Daniel Strawhun, Opinions Editor
Nearly 16 years have elapsed since The Avalanches left us with “Since I Left You,” the Australian electronic group’s much lauded debut album. Deemed by critics a seminal contribution to the “plunderphonics” genre, “SILY” was (and remains) a consummate display of sampling savantism: The project, undertaken by members Robbie Chater and Darren Seltmann, consisted entirely of some 3,500 samples, meticulously arranged and mixed into a full-length studio album. Upon its release in Australia in November 2000, the album gained the duo unexpected, although not undue attention, winning multiple awards at the Australian Recording Industry Association’s Music Awards—awards which ultimately impelled an unplanned release to the rest of the anglosphere the following year.
But the UK and U.S. are bigger ponds, at least musically speaking, and after modest success in both markets the album again settled back into the relative obscurity from which it had risen. And so began the group’s 16 year silence.
“Wildflower,” the highly anticipated follow-up to “SILY,” marks the end of that silence.
The Avalanches have returned, this time as a trio, listing Robbie Chater, Tony Di Blasi, and James Dela Cruz on the inner cover as the members of the current lineup, and also crediting there the numerous other musicians who collaborated with the group. The album art features a kaleidoscopic pastel rendering of the United States’ flag, with flowers substituting stars and a butterfly emblazoned with capital letter “A”s on each of its wings. The design seems a conscious nod to Sly & the Family Stone, whose 1971 LP “There’s a Riot Goin’ On” featured a very similar depiction of the US flag. It certainly would not be a stretch to draw parallels between the two groups, because in many ways “Wildflower” shares in what decades ago was Sly & the Family Stone’s modus operandi—infusing traditionally black forms of music (e.g., R&B, funk, soul, hip hop) with elements of psychedelia and then placing them heterogeneously into contexts where they rub elbows and form contiguous relationships with traditionally white forms of music (e.g., folk, rock).
“Wildflower” begins with the galvanizing “Because I’m Me,” a funky gust of brass-and-string-laden air which feels Jackson 5-ish but actually consists of samples from Honey Cone’s 1971 hit single “Want Ads.” The song also features a live vocal track by hip-hop duo Camp Lo. This vocal track marks a departure from the sample-only format of “SILY,” and indeed the majority of remaining songs also feature live vocal recordings from an eclectic mix of musicians, including John Donahue, Danny Brown, Biz Markie, and Jennifer Herrema. “Wildflower” also makes use of live instrumentation, as evidenced by the honking tuba sections of the following song, “Frankie Sinatra,” the first single from the album, released back in June.
While the sample-only structure of “SILY” was a major part of its appeal, it is an exceedingly constrictive format to work in and lends itself to certain creative pitfalls (e.g., repetitiveness, lawsuits). Thus, in this new project, it is understandable that the group would be looking for ways to branch out from the self-imposed musical strictures of their past, while still retaining enough of the first album’s spirit to remain coherent. “Subways,” another single, helps establish this balance between old and new. The hook is taken from an obscure ’80’s punk album called “Transportation” by Chandra Oppenheim; the groovy, disco bass line comes from Graham Bonnet’s “Warm Ride.” It feels very much like something from “SILY”, but also features live instrumentation recorded by the group.
In general, the first half of “Wildflower” evokes the feeling of an idealized summer day in the Bronx—it is hot, there are kids yelling and playing in the spray of a loosened fire hydrant, hip hop often comes blaring in from the passing cars, everything is alive and buzzing with energy. Then gradually the album undergoes a tonal shift, with sleepy, saccharine sequences of ’60s psychedelia slowly seeping in—and eventually taking over. Beatles devotees will be pleased with several samples taken from the band’s oeuvre and related projects. The apex of this second-half is track 17, “Sunshine,” built off a sample of “Leave It All Behind Me” by forgotten female vocal trio The Fuzz.
But at times, in the pursuit of creating multi-layered aural textures with a Day-Glo sheen, the group yields instead a lurid, muddled mess. I’m thinking mostly of “Kaleidoscope Lovers,” but some of the shorter transitional songs fall into this category as well.
However, the album is an overall success. It begins with a wonderful, ascending vivaciousness that instantly lifts listeners up, and it manages to keep them gliding along at this altitude until the very end, with minimal turbulence along the way. A perfect summer album, “Wildflower” was released July 8 by Modular Recordings and can be purchased through iTunes or at any respectable record store.