opinion byAUSTIN REED
Though I rarely vocalize it, I involuntarily ask myself the same exact question every time I hear better-than-average new music: Are the artists responsible mindful of how good their product is?
It gets at me probably a little more than it should, because it’s impossible to know the answer. I don’t know these people personally to ask them, and even if I did, I wouldn’t believe them. Any answer that wasn’t, “Yes. Absolutely. I love my own music more than any of you people do,” would automatically register as a lie for the sake of modesty. And modesty is a shit move.
But that’s not really the issue here. The issue is that, since I’m unable to ascertain a concrete answer to a question so holistically pointless, I am left with guesses. Seemingly infinite ones. If all things were good in the universe, and if everyone was able to answer truthfully, and if I were able to take those responses at face value, there’d still be a countless number of possible answers, all of which would only marginally affect my opinion of the product while critically affecting my opinion of the artist.
Because we’re talking about subjectivity versus objectivity. We’re talking about the technical merits attached to self-awareness. We’re talking about why good artists sometimes produce bad records and, more importantly, vice versa. We’re talking about why we don’t believe the words coming straight from the mouth of the source. But ultimately, we’re talking about the totally invisible, constantly shifting, barely describable line distinguishing the cool from the uncool. And even though some of these concerns indirectly affect the product, all of them directly affect the orchestrator.
We want to believe that self-awareness is an ingredient—that these artists are as good at digesting music as they are at making it. Then, the process of musicianship becomes plausibly real and comprehensible. We can relate, even if our exposure is extremely limited. It’s something to go on, and when it comes to context clues, something is always better than nothing.
Michael, the inaugural LP under Chaz Bundick’s Les Sins moniker, gives us something to go on.
Bundick is a monster in his own right, operating on a plane that falls just short of “visionary.” Most recognizable as the lifeline and driver of the Toro Y Moi brain trust, he was a crucial factor of 2010’s chillwave equation. Chillwave will always be this strange footnote in pop culture because it marked a moment when audiences began subscribing to terminology without really understanding what it meant. The genre itself was important for the acts it comprised, but the concept was too far-reaching to hold any definite weight. Eventually, chillwave became a catchall for bands no one had the ability to describe otherwise.
But one of the first (and arguably only) artists to give the genre any empirical credibility was Toro Y Moi, whose debut LP Causers of This, aside from being one of the better albums of 2010, succinctly and marvelously became the load-bearing exemplar to which every other chillwave album was compared. This is exactly what Bundick does best; he understands that, most often, the best way to explain a concept is to pretend like he’s the one requiring the explanation. Knowing full well that audiences are rarely dumber than the artist, Chaz Bundick employs his own definitions of cool to be the courier of his rationale. We appreciate his music because he makes it a point not to be a hard guy to figure out.
Expounding upon Bundick’s contribution would require going deep on Underneath the Pine and Anything In Return, Toro Y Moi’s second and third LPs, respectively. (And if you haven’t spent time with Return, do so. It was the most underrated album of 2013.) But I won’t, because this isn’t about Bundick’s fully exposed assault rifle. This is about the derringer he’s had concealed in his sock.
Les Sins has been an idea living inside Bundick’s head for about as long as Toro Y Moi has, but not until now has the idea been realized in totality. Designed to be the more dance-centric offering, Les Sins excels in ways Toro Y Moi never could because Bundick’s trademark nasally baritone is no longer requisite. In fact, tracks like “Toy,” “Bellow,” and “Drop” could easily be Toro b-sides with omitted vocals. The good news here is that in place of his lyrics, Bundick focuses his attention on widening the gamut that Michael runs. If this isn’t the most versatile dance album of the year, we missed something.
“Talk about your newest record, and where did you get the name?” are the first words we hear slip off Michael, as if Bundick is trying to euthanize the most repetitive lead-up-to-the-album interview question he’s received before anyone else has a chance to ask. “Talk About” is an office desk finger-tapper’s nirvana, blending furious syncopated rhythmic glints with a groovy bass line. Borderline fusion jazz with a brash vocal sample, “Talk About” is a shotgun start.
When thinking about producers who utilize voice cues as rhythmic minarets, it’s tough not to think about Jai Paul. His vocal splicing on “Str8 Outta Mumbai” is about as precise and fine-tuned as ever I’ve heard. But seven seconds into “Toy” and you hear Bundick replace a snare with someone coughing. Which is fucking awesome. To say nothing of its nasty bass line and errant melodic progression, “Toy” posits Bundick as the type of producer who recognizes the beauty of intricacy.
Whether it was a calculated move, “Bother” has become Les Sins’ calling card. You could say I love this track. Or you could say that when folks call my cell phone, everyone within a 43-foot radius knows not to bother me. Because I’m workin’.
What makes “Bother” even better is that it prefaces “Minato,” Michael’s deepest, grooviest and altogether best track. “Minato” begins sweetly enough, dropping some major-key flutter-by melodies here and there. But those melodies burn out just as quickly as they show up, making way for a grimier bass-infused backbeat reminiscent of Oliver’s, “Night Is On My Mind.” The only downside to “Minato” is its run time—at 3:45, this little excursion could have lasted five minutes longer and no one would have batted an eye.
Bundick’s inspirations run rampant across the back half of Michael. “Sticky” recalls Funkadelic. “Call” and “Drop” give props to I Care Because You Do-era Aphex Twin. And only a Stephen Bruner bass line is keeping “Do Right” from being a light-hearted FlyLo offering. But don’t misunderstand: Bundick is as in-tune with his influences as any originator possibly could be. His product never comes close to replication.
Which is why it’s not a huge leap to speculate that Bundick’s talent stems from his ability to be self-aware. Across four LPs as both Toro Y Moi and Les Sins, Chaz Bundick has done more than just channeled the trailblazers; he has found a way of demonstrating why they were important in the first place while cultivating his own sense of subtlety. And that subtlety—spanning across numerous generations and sub-genres of inspirational dance music—is what propels Michael in both style and form. Is Bundick aware of how good his product is? Definitely, but only because his definition of cool is the same as ours. And he knows that, too.