Album Review: The Avalanches – Wildflower

Sampling Aussies make their long-anticipated return after 16 long years without new music

For a chapter of his 2002 personal-essay collection Songbook, the author Nick Hornby tries to make sense of “Frontier Psychiatrist”, the quintessential track by the Avalanches. “Just as robots cannot feel love,” he inhales, “music that has been produced from this number of samples cannot yet induce any recognition of mood in the listener.” He keeps spinning: “Maybe we’ll become used to it, and learn how to translate and interpret songs drawn from a bewildering number of sources; or maybe collagistes like the Avalanches will be able to refine their art, and make the music they make fit the moods we know.”

Or, maybe, the Avalanches wouldn’t refine anything because this would be the last thing that anyone would hear from the Avalanches — for a long while, anyway. But it’s tough to blame Hornby for overlooking that possibility. In 2000, with our sweat barely dry from an apocalypse scare, the Melbourne outfit came out of nowhere, blew minds, and saved souls with a whole new strain of feel-good music synthesized with hundreds of beautiful micro-fragments of forgotten vinyl, which they smashed and artfully glued back together for one manic, untouchable LP by the name of Since I Left You, and then promptly disappeared. It promised everything, even though they had never actually promised anyone anything.

That their second album Wildflower eventually arrived is almost beside the point by now. If the Avalanches were capable of holding out for a span of time encompassing four Olympics ceremonies without ever calling it an official split or putting out new material, then surely there’s a not-too-distant reality where it never did. It’s alright if you’re not quite ready to let go of the one-and-done Avalanches; Since I Left You is their album, the following 16-year echo chamber was their performance of it, and Wildflower is the encore.

Hornby may have wrestled mightily with these composite moods that Since I Left You stirred, but he was on to something in wondering where this medium was taking us. Since then, our understanding of sampling’s legal and ethical implications has developed substantially (and still remains hopelessly lost). Hip-hop brought it all the way to the front; EMI went after Danger Mouse over it; the mash-up flash grenade thrown by Girl Talk detonated and died; Donuts happened. And meanwhile, the Avalanches’ inconsistent performance life and occasional overambitious updates created a self-inflating anticipation bubble around a follow-up album, when for all we know — which is still very little — they were angling for the opposite. But that’s not how it works. After a layover like that, the mark is permanent.

And the very first offshoot of it on Wildflower is that these are not exactly the same Avalanches as before. Darren Seltmann, a founding member and the closest thing they had to a frontman, officially departed at some point in the last ten years. DJ Dexter Fabay, another seemingly essential presence and turntablist-in-chief, was out as early as 2003. That leaves the two remaining co-founders, Tony Di Blasi and Robbie Chater, and, in a more on-and-off capacity, James Dela Cruz. The three show up ready to prove that for all the messing around they do with time — whether reviving old sounds or waiting a full human adolescence between albums — they are in touch with the times.

Since I Left You was a confusing listen because that’s how it was designed: many small parts, many different tonal makeups, one new song that matches the singularity of each. On Wildflower, the Avalanches trade in much of that “vaguely familiar” delightfulness in favor of the completely familiar, acknowledging their newfound esteem and resources by enlisting other esteemed names for guest spots all over the album. On top of some huge faces in rap, Ariel Pink, Father John Misty, and Toro Y Moi’s Chaz Bundick make cameos, as do a pair of journeymen musicians in Warren Ellis (Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Grinderman) and Jonathan Donahue (The Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev).

The Avalanches also do it by just copping the melody off an extremely well-known song. In the case of lead single “Frankie Sinatra” — the first new music to finally emerge — it’s both. Danny Brown, practically the emcee of the band’s welcome-back party, channels the slap-happy, “crazy-in-the-coconut” spirit of “Frontier Psychiatrist” with MF DOOM as they rhyme over a cartoonishly nutty beat lifted from the 1930s calypso singer Wilmoth Houdini, which then flips the switch to “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music, unaccompanied, for a four-measure bridge. They flagrantly blow it all out once again on the self-defeating and still-must-listen “The Noisy Eater”, which features Biz Markie shilling Cheerios, Frosted Flakes, and Cap’n Crunch over his own munching sounds. He’s then interrupted by the iconic first verse of The Beatles’ “Come Together”, personally cleared by Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono. The message is clear: These are sounds that we are now able to play around with, and so we must.

Still, this is an album that Di Blasi and Chater spent 16 years — efficiently or not — making sure they got right, and the level of obsession in its fine-tuning demands respect. Wildflower comes out swinging. “Because I’m Me” leans heavily on the 1971 number-one Honey Cone single “Want Ads” and two career-making verses from Camp Lo for another gleeful joyride. “Colours”, on the other hand, might not contain a single sample, but still comes away as among the album’s few strongest; though a backtracked voice sings the hook, it’s still lyrical. And there are also plenty of fine moments that are lyric-less, namely the obsessively textured “Livin’ Underwater (Is Something Wild)”.

On “Stepkids”, a late highlight featuring Royal Trux’s Jennifer Herrema that apparently dates back to 2006, the Avalanches push nostalgia into full throttle. The song gallops as Herrema delivers the album’s biggest non-rap vocal cameo, sneering lines that evoke, of all ages, 16: “Light firecrackers while we crack cans of beer/ And if the boys aren’t skating there/ Maybe we can paint pentagrams and pot leafs on the wall.” There’s no lyric quite as succinct as “Since I! Left! You!/ I’ve found a world so new!” to be found this time — and that might be Wildflower‘s worst shortcoming — but more importantly, the Avalanches’ freakishly thorough commitment to concept is still alive.

Like so many other recent case studies of an ultimate “second coming” event in pop music, Wildflower also materialized in unspectacular fashion: “[Artist] to debut new music on Beats 1 Radio this evening,” “Stream [artist’s] new album one week early via Apple Music,” a comeback festival set that did not quite go as planned. But if all this contextual noise sounds like it’s drowning out the music, Wildflower comes prepared with its own response. The fact that there even is this strange context to talk about at all is a gift, and a cause for celebration. For that, there are no composite moods necessary.

Essential Tracks: “Because I’m Me”, “Livin’ Underwater (Is Something Wild)”, and “Stepkids”


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