Counterbalance: The Avalanches – Since I Left You

Get a drink, have a good time now. Welcome to paradise, and read all about the 305th most acclaimed album of all time. An Australian plunderphonics pioneer is this week’s Counterbalance.
The Avalanches
Since I Left You

Mendelsohn: The other day I was listening to music and thinking about the Bible. Not the fun parts where the world ends or people get smote, but the rather dry part — specifically Chronicles 1, with all the begats and what not. I was thinking about lineage. Tracing lineage can be incredibly boring, because forsooth, I’m not sure why it’s important to know that Abigail childed Amasa. Having said that, I’m going to trace some lineage in hopes of explaining why the Avalanches’ Since I Left You, released in 2000 the Year of Our Lord, was such a critical and commercial success and how exactly a couple of ex-punks from Australia made it happen. I’ll dispense with all the begats and forsooths in favor of terms like turntablism, sampling and plunderphonics. Ah, who am I kidding? Let the begatting begin.

In the beginning (the 1920s), the Dadaists begat anti-art. Dadaism died thus inspiring William S. Burroughs to birth the cut-up technique. The cut-up technique rearranged text and reigned in the 1950s. Cut-up technique died. And, in the 1980s, John Oswald, begat plunderphonics, the practice of cutting up music or audio recording and looping it back together. Plunderphonics, the cousin of sampling, died and the hip-hop producers of the day reigned. Sampling begat turntablism and, in 1996, DJ Shadow assumed the throne with the release of Endtroducing…. So beginth the reign of turntablism which came to an end in 2000 with the release of the Avalanches’ Since I Left You. And I say it came to an end because, honestly, it was just a few short years until computers took over and every Tom, Dick, and Harry could pretend they were Girl Talk and make terrible, terrible mash ups. Thus true turntablism died and mash ups reigned. Until they were quickly forgotten.

This lineage is condensed, mostly to save time and space (and my sanity), but it is important to note how far, and how many different iterations mankind had to endure before we get to a fun piece of music courtesy of a couple of blokes from down under. Since I Left You is not only the end product of an odd linage but also a light-hearted compendium of the last 50 years of music — reworking, reconceptualizing and synthesizing pop music into a rolling ball of wonder that worked as a counterpoint to the ponderous state of electronic music while celebrating largely forgotten musical tidbits. Seriously though, if this album doesn’t put a smile on your face, I don’t know what will. Are you smiling, Klinger?

Klinger: Well I was at first, because I felt like I had just arrived at a party. A guy sounded happy to see me and told me to get myself a drink. “Welcome to paradise,” he said, or something like that. But then I suddenly realized I didn’t know anybody at this party. Maybe the people who had invited me hadn’t shown up. Maybe they left early and didn’t bother to let me know because they didn’t think this was the kind of party I would ever go to. But anyway, I’ve been sort of wandering around, checking my phone a lot so it looked like there was a reason I was standing around all by myself. It was going OK, but then suddenly it didn’t seem like a party at all.

It’s possible I fell asleep on a chaise lounge and had a series of very bizarre dreams where sounds came floating in and out. Eventually I got comfortable with the constant sonic chaos and came to find Since I Left You to be an alternately soothing and unnerving experience. Your explanation was very helpful, Mendelsohn, but I had a good sense that the Avalanches were compiling a sonic collage that loftier aims than convincing us to dance (or convince us to picture people dancing, which is what I suspect most of the dance music you’ve played me is actually trying to do). Hell, there are even times when their approach reminds me of the Musique concrete (am I using that term correctly? Pardon my French.) of “Revolution 9″, a song that I’d like to remind everyone that I have no problem with.

Mendelsohn: Whenever anyone brings up dance music, I always think about the waltz or Patrick Swayze. Is that weird? Most of the electronic music I enjoy, and have pressed upon you, has never made me want to dance. Some of it relies on the four-on-the-floor club beat, some of it masks the rigidity of a lock-step backbone better than others. Either way, I just like the sonic experience. And the Avalanches have created an incredible sonic experience that is a little out of the realm of conventional pop music while completely relying on pop music to convey their musical point. But I don’t think it would be fair to label what the Avalanches have done on Since I Left You as electronic music, just as we wouldn’t necessarily label Musique concrete as electronic music simply because the final composition takes a detour through an extra tape machine or two. This album is a bit like found art. Do you know what I’m talking about? The piece of art looks like a pile of trash on the ground or a bunch of random blocks of glass until you turn on the right lights or look at it from the proper angle so the shadow reveals a rainbow visage or the outline of a cityscape, expressing something much more complex than the material it is made from.

In that way, you have to look at this album from the proper angle. It can just be a sound collage where melody drifts in and out much in the same way that “Revolution 9″, sounds like John and George messing around with a tape recorder while hopped up on goofballs or it can be an intricate piece of art, constructed to convey meaning or elicit response. For my money, Since I Left You is much more enjoyable than the Beatles’ sound experiment, if for no other reason than the Avalanches seem to love melody, pulling snippets from the golden age, paying tribute to the pop of the 1960s and bowing before the altars of funk, disco and hip-hop.

There are a lot of things happening on this album, and like being at a party where you don’t know anyone, it can be a little intimidating, but like the guy says in the beginning, it is paradise. Check out “Two Hearts in 3/4 Time” with it’s intoxicating, lilting melody, bolstered by vocals from Marlena Shaw before the song turns a little dark thanks to samples of John Cale’s “Ghost Story.” Half the fun is taking the album apart and trying to figure out how it all fits together.

Klinger: Well, these are awfully challenging concepts for a guy who just woke up in a chaise lounge, and yes Since I Left You is far more enjoyable than “Revolution 9” (feel free to use that as a pull quote, Sire Records marketing department). And yes, I’m behind the artistry of the Avalanches, even if I’m really never going to be up on all the crazy lingo that certain genres use to set themselves apart. I do differ with you, however, in the idea that the fun necessarily lies in taking the album apart. I think I prefer looking at this giant mess of sound as a big picture collage rather than get up too close and see the individual pieces and parts.

Maybe I did too much dismantling during my De La Soul/Public Enemy phase, but then my digging led me into the Lee Dorsey and Rufus Thomas at Wattstax. I do that here and I’m just as likely to yoink out some Bert Kaempfert or the Osmonds. (To your point, though, that “Two Hearts in 3/4 Time” was something of a turning point in my realization that this record is an impressive work of art.) I know it shouldn’t, because we’re really talking apples and oranges here, but I can’t help thinking about listening to Daft Punk and nearly choking on a big chunk of Manilow. Is it OK if I just stand back a ways here and let the big sound wash over everything?

Mendelsohn: Sure. Stand back, sit down, climb back into the chaise lounge. How ever you want to take in this record is just fine. That’s the beauty of such an intricate piece of art, you can stand up close and admire the varied brush strokes or you can walk it back and take in the whole visage. But I don’t want to make Since I Left You sound like some sort of academic assignment. First and foremost, this is just a fun record the good time vibes run deep even when the Avalanche stumble dangerously close to the ponderous realm of studious electronic music. Plus, as a celebration of pop music, it doesn’t get much more inventive. So get a drink, have a good time now. Welcome to paradise.