Toro y Moi’s 2010 album Causers of This opens in a daze: a layered ahh drips over crackling vinyl, a backward sampled guitar and, of course, hazy synths. Chaz Bundick enters low in the mix at the ten second mark and pleads, “Come home, in the summer.” Then comes the snare-heavy, bass-flirting rhythm that carries lead-off track “Blessa” into a woozy, albeit calculated, 32 minutes of pop bliss.
It was too easy to lump Toro y Moi into that dreaded chillwave genre. Causers of This just sounds like a summer drive with the windows down, beach ball in hand, feet covered in sand. But what Bundick employed (and this is where the calculated comes in) was a hip-hop producer’s mindset toward catchy tunes—“Fax Shadow”, “Thanks Vision”, and “Freak Love” come to mind. Think Flying Lotus not yet in deep space, instead floating somewhere between the Thermosphere and the Moon. And it’s with that producer’s gait Toro y Moi transitions into album number two, Underneath the Pine.
Bundick doesn’t waste any time on old ideas. Right from opening track “Intro Chi Chi”, there’s a new producer in town. The ahhs are still there, sure, but distorted guitar, disco beats, and tambourine replace the overwhelming synth wash. It’s summer time, but summer in late ‘70s midwestern America. And, to drive the point home, “New Beat” explodes with multicolored dancefloor pipes and enough groovy bass to get hips shaking instead of shivering in the cold winter months.
Yet while “New Beat” and a host of other tracks on Underneath the Pine warrant fervent dancing, there’s a sense of isolation in the music, as if to say, “Yeah, there’s a dancefloor, but it’s a lonely place at the end of the night when the music recedes into the speakers and the sweaty bodies spill out the club doors onto snow covered streets.” Nowhere is this sentiment more apparent than on standout track, “Good Hold”. A current pulls the song, carried by what can only be described as a haunted ballet piano melody, underwater. It’s one of those beautiful moments in music when listening to a song elicits a physical reaction. We’ve all felt the effect of drowning—whether in dreams or reality—and Bundick captures that sensation with perfect clarity.
Of course, once Bundick resurfaces and shuffles into closing track “Elise,” he’s still dripping wet from almost drowning moments before: “I knew this was always gonna happen, end up breakin’ down when I thought I would have it. Now I can’t be fine, lookin’ at your smile.”
Over the course of Underneath the Pine, Bundick mines the isolation so apparent in the simple piano refrain on “Good Hold”. Listening closer, however, reveals the same refrain in the closing seconds of “How I Know”, on acoustic guitar in “Before I’m Done”, as organ drone and guitar picking on “Elise”. It even sounds like Bundick’s sewn the refrain into the bassline on the opening track. It’s a disparate sound, and it permeates the album as a constant reminder that no matter how hard you try to shrug your problems away by dancing, eventually you have to stop and go home—a lament many artists from the height of the disco era could relate to when they ran headlong into the hardcore/punk scene backlash of the early ‘80s.
If Causers of This felt scattershot in some places, and repeptive in others, it was due mostly in part to Bundick’s seemingly relentless desire to throw as many ideas as he could at the mixing board to see what stuck. It was a game of musical pin the tail on the donkey. Underneath the Pine sounds like all those ideas distilled to a singular sonic vision: a melancholy disco auteur alone on the dancefloor. The strobe lights burst, the speakers thump, and he questions if he even wants someone else to join in.