Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Avalanches - "Since I Left You"

Now here is a perfect example of a band not trying very hard to make music of any particular significance and yet creating something I quite enjoy. The Avalanches are an Australian electronica duo consisting of Robbie Chater and Darren Seltmann. You might describe them as a more whimsical DJ Shadow. Around the fin de siecle, Chater and Seltmann essentially decided to goof around with samples, on their own, apparently just for the hell of it. According to Wikipedia:
To create the songs on the album, members Darren Seltmann and Robbie Chater spent countless hours sampling the chords from many records. Chater estimates the numbers of samples on the album to be over 3,500. After sampling and arranging, the pair would swap their tapes, listen to each other's ideas and expand on whatever struck their ear. Despite working separately, both Chater and Seltmann had nearly duplicate studio set-ups. Seltmann and Chater didn't keep track of what tracks were being sampled when creating the album, with Chater stating that they "were really unorganized and were just sampling on the fly as tracks progressed. We had no idea the record would get such a wide-scale release so we saw no need to keep track of what we were using — we were definitely guilty of harboring a 'No-one's going to listen to it anyway' sort of attitude."
Little did they know! Let this be a lessen to you, kids. Just fart around on your own, and you may make something I'd actually want to listen to someday.

While the entire Since I Left You album is very enjoyable, I think there are a couple of standout tracks that make me wonder whether or not the rest of the album could have been even better than it is. Despite this inconsistency, the album would probably make a Ten Best Albums of the '00s list. However, that is not a list I intend to make.

Now on to the title song itself. AMG's Andy Kellman writes, somewhat pretentiously:
Endless summers for many youths don't consist of beaches and surfboards. Instead, they're spent on blacktops and jungle gyms. More gritty and halfway between the curb and the hoop than anything celestial, the Avalanches remind you of a point in your life when you could blissfully hang upside down from monkey bars and just dangle. Like recklessly riding your BMX or skipping rope after downing a sugar-laced pitcher of lemonade, the un-mawkish Since I Left You thrives on making you feel youthful and mighty ... Some origins can be immediately placed, and those that can't trigger an impulse that you've heard it somewhere before. You're at least familiar with the tone as it relates to a long-lost feeling of childhood bliss -- whether it's staring at a clear blue sky from a fresh-cut lawn or the first time you heard "Rock the Bells."
The first time I heard "Rock The Bells," I thought, "How did LL Cool J ever become so popular?" But never mind. Kellman is on to something. I love the track's opening seconds (buried substantially in the video mix). The distant chatter of the unwashed masses. An acoustic guitar. A vaguely Brazilian voice shouting in the right channel. Enter flute, strings, vocals, the beat. "Get a drink, have a good time now, welcome to paradise-paradise-paradise-paradise." Paradise indeed. The song reminds me of an outdoor barbeque where all the various sounds would be competing simultaneously for your attention, if only you were bothering to pay attention. Somehow the Avalanches managed to mix the "doo-doo-doo" sample so that it sounds like it's being played from a stereo on the patio, only you're actually hearing it from underwater in the pool.

Ultimately, "Since I Left You" is not a proper song at all. And yet it seems to have verses, a chorus, and a bridge, and all the usual amenities, and then you stop and realize that ... it's just a bunch of samples! These guys are good.

Equally hypnotic is the video. Now, you and I (and the Avalanches) know that the song's main vocal hook ("Since I left you, I found a world so new") is probably just a random sample that they thought sounded interesting when they were playing around and that's it. Ah, but The Avalanches excel at giving new life to meaningless phrases taken out of context. The video treats the phrase as if if were full of great emotional import. They've taken a sentence that essentially means nothing, and have turned it into something silly, magical, and a little bit moving.

So think about what's going on here. Not only have The Avalanches created a genuine song out of bits of songs that were never ever intended to coexist together, they've also created a complex narrative story out of a song that was never actually intended to be released.

Musicians of today: think small.

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