THE AVALANCHES – Wildflower (Astralwerks): Albums as mythical as Since I Left You make me wonder whether its defenders admire it as a vessel for pleasure delivering as much as they do an exhausting technical feat—that is, are they overwhelmed by the sonic patchwork marvel because of the skill required to arrange innumerable samples into workable wholes, or are they consumed by the music itself, regardless of how it came into being? When I was younger and had no clue about music production (which honestly hasn’t changed a whole lot), Fatboy Slim’s You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby didn’t resonate with me because Norman Cook was a vinyl raider. It resonated because I thought the music was boss. Learning that several tracks features handfuls of samples from music I’d never been aware of increased my appreciation, sure, but I wasn’t any more inclined to the music than I already was. Since I Left You being kind of the asymptotic extension of what master samplers like DJ Shadow had trailblazed before—an album 99.9% comprised of sampled material, just with more samples—is interesting in a technical way, about as much as someone setting a record for world’s largest pizza only to be outdone by a larger pizza.
Look, clearly these guys have talent—sampling ain’t easy, turning traditional crate digging into an archival art form takes discipline I’d imagine most of us lack, and I can appreciate that—but I wouldn’t want to listen to most of the album’s source material solo. In that sense I guess I should thank Robbie Charter and Tony Di Biasi for listening to who knows how many hours of mediocre and mawkish music to find the smorgasbord of samples they quilt together—from disco bridges and calypso caterwauls to AM soft rock choruses and second-rate soul strings—to make something moderately better than the source material. But for the life of me I can’t tell what they’re trying to say by undergoing such a laborious endeavor for a second time. Do they really that muzak has merit as music? That there’s beauty in everything if it’s put in the right context? Or do they have a niche fetish for enduring long-forgotten loops and soundbites? Or is this a decade-plus exercise in musical masochism?
I have no objection morally to their practice of ‘plunderphonics,’ but a lot of the stuff they plunder is schlock, schmaltz, cheese, corn, and crap, so shoving it all together into slightly more pleasant arrangements doesn’t always alchemize the largely unlistenable into gold. In some ways you can think of this collection of long-forgotten tracks as a field recording of the deeper annals of (semi) popular music, and in that way the record retains some sort of perverse historical value as a time capsule of kitsch. Since I Left You is superior because it turned kitsch on its head, making the largely predictable unpredictable. But Wildflower is content to let the kitsch ride on its newly-imbued groove to its logical end, which is a lot less fun. B PLUS (**)