The Avalanches: Wildflower (take two)

After 16 years, the hype for another Avalanches album is inescapable, and Wildflower drowns in comparisons. On its own, however, it's a joyous ray of sunshine with an identity all its own.
The Avalanches

“We have a new album.

Sorry we kept you waiting. It’s been a wild ride and at times we thought we’d never make it through.

What kept us going was the belief in the day-to-day experience of music as a life force — as life energy. How music can change the tone of your day. How the sunlight refracts differently through the atmosphere can make the world look different, changing colors and feelings. What a beautiful thing sound waves can be. It’s magic.”

— The Avalanches’ social media accounts, 01 June 2016

Some scoffed, believe it or not, when the tragically defunct Cokemachineglow, in ranking the greatest albums of the 2000s, put the Avalanches’ Since I Left You square at #1. “An album from 2000 can be the Album of the 2000s because it is the future built of the past,” wrote Mark Abraham. “I mean, repetition is what repenting is, right? Since I Left You is like a millennial rosary chain, a history textbook with no course to assess you, ideas refashioned to a collage that is blurred enough that it loses any sense of collageness.”

Yet for all the hype that surrounded Wildflower, the Australian DJs’ too-long-awaited followup to that iconic disc, casual observers may have wondered what all the fuss was about. While some may chalk up the great “Frontier Psychiastrist” as a novelty single on the same level as “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell”, that goofy misnomer was more Pagliacci than pandering, the joyous exterior masking something deeper. Not darker, mind you, but certainly more emotional and weirdly evocative of … well, something you kind of sort of heard before, right? After all, released after DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing and before Girl Talk came into prominence, a “collage/sample” album seemed like a bit of a fluke genre, artists like Kaada generating lots of press notices for mixing samples and live instrumentation in way that proved nearly impossible to tell one from the other. The Avalanches, for the most part, were viewed as a curiosity …

… except by those who heard the album. There’s a reason why Madonna, in her eternal hunt for relevance, gave the group her first-ever sample authorization by loaning them the bassline to “Holiday”. Yet “Holiday” appears only for a short while, just as how the Osmonds show up to close out the album’s final moments, a powerful Enoch Light orchestral sample proving so memorable that Jens Lekman would sample it years later for his career-peak song “And I Remember Every Kiss”. The Avalanches — then consisting of production dynamos Robbie Chater and Darrent Seltmann, turntablists James Dela Cruz and Dexter Fabay, and keyboardist Tony Di Blasi — weren’t simply playing a version of spot-the-obscure-music-reference, and instead blended samples together in such a dynamic way that everything felt both familiar and new simultaneously, your very first listen to this album sounding like half-remembered songs coming into focus with every passing second, your brain’s pleasure center constantly being massaged as Since I Left You, like only a rare handful of albums before, exuded nothing but love for pop music in all its forms, from hip-hop beats to operatic vocals to electronica experiments to swing horns and quite literally everything in-between. Even if you put it on right now, you’d hear something you probably never caught before — just like every listen.

Yet the cult that formed around Since I Left You had to be patient. True fans gathered up all the available B-sides they could (and while some got weird, nearly all were phenomenal); the occasional banger like “Ray of Zdarlight” would drop, but then there were mixes ranging from their sample-heavy “Yoga Mind Meld Zombie Relaxation Tape” to their “Gimix” mixtape to the booglegged After the Goldrush radio session to an even more recent bizarro mix called “The Sleepy Bedtime Mix for Young Ones” credited to only “Henry Chinaski”. Between this and the 2009 MySpace page status update which only stated that they were in the process of “clearing samples”, all of the speculations, theories, and fakeouts did nothing more than enhance and intensify a cult of speculation and appreciation which was already there. For some, Since I Left You wasn’t just a great album: it was a life-changing album, one that made you excited about the very possibilities of what pop music could achieve. It would be hyperbolic if the end result wasn’t so good, leaving the hype to their follow-up, whatever form it took, reaching levels that many doubted could ever be overcome.

And then “Frankie Sinatra” dropped.

An obtuse, surprisingly straightforward rap featuring an oom-pah-pah beat and verses from Danny Brown and MF Doom, the lead single from Wildflower drew a surprisingly indifferent response from a fanbase who had been waiting for 16 years for something (anything!) new from the ever-mysterious Aussies. As more guest spots were revealed, some became worried that for their follow-up album, the DJs (now down to a tight trio) were putting commercial goals ahead of artistic ones. In truth, the loopy, goofy “Frankie Sinatra” may be one of the most brilliant pop singles ever released, not necessarily because it’s going to top the Village Voice “Pazz & Jop” poll this year, but because in terms defusing people’s expectations, it announced — in a rather boisterous fashion — that Wildflower is not going to be anything like Since I Left You, for both better and worse.

Opening with the joyous horn-driven soul-sample rap groove of “Because I’m Me”, with a solid verse from Camp Lo helping to set the D.A.I.S.Y. Age vibe the guys are going for here, it’s clear that Wildflower is more forward-looking than the nostalgia-seeped Since I Left You, working with collaborators ranging from Toro y Moi to Biz Markie to create something new and, in the process, touching on some tropes that they themselves have inspired. In fact, the Biz Markie feature “Noisy Eater” — a wonderfully doofy little romp that wins more for Markie’s personality and cadance than his actual rhymes — romps like an early-era Gorillaz track even as its lyrics feel like a pleasant knock off of the DJ Z-Trip/Murs 2005 feature “Breakfast Club”. Smart follow-up single “Subways” is probably the closest thing Wildflower gets to evoking the exact atmosphere of Since I Left You, but even now, those syrupy disco synths wouldn’t sound too out of place on a Horse Meat Disco compilation, the Avalanches accidental influence catching up and confronting them at nearly every turn.

Maybe that’s why some fans are stung: even with Wildflower‘s deliberate nods to the group’s past (a good portion of “Zap!” is lifted directly from that “Yoga Mind Meld Zombie Relaxation Tape”) and a closing stretch (“Over the Turnstiles” to “Kaleidoscopic Lovers”) that feels like the album is lapping itself, this disc lacks that sense of discovery that Since I Left You imbibed so many with, despite the fact that it marks out a far different territory than Since I Left You did, this set serving as your own personal summer rollerskating soundtrack with its shimmery samples and panoramic optimism, carefree and rambling in the way that Since I Left You was sprawling with the excitement of new ideas. At the end of the day, Wildflower simply used the same tools to achieve a different effect.

Of course, no matter how great the stutter-sample gem “Stepkids” is or how massive that vocal swell on “Harmony” feels when you hear it with the volume turned all the way up, Wildflower will eternally suffer from comparisons to that genre-defining first album, and no matter how hard critics and fans may try (even after several bowls of Ethereal Cereal), Wildflower, for all its quirks and Bar-Kays samples (which some may only know as the chorus to “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It”), just doesn’t leave the same lasting effect as that first album. That sense of crate-digging exploration and discovery, that feeling that the Avalanches had invented their own niche genre and only they and their listeners can live with it, thatching the roof with forgotten 45s with scratched-off covers — that feeling simply can’t be replicated, and there’s no way of getting around it.

Yet once it’s divorced from the hype parade, people will see Wildflower not as a lesser note from the group, but simply an extension of their sound. Wildflower is its own monster, and one that can’t be easily tamed, mainly due to the fact that it’s spending most of its time dancing. Heck, there may even be a joyous, game-changing third album down the line, because Wildflower proves the group hasn’t lost what made them special, and with any luck, that next disc will be showing up in a time period that’s no longer than, say, a decade. While we wait for that though, I’m going to put on my headphones, blast “Saturday Night Inside Out”, and forget I ever had a care in the world.

You should do the same.

RATING 8 / 10
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