[14 August 2009]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
I am sorry to have to be the one to inform you, dear reader, but no: this is not the “new” Avalanches album.
It is, however, as close to a guaranteed party-starter as you’re likely to find this year.
For the uninitiated, the Avalanches are a genuine cult act if there ever was one: having released only one major album (2000’s Since I Left You, officially released in the US the following year), the Australia-based DJ collective have developed an ever-expanding fanbase around that one disc alone—and what a whopper it is. Released right around the time that Napster began fizzling out and internet-only mashups began taking prominence over the various P2P networks (see: pre-Girl Talk era), the Avalanches’ bright and perky debut album wound up trumping more “novelty-based” acts like 2 Many DJs and others of their ilk, largely because instead of taking two apparently different songs and mashing them together, the Avalanches took some 900 sources and wound up combining them all into a genre-defying, utterly timeless kind of dance album that owed more to DJ Shadow than Freelance Hellraiser.
Like Shadow, the Avalanches used their numerous samples as a way of creating new and exciting soundscapes, rearranging “familiar” sounds in unrecognizable ways. Unlike Shadow, though, the Avalanches’ approach was more upbeat and optimistic, at times encapsulating the feel of 1950s brill-building pop hits and at other moments turning into Daft Punk-styled strobelight excursions. Opera singers bumped into cascading New Wave keyboards, orchestral swells got married to recordings of the Osmonds, and—in the middle of the sample-heavy comedy pastiche single “Frontier Psychiatrist”—the group decided to do as much DJ scratching as they could to a sample of a parrot talking, and the results were absolutely head-spinning. Although fantastic records have been released by likeminded artists since Since I Left You‘s release (see: Adventure Time), nothing has ever come close to matching the Avalanches’ widescreen debut. The album is as enjoyable on the first listen as it is on the 47th, largely because the band crammed so much detail into every second that even “veteran” Avalanches fans can hear something new even on the umpteenth spin.
Despite releasing a series of awe-inspiring mixes for free on their website (like the excellently titled “Yoga Mind Meld Zombie Relaxation Tape”) and even some teaser singles (the jaw-dropping “Ray of Zdarlight”), it wasn’t until a few months ago that the band posted the ominous message “clearing samples ...”, undoubtedly alluding to the months (years?) long process it’s going to be before record number two sees the light of day, making it almost a decade between albums. Very recently, though, the web was abuzz when a mysterious Avalanches-made compilation, After the Goldrush, began floating around. Could it be? Could the second album actually be here, secretly completed and leaked without anyone noticing?
Well, actually, no. On the Avalanches’ own website, the group confirmed that this bootleg is from a radio session that the guys did back in 2001, sometime after the initial 2000 release of Since I Left You. The reason why it was never released through official channels is obvious: there are just too many huge artists attached to this thing. Dr. Dre, Queen, the Beach Boys (twice), Aphex Twin (twice), Bob Dylan—the list of megastar sound snippits goes on and on. Were there even an attempt to get these samples cleared, the wait time on the legal legwork that would’ve been required here would’ve made the release date for After the Goldrush be sometime around, say, 2009.
Yet the Avalanches—who often DJ parties and festivals when not working on their “main” musical endeavors—have managed to create something profoundly fun and exciting here. Unlike Girl Talk (whose albums can sometimes devolve into mere “spot-the-sample” guessing games), the Avalanches are more concerned with creating an effective dance mix than pulling from more “recognizable” sources just for kitsch value. Make no mistake: huge hits are culled from all across the board here (Queen’s “I Want to Break Free”, Q-Tip’s “Breathe and Stop”, Dr. Dre’s “Forgot About Dre”, etc.), but the Avalanches’ crate-digging prowess is something next to awe-inspiring. Goldrush—after opening with a quick bit of an old Dylan outtake (“Why Do You Treat Me Like You Do?”)—officially kicks things into gear with “Match Point of Our Love”, a cut from the Beach Boys’ frequently dismissed 1978 M.I.U. Album. As the first full song on this club mix, it’s certainly a bold choice—but it’s an effective one (horrible sexual tennis euphemisms be damned). Removed from the MOR surroundings of the original album, this track feels positively exciting in this context—especially when it fades into the Chemical Brothers’ “Star Guitar”.
From that point on, the ‘lanches hit the ground running, making slight nods to the brilliant sample-swipers that have come before them (the KLF’s “3AM Eternal” gets revived here), the great minor-key radio hits that have gotten lost in the sea of time (when was the last time you treated yourself to Q-Tip’s “Breathe and Stop”?), and even the club-oriented peers that the Avalanches no doubt have undying respect for (Felix Da Housecat’s “Strobe” makes a 23-second cameo appearance). This isn’t as much a straight-up dance mix as it is an adrenaline-driven tour through the Avalanches’ own musical upbringing. It’s not that After the Goldrush will suddenly bring clarity and meaning to the colorful labyrinth that is Since I Left You, but when you hear a band place Underworld in the same neighborhood as MC5, and then put Phoenix a stones throw away from Guns N’ Roses, the group’s eclectic genre-hopping makes a bit more sense.
Though some moments prove to be slightly awkward-sounding on a pure entertainment level (the Missy Elliot/George Michael mashup sounds better on paper than it does in reality), other transitions are absolutely stunning, breathtaking DNA hybrids of pop music both past and future, like when Hall & Oates’ smooth keyboard classic “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” effortlessly slides into Aphex Twin’s “Windowlicker”, almost as if the songs were made to perfectly interlock with each other. It is during moments like these that we realize the Avalanches’ motives all along (apologies to SPIN): pop music is not a monolith to be worshipped, but a playground in which to explore and get lost.
It’s revelations like this that make Goldrush an exciting aural document, one that’s surprisingly high in replay value due to its remarkable grasp of rock history—in terms of both its value and its ultimate malleability. No, Goldrush is not a masterpiece on the same level as Since I Left You, but that’s largely due to the fact that this isn’t even trying to be the timeless pop music pastiche that Since I Left You was. After the Goldrush is made for parties, for fun, and—most importantly—for you, the listener. The Avalanches put a lot of care into their DJ mixes, and it shows throughout Goldrush—even when it misfires. Now all we can do is hope that they put the same amount of quality control into album number two ...