is a beautiful, rewarding entanglement of various genre elements from the history of record production that portrays the rewarding peacefulness of nostalgia, yet also acknowledges the melancholy inherent to any revisiting of the distant past. In both form and theme, it demonstrates that plunderphonics, when thoughtfully stitching together ephemeral pieces of a forgotten musical landscape, can effectively capitalize on the specificities of its form to navigate more universal feelings of awe and fear for the relentlessness of time. It has taken them 16 years to produce this new record, a period that in retrospect appears immensely long but for many of us went by with surprising speed. How appropriate, then, that Wildflower evinces the nuances of reminiscence.

Lorenzo Benitez is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at llb224@cornell.edu.

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