The Avalanches’ ‘Wildflower’
Almost 16 years after they scaled the heights with their world-beating debut, Since I Left You, The Avalanches will release their long overdue second album on Friday. Wildflower is an uplifting concoction of sunny pop and sweet soul music with a hip-hop heart, proving once again that The Avalanches are the cut-and-paste kings of musical bricolage.
A lot has changed since 2000, not least that Since I Left You has grown in stature and is now acknowledged as a modern classic. That’s a hell of a legacy and also a very tough act to follow. Rather than try to compete with themselves, The Avalanches have chosen to just continue being themselves. Since I Left You was composed entirely of samples taken from hundreds of records they had scavenged from thrift stores, and over many months the thousands of sound bites were meticulously reconfigured, reassembled and repurposed to create authentically new music. Wildflower is similarly based on a combination of artful appropriation and having too much time on their hands, but this time they have embroidered their patchwork quilt of samples with a rich thread of original instrumentation, much of it provided by a slew of notable collaborators from across the musical spectrum. Since I Left You may have had a dance-floor momentum that was hard to resist, but Wildflower is much more ambitious, preferring to meander down less-travelled byways. In many ways this album is more of a reboot than a sequel.
The album opens with the ambient sounds of a fictional neighbourhood. A young woman says “hi”, someone coughs, and we hear kids playing down the street. Not far away, a band can be overheard jamming, muffled through bedroom walls. This is ground zero, the block where the party and our trip begins. The scene shifts to a street corner where a kid is making up his own song, his ghetto-blaster playing “Want Ads” by Honey Cone. “Want Ads” is a forgotten song now but it sold a million and topped the R&B and pop charts in 1970. Suddenly the kid is transported into the radio, “Angie Baby”-style, and the production goes widescreen. The hip-hop duo Camp Lo raps over the groove and the kid’s naive vocal becomes the actual chorus. “Because I’m Me” is The Avalanches’ raison d’être in miniature. In a way, they are that neighbourhood kid riffing over classic soul grooves. It’s a perfect introduction to the world of Wildflower.
Another segue takes us back to the street. We’re in a car and some sort of shady deal is going down. A quick flash of a police siren announces the arrival of a sound system on a flatbed. “Frankie Sinatra” is booming over the speakers, a good-natured blast of antique calypso sampling “Bobby Sox Idol” by Wilmoth Houdini overlaid with an oompah brass band, the latter arranged by Jean-Michel Bernard, a French classical composer who has written film scores for the likes of Claude Chabrol and Martin Scorsese. The Avalanches have some heavy friends these days. This track also features contemporary rappers: Detroit’s idiosyncratic Danny Brown tag teams with MF DOOM for the song’s verses. The two have wildly contrasting styles but the unlikely combination works seamlessly. I was tickled to hear one of DOOM’s lyrics refer to Louis Farrakhan’s early career as a calypso singer – another failed musician who found success later as a religious leader or politician.
After another street scene interlude, “Subways” begins and it’s almost a repeat of the opening of “Because I’m Me”: a young girl sings a capella while a sample of an old song plays in the background. But this is no crib from a street performer. The girl’s voice is actually sourced from Chandra’s obscure 1980 new wave EP Transportation, while the backing track originates from “Warm Ride” by Graham Bonnet, a No. 1 hit in Australia in 1978. “Subways” merges into “Going Home” but both use “Warm Ride” as their musical spine, so the difference between the two songs is moot.
As “Going Home” filters into the background we can overhear one side of a phone conversation: “Hi, is Mom there? Nothing… Just called to tell you I’m okay and shit.” That’s the voice of Shellie, taken from the 1984 documentary Streetwise, about street kids in Seattle. Snatches of dialogue, sound effects and field recordings pepper the album, and at first I found the interruptions annoying, particularly during the first half of the album. Songs fade in and out, often with heavy filter effects. The indeterminate beginnings and endings give the songs a feeling of randomness that at times made them seem incomplete. But after repeated plays I began to see things from a different perspective: the songs are as long or as short as they need to be. Like a Monty Python sketch, they don’t always end with a punchline. They’re part of a continuum, like a rapper’s flow, and context is everything.
The Avalanches started out as a hip-hop crew in Melbourne. Their first EP, El Producto, came out in December 1997 and it sounded as though they’d been listening to a lot of Beastie Boys. From the get-go, it was obvious their true talents were as producers rather than rappers. It wasn’t long before they went down the rabbit hole of sampling and lost interest in rapping altogether. They scoured second-hand stores for the most arcane, unfashionable records, partly out of affection for the antique sounds and partly because of the mischief they could cause. The more absurd the “drop” in the mix, the bigger the rush. Their abiding affection for hip-hop has come to the fore again on Wildflower but, in typical Avalanches fashion, they’ve mashed it with their love of ’60s pop and soul grooves. I was interested to see legendary comic rapper Biz Markie adding his silliness to “The Noisy Eater”. Markie was involved in an infamous legal wrangle over an unauthorised sample he used of Gilbert O’Sullivan’s 1972 hit “Alone Again (Naturally)”. After the nightmare they had trying to clear all the samples on Since I Left You, I’m sure The Avalanches recognised a kindred spirit.
The other very clear influence on Wildflower is sunshine pop. This is a genre that sprang out of the folk rock movement in California in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and its catchy pop songs with blissed-out lyrics were a welcome escape from the social unrest and hostility elsewhere in the wider culture. They were the product of second-tier pop acts, such as The Turtles and The Cowsills, who flattered by imitation bigger artists such as The Mamas & The Papas, The 5th Dimension and The Beach Boys. The Avalanches have never hidden their love for The Beach Boys: this album’s title is a hat-tip to the band’s 1970 album Sunflower, and there are surreptitious Beach Boys samples, or very good imitations, sprinkled throughout both Avalanches albums, so it’s natural that The Beach Boys’ immaculate pop sensibility should have seeped into The Avalanches’ work.
However, Wildflower also contains samples by notable sunshine pop acts such as Harpers Bizarre and The Association, both acknowledged, and what sounds like The Sandpipers, uncredited. On songs such as “Harmony”, “Sunshine”, “Colours” and “Kaleidoscopic Lovers” – the last two featuring Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donahue on vocals – there is an undeniable atmosphere of ecstatic euphoria. In this, sunshine pop shares a common bond with ’90s rave culture and some noughties indie rock. Of course, De La Soul set the precedent for this sort of cross-pollination in 1989 with their extraordinary debut album, 3 Feet High and Rising. To be included in the same company as De La Soul is a great honour indeed. There’s nothing bad about feeling good.
Unfortunately, I don’t have the space to deeply examine all of the songs on Wildflower here but I would like to mention “The Wozard of Iz” as another particular favourite. The album runs for more than an hour without ever feeling it has outstayed its welcome, finishing on a high note with the one-two punch of “Stepkids”, probably the highlight of the album, and “Saturday Night Inside Out”. The first of these features Jennifer Herrema and Kurt Midness of Royal Trux on vocals, and samples heavily from Lou Barlow’s Folk Implosion, while the last track has a spoken word narration by David Berman, of The Silver Jews, and Father John Misty “doing a lot of layered Beach Boys-esque harmonies that are kind of floating up and down through the track”, as one of the band members said recently. It’s a beatific finale for an epic adventure.
I have a feeling that Wildflower is going to be very misunderstood initially. There has already been a lot of carping that the first single, “Frankie Sinatra”, is a throwback to the much-loathed electro swing subgenre of EDM, which it isn’t. I happen to like “Frankie Sinatra” but you don’t have to. As I hinted at the outset, the incredible success of Since I Left You has almost put The Avalanches on a hiding to nothing. They can’t be all things to all people – good music never is – but I love this album. It took me a few listens to get my head around it, and I can tell I still have a long way to go, but that prospect only excites me more. When I first heard it,
I felt like a restless backseat driver, complaining that the vehicle wasn’t taking the direction I expected. The fact is The Avalanches are in the driver’s seat and they have control of the wheel. Just sit back and enjoy the ride.
Robbie Chater, one of the founders of the band, described the album’s philosophy in exactly those terms to Zane Lowe on Beats 1 radio recently: “This new record feels a bit like a road trip. We spent a lot of our teenage years driving around in cars in the country and in suburbia listening to music, and that was in our heads making this record as well. For us, this record was supposed to capture that feeling.” I say they have. I heartily recommend you take a ride with The Avalanches on their Wildflower. Dig the sounds and enjoy the view.
MUSICAL Singin’ in the Rain
Sydney Lyric Theatre, July 7-September 4
CINEMA Revelation Perth International Film Festival
Various venues, Perth, July 7-17
DANCE South Sudanese Cultural Dance Competition
Federation Square, Melbourne, July 8-11
FESTIVAL Abbey Medieval Festival
Caboolture, Queensland, July 9-10
MUSIC Leaps and Bounds Music Festival
Various venues, Melbourne, until July 17
MUSIC Dots + Loops Recomposed
Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, July 2
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 2, 2016 as "Sample pack". Subscribe here.