THE AVALANCHES, Since I Left You
by Simon Reynolds
You should hear the things people say about The Avalanches: "Basement Jaxx meets the Beta Band," "Stardust crossed with Stereolab," sample-based music with the freshness of Foxbase Alpha and the playful wit of 3 Feet High and Rising. With such mouthwatering parallels bandied around, you're almost set up to be underwhelmed by this Australian outfit's debut. Amazingly, Since I Left You lives up to the hype. At the end, you feel dazed and bemused, partly because you're concussed by its tumultuous on-rush of non-stop brilliance, but also because it's hard to put your finger on why the Avalanches are so special, so different.
It's not that there's anything unusual about the group's modus operandi (the album was assembled out of samples from 600 records scavenged during 18 months of field research in second-hand vinyl shops). Wagon Christ's Luke Vibert is no slouch at alchemizing stale cheese into soulful gold and even claims to prefer "shit records" as sample-sources; Bentley Rhythm Ace scour car boot sales for kitschadelic treasure; electronic jesters V/Vm bulk-buy unsellable CD singles and hilariously deface the oeuvres of Shakin' Stevens and Russ Abbott. Nor is it the case that Avalanches do anything especially complicated or technically advanced with their raw material: they loop the samples, layer the loops, drop them in and out of the mix, twist them into strange little riffs. So why is Since I Left You such a relentless loop-da-loop rollercoaster of thrills? Could it be because the group's delight at the sonic jetsam they've salvaged is palpable in every bar of the record? (You can just imagine the exultant whoops when they unearthed the soundbites about a chap called Dexter--same name as the Avalanches singer--who's "criminally insane" and "needs therapy"). Or is it just the sheer un-restraint and gratuitous generosity with which they pile it all on thick?.
Composed out of approximately one thousand "good bits" from other records, Since I Left You rarely feels bitty. The Avalanches's forte isn't technical so much as the art of listening and spotting compatibilities between disparate sounds. For it's one thing to take three or four sampled elements and make them work together, and quite another to take twenty or fifty (which is what many songs here sound like) and making them mesh them together as a plausible, integrated composition (while still retaining that uncanny sampladelic see-the-joins quality). Drawing on exotica, surf music, animal noises, film scores, Francoise Hardy-style Gallic girl-pop, and chartpop from the last five decades, Since hits hardest in the tingly treble zone: your ears are dazzled by acoustic guitars, Radio 2 strings, flute-twirls, harp-ripples, piano trills, dulcet snippets of la-la-la-ing female vocal, tinkling vibes, twinkling electric piano, bursts of heavenly choir. Into this wafts explosions of merriment, dinner table hubbub, football terrace fervor, foghorn blasts, and glorious non-sequiturs like "he also made false teeth." Gorgeously goofy hookphrases like "I got the bubbly/bubbling through me" pop to the surface, momentarily crystallising the music's effervescence. "Tonight", one of the few downtempo lulls, sounds like a Shirley Bassey ballad played on badly warped vinyl. And if tunes like "Frontier Psychiatry" (the one with the Dexter-is-a-loony samples) and "Flight Tonight" verge on Big Beat wackiness, others, like "Etoh" and "Summer Crane," evoke near-mystical feelings of tenderness and rejoicing, sensations of existensial buoyancy and the dizzy bliss that ensues when you lose count of your blessings.
Since I Left You is experienced as one long flow. Structurally (its onion-skin layers of crescendo, the absence of gaps between tracks) and emotionally (an almost painfully plangent euphoria) the record it reminds me most of is Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians. But really The Avalanches are the southern hemisphere's Daft Punk. Since I Left You makes a superb companion to the latter's own kitschadelic masterpiece Discovery. If the French house maestros have a slight edge it's only because their own particular brand of cheese---the Seventies shlock-rock of ELO, Frampton, 10 CC, Buggles--is slightly more unusual and piquant than Avalanches's EZ-listening and novelty pop. But unless we're very lucky and other contenders miraculously enter the fray, it'll be these two jostling for Best Dance Album 2001 at year's end.
THE AVALANCHES, Since I Left You
by Simon Reynolds
When it comes to music, misery has a monopoly on credibility (just ask Thom and Trent), and a furrowed brow and tormented soul are essential if you aspire to "deep". "Happy" is a tough act to pull off without seemingly smugly serene (post-Astral Weeks Van Morrison, say), irritatingly jaunty, or simply simpleminded. There are exceptions, of course--Al Green, Brian Wilson, most Krautrock. Now Australian dance six-piece The Avalanches join this illustrious company. Just as the Eskimos have 30 words for different kinds of snow, The Avalanches revel in a thousand subtle shades of joy.
Dance music's own version of "deep" is the way connoisseurs use "dark" as a term of approval. "Dark" typically refers to genres where bass frequencies dominate and treble's been purged (along with melody, the human voice, and general pleasantness). On Since, by contrast, you barely notice the basslines (except when the groove from Madonna's "Holiday" frolics into the fray), while the pounding house beat is more rudimentary than even Daft Punk's. Instead, the Avalanches sound is all about the high end: swirling strings, spangly harps, billowing flutes, twinkly trickles of electric piano, dulcet feminine harmonies, plus the occasional male vocal pitched up to sound angelic. This densely layered cornucopia of radiance and rhapsody (a 1000 samples from around 600 records) is the result of a year spent combing Sydney's thrift-stores for used vinyl. On tracks like ""Two Hearts In 3/4 Time" and "A Different Feeling", the Avalanches tweeter assault resembles Stereolab's Francophile EZ listening crossed with Stardust's French filter disco. Treble not only evokes light, it creates lightheadedness. Since makes you feel dizzy, fizzy inside---a champagne-for-blood sensation captured on "Diners Only" with its catchy whispered chant "got the bubbly/bubbling through me/sparkling sparkling".
With no gaps between its eighteen tracks, just a non-stop groove, Since I Left You is so madly glad, it's demented. But it's not all relentless rejoicing. There are exquisite bittersweet tints to tracks like "Etoh", a sense of heartbursting euphoria shadowed by the intimation that all things must pass. And the downtempo "Tonight" is almost blue. But glumness is instantly banished by the following "Frontier Psychiatry", a Big Beaty jape dotted with wacky soundbites like "that boy needs therapy" and "he also made false teeth." "Summer Crane" ripples religiously like Steve Reich on X. As its title hints, the album's underlying concept is about unburdening yourself--shedding the dead weight of personal history, cutting loose the ties that hold you back, floating off to some exotic elsewhere, or into the ecstatic ether. ("You can book a flight tonight" goes one sample, which could refer to taking a vacation, or a drug). Gravity, in every sense, is abolished. The Avalanches ethos is a sort of positive irresponsibility, dereliction as a duty you owe yourself.