Review: The Avalanches, Wildflower

Wildflower makes for an incredibly cohesive listen from front to back
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Wildflower makes for an incredibly cohesive listen from front to back
Avalanches Wildflower.jpg

For reasons altogether too complicated to think about for longer than two or three minutes, referring to Wildflower as the Avalanches’ sophomore LP feels a bit like an insult to the Avalanches. Granted, it’s been 16 years since debut LP Since I Left You came out. That’s about 14 years longer than most artists wait to drop a follow-up, so to feel that way isn’t completely incomprehensible. But still, for a production collective as unanimously adored by fans and critics as the Avalanches have remained over the past decade and a half, their catalog comprises but a fraction of the tracks that other artists have accrued over the same timeframe.

That’s because the Avalanches appreciate—possibly more than any other artist on earth today—the concept of making music on your own terms. Free from the shackles of major label contractual agreements, branded sponsorships and internet hype, Since I Left You has become not only one of the best albums of the year 2000, but also one of the most prolific electronic records ever produced. This happened in part because the band practically disappeared from view mere days after the album released.

The disappearance left listeners asking themselves a series of peculiar questions. What does an album sound like if the artist is practically nonexistent? What subtle, subconscious cues do we draw from an artist to ultimately impact our opinion of the album? Are there any?

Probably the most impactful observation we’ve made regarding the Avalanches’ career arc up to this point is this: Since I Left You was an incendiary album that dropped about eight years ahead of its time, but its appeal only multiplied on behalf of the fact that the authors were completely reclusive. No longer were audiences hearing a brilliant record; they were hearing a brilliant record that felt stumbled upon. Like they were never supposed to hear it, but now, they were.

Regardless, this kind of fanfare can’t exist without the record first being truly incredible. And Since I Left You was exactly that. Stocked to the brim with more than 3,500 samples compiled, cut and reworked to resemble something entirely different, the Avalanches’ debut LP was one of the first records that empowered artists to explore samples as something more than just a sonic accompaniment. This was a group of producers who blatantly employed past tracks to affect tracks of the present and, ultimately, the future.

But it wasn’t just the process of production that turned heads; more than anything, it was product. By refining the sample selection process and curating the collection to a fault, the Avalanches created a sound that transcended any specific time period, which was brilliant. This was no accident; tracks like “Avalanche Rock”, “Flight Tonight”, and “Radio” almost explicitly play upon the hip-hop sampling tendencies of the early-to-mid-90’s, while album poster child “Frontier Psychiatrist”, almost explicitly plays upon the ragtime-leaning conglomeration of early-era AM radio programming. In one fell swoop, the Avalanches introduced the world to a new style and, though mimicked by hundreds of artists thereafter, defined that style better than any artist ever could.

Needless to say, the Avalanches were responsible for some pretty heavy shit that went down in 2000. For this very reason, many have argued over the past 16 years that an Avalanches follow-up would be doomed from the start. How, after all, are you supposed to perfect what’s already flawless? Furthermore, a follow-up record would inevitably eviscerate the mystique that amplified Since I Left You to such cosmic heights in the first place. So when you sit back and really think about it, the absurdly long hiatus the Avalanches took between their first LP and their second LP suddenly seems not-so absurd. Because the only way to buck a foregone conclusion is to prompt amnesia.

That’s pretty much where we’re at with Wildflower, the highly anticipated second LP. Wildflower drops only a handful of months after a series of cryptic social posts via the band’s web site matriculated into a full-on album announcement, an all-stops-out DJ set at Primavera, and a series of airy, hook-driven pre-release singles. To the day-one loyalists, things are looking real, real good.

But perhaps what was most interesting about the singles was how clearly they resonated with the music fans who were hearing the Avalanches for the first time. Tracks like “Frankie Sinatra” and “Subways” win big for their choppy aesthetic and melodic dominance, which is super-convenient given the Avalanches’ rife history with choppy aesthetics and melodic dominance.

But wait. It gets better. Not only are “Frankie Sinatra”, “Subways”, and third pre-release single “Colours”, truly awesome as stand-alone tracks, but they’re also brilliant introductions to the remainder of Wildflower, an album that underscores Avalanches’ contribution to the fabric of production-driven music.

That’s not to say there aren’t a few missteps. At moments, the formula feels forced. “The Noisy Eater” features Biz Markie in a role that sounds way too cartoonish to take seriously. Meanwhile, “Stepkids” feel so esoteric, it barely registers as a song. In the few moments where Wildflower falters, it seems only to be an issue of over-indulgence and I mean, shit, we’re all over-indulgent so what are we even talking about?

And seriously: That’s just about the extent of what’s not good about Wildflower. “Subways” transitions effortlessly into “Going Home”, a sultry groove tailor-built to transition effortlessly into “If I Was a Folkstar”, a chilly, melodic jam featuring Chaz Bundick going full-Erland Øye. Before I even heard it, “The Wozard of Iz” made me laugh for its hilarious title, but then I heard Danny Brown’s ridiculous guest verse, and my smile turned to full-on gap-mouth.

Even the more subtle victories on Wildflower come forth with such a commanding presence, it’s hard to consider them mid-tier. Album opener “Because I’m Me,” does a phenomenal job as the new-era “Since I Left You”, delivering high doses of old-school soul atop a syrupy disco backdrop, perfectly timed vocal samples and a Bar-Kays drop reminiscent of “Getting’ Jiggy with It”. And doo-wop-inspired stunner “Sunshine”, features a record-skipping chorus as infectious as it is jarring.

Though not quite as sonically streamlined as the debut LP, Wildflower makes for an incredibly cohesive listen from front to back. Sans a few minor setbacks, the Avalanches succeeded not only in reviving their signature without manipulating the formula, but also by reaching a fan base that didn’t even know they liked the Avalanches until they heard “Frankie Sinatra”. By using cross-era samples to orchestrate a genre removed from the effects of time, the Avalanches somehow created an album removed from the effects of influence. Is Wildflower the best album of the year? Probably not. But it was made by one of the most influential artists of our generation. Take note. A MINUS