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Review: Since They Left Us, the Avalanches Found a World Not All That New on ‘Wildflower’

The Avalanches' Wildflower
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: July 08, 2016
Label: XL

So many ways to counter the sophomore slump, and the Avalanches chose the most difficult one. It didn’t have to be like this. The time-release fizz of their universally lauded debut LP, Since I Left You — released in the group’s native Australia in 2000, then everywhere else once all the samples cleared the following year — could have nucleated in brains for… well, who knows how long? The album practically made its own mist. It glided into port on the wind of a reputed 900 samples (or was it 3500?), forming a post-colonial picture postcard. A year after it dropped, the group’s Robbie Chater told Pitchfork that Since I Left You was intended to evoke “a guy following a girl around the world and always being one port behind.” But the album, as they say, was really more about the journey: chipper voices announcing tropical flights, a friendly man welcoming you to paradise, crying seagulls, and cruise-ship air horns. Ostensibly an electronic record, the only way it’s danceable is how people used to dance to Nelson Riddle; the only headspace it occupies is Gavin MacLeod’s.

Still, despite its being assembled more or less on-the-fly by Chater and Darren Seltmann — manically loading their Akai S2000 samplers and Apple G3 with disco bass lines and sunshine-pop harmonies — the result was as painstaking a DJ mix as any. Background touches became headlining melodies. The attention-grabbing “Frontier Psychiatrist” — a Dr. Demento event horizon that dumped Enoch Light, John Waters, and a ghost choir into the tub — would’ve been a sore thumb had the Avalanches not presaged its horsey neighs 11 tracks before. And that evocative title, chiseled off a Main Attraction album cut, found its bookending rhyme in a freakin’ Osmonds lift: “Tried but I just can’t get you / Ever since the day I left you.” And though various Avalanches (there were six of them at one point) spent the next decade and a half teasing a follow-up — while “Intro-Introspection” and My Way and As Heard on Radio Soulwax Pt. 2 and Night Ripper and Indians & Cowboys offered their own sampladelic scavenging — the prevailing sense was that they were trying, but just couldn’t get it right.

Yet Wildflower is here. It arrives in an EDM age, where brand-new vocals are commissioned by producers making bangers out of synth presets. Kanye West produced his first single the year Since I Left You was released; more than anyone except perhaps J Dilla, the endlessly inventive West has served notice that hip-hop has always been the sample’s most fertile ground. The Big Beat tricksters of the last century — with their sagging shelves and Patti Page samples — still haunt Vegas and the festival circuit. Naturally, this frees the three remaining Avalanches (Chater, James Dela Cruz, and Tony Di Biasi) to survey their old territory.

And while the terrain is familiar, the subjects have changed. The moony men and women are now just as likely to be features, like Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donahue, who sounds like Green Gartside covering Caribou on the phonetically psychedelic “Colours.” He and beatwise one-man-band Jonti serve up giant blocks of sun-baked vocal goodness on the gorgeous, Curt Boettcher-by-way-of-Kay-Slay “Harmony.” A lustful, Yogi Berra-quoting recitation from Silver Jews‘ David Berman (repurposed from 2012’s apparently unfinished demo “A Cowboy Overflow of the Heart”) closes the album, while on penultimate cut “Stepkids,” Royal Trux‘s Jennifer Herrema posts up at the convenience store and dreams about pot-leaf graffiti. It’s the lilting country cousin of Broken Social Scene’s “Anthems for a Seventeen Year-Old Girl.”

Actual youths are represented as well. They scramble all over this record like a playscape: dreaming, laughing, hollering over the next hill. Two of the album’s neatest finds are children’s voices. On proper opener “Because I’m Me,” a preteen from ‘50s New York City hollers his own pop melody while lost early-’70s soul trio Honey Cone pumps through his headphones. An unknown kids’ choir (though Reddit’s on the case) chirping “Come Together” (yes, that one) on “The Noisy Eater” atones for the presence of Jerry Lewis. The ramshackle nature of this record is a consequence both of the protracted recording sessions and the childlike wonder with which the Avalanches still treat their source material, 20 years on. By the time Donahue, nested in celestial harpsichord and high-arcing string figures, mewls about kids running “like crayon colors into the sun” on “Kaleidoscope Lovers,” you can practically see his hosts settling into their couch, finally able to rest. It’s the last of four consecutive sleepy summer soul cuts: If Since I Left You was a Jet Age reverie, the back half of Wildflower is a long nap in a window seat.

Anyone who’s heard Wildflower’s singles, though, knows that this isn’t some Chill Out-style traipse through the bargain bins. It may not be, as they promised in 2007, “so f**kin party you will die,” but it is “much more hip-hop than you might expect.” MCs both classic and new pop up in the mix, toast for a few bars, and recede back into the madness. The spots range in length: One minute there’s Rye Rye’s blink-and-it’s-gone exhortation to “dance your pain away” on “Going Home” and the next is the Diabolical Biz Markie’s two-verse transformation into Cookie Crisp Monster on “The Noisy Eater.” Paris Pershun of defunct Dallas duo A.Dd+ protests profiling on the accordion-woozy “Live a Lifetime Love”; by the end of the track, the cops have pulled him over. Danny Brown fares better on the lead single, the indigestive calypso “Frankie Sinatra.” He’s a carnival barker on a bender, and unlike MF Doom’s grouchy verse, Brown’s bests — barely — the Avalanches’ elephantine oompah.

Sixteen years for a follow-up is a long time. For an electronic act, it’s a geologic gap. But Wildflower feels as though it was made for the Avalanches rather than a patient public. Where Since I Left You mapped a plaintive longing onto a travel agency’s idea of heaven, Wildflower is designed for comforts of no special ambition. The golden-hour string sections and white-bread choirs evoke living rooms instead of lounges; the guests are contributors, not re-enactors. (The group’s cumulative cachet allowed them to upgrade Camp Lo from sample material to collaborators.)

Wildflower is a shaggy document, to be sure. Not everything’s a stunner like “Because I’m Me” or “Harmony” — sometimes there’s moldering AM Gold like “Light Up.” But now it’s not about the journey into paradise, more like a rush to the finish line. They’re out of time, but they still made it.