This post continues the anniversary series on albums with some personal significance, but I want to digress before writing about the album. Some time ago, while out with friends for drinks, a discussion sprung up regarding sampling. The debate centered on its artistic validity, and whether the albums of say, Girl Talk, deserved the label “music” or a dismissal as glorified mixtapes. I supported the former, and in my argument, used an analogy with the visual arts inspired by my best friend.
During a conversation centered on a controversy regarding the removal of a video from an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, he stated that the curator’s exhibition is the equivalent of the writer’s essay; it is left to the viewer to decide whether the collected pieces of art support the thesis. Curators can assign meanings to and hypothesize about connections between works of art; however, curators themselves do not create new art. In this way, companies or musicians that produce a mix CD or mixtape (LateNightTales, Ultimate Dance Hits 1) are in the business of curation. Do all these songs collectively produce a blissful chill-out at 2 am? Do these twenty-two songs pump me up during my run or weightlifting session?
Contrast this with artists that use the collage format. According to Wikipedia, collage was accepted into the realm of fine art early in the twentieth century thanks to the early work of the Cubist painters Braque and Picasso. The re-interpretation and re-contextualization aspects of juxtaposing disparate photographs, digital media, magazine clippings, or other works of art are critical to the claim that collage deserves the label “art”. We owe the widespread popularity of sampling in music to the birth of hip hop in the 1970’s. I am no expert in hip hop. Instead, I’ll devote the rest of the post to the brilliant turn-of-the-millenium Since I Left You, the debut studio album from Melbourne’s The Avalanches.
Make no mistake — this LP is a complete work, not just a bunch of singles or a big dance mix cut up into four-minute segments. Individual tracks are not recalled in memory by “Oh, that’s the one that mashes X up with Y”. It pulls multiple duty — appropriate when everyone is sitting around playing board games, during the long, scenic drive across Vancouver Island, for house parties with 50 people crammed into a space for 25, and for the following day’s hungover cleanup. It is as if the approximately 3500 samples contained in the album conspire to emotively rearrange themselves to fit any situation.
In the first fifteen seconds, the title track opens the album with six samples of ambient crowd chatter, plucked guitar, woodwinds, strings, percussion, and a chorus of “doo-oo-oo-doo-doo-doo”. At forty-six seconds, a voice that should belong to the activities director of a cruise ship beckons us with the tagline, “Get a drink, have a good time now, welcome to paradise”. Arrogant? Wait sixty minutes. The rest of the song sparkles around vocals of “Since I left you / I found a world so new / And everyday” (and a more buried, synthetic “Long distance smile”). The band demonstrates a deft touch in the mid-song (2:30 and on) restraint and re-build. The party atmosphere (literally, with an invitation to a disco at a Club Med) is toned down for two minutes during “Stay Another Season” before picking up again in “Radio” with a raucous bass line, four-to-the-floor beat, and samples of alarms and loud cries that would do Basement Jaxx proud.
The album takes a break in the fourth track, a sort of jam session featuring two vocal lines, synth, and woodwinds. “Avalanche Rock” introduces “Flight Tonight”, the most fun you’ll have listening to someone say “I need to book a flight tonight” for two minutes around a pulsing bass line and synth blasts. The French rap that follows it is a bonus. Their general mood of the next two tracks conveys the part of the night when you jump on the dance floor for one song, then jump off for a breather (read: dose of drug of choice, in the band’s case, “smoking that”) and to scope out the eye candy.
The following pair is more uniform and beat-heavy: “A Different Feeling” conveys a sense of emotions both excited (blaring synths) and affectionate (violin and voice), and the synthetic vocals and ascending bass line provide the undercurrent for sparks in the form of short, glitchy samples in “Electricity”. “Tonight May Have to Last Me All My Life” transports us to a piano bar, before deporting the port-of-call in “Pablo’s Cruise”.
Then something weird happens. Either the ship goes down the watery equivalent of the rabbit hole (a whirlpool?) or someone slipped Pablo hallucinogens. “Frontier Psychiatrist” suspends snippets of dialogue and complementary effects (including violin, horses and a scratched record of a bird) over a drum kit that keeps the song moving. It’s genius, and put simply, listening to it is fun. “Etoh” is a come-down from the high, hypnotic and slightly depressing. It brightens towards the end, seguing into the sugary “Summer Crane”. A French woman complains about the cold until a beam of sunlight in the form of a violin line bursts through the cloud about a minute-and-a-half into the song. “Little Journey” (more specifically, Flight 22 to Honolulu) takes us to “Live at Dominoes”, the clubbiest selection on the album. The tender final track begins with the sound of seabirds and borrows from “Summer Crane”, ending with descending high-pitched samples that resemble small fireworks.
All that one should take from the long-winded exposition above is that this album exudes a sense of careful craft for every second of its hour-long duration. The ebb and flow between ecstasy and tranquility and the control in pacing throughout the album and in the tracks themselves are astonishing given that everything is sampled. The band’s music videos reinforce their artistry, exhibiting the same quirky sense of humour that pervades the songs. In an interview with Pitchfork, band member Robbie Chater states that the album was originally programmatic: “An international search for love from country to country. The idea of a guy following a girl around the world and always being one port behind.” There is ample evidence that this motif anchors the album — read the title tracks, try to pin down the genre of some of the samples, or hear the closing lament of “I just can’t get you / Since the day I left you” that ties the album together lyrically.
The Avalanches trail My Bloody Valentine in the category of “number of years leaving us hanging after a magnum opus”, but more than a decade after this release, the sophomore album is still vapourware. In the past couple of years, the band has teased with website posts like “Clearing samples”, but as of today, they are “taking a break” (the French translation seems more distressing – “on vacation”). I’ve been waiting around three years, and my heart goes out to the poor souls whose ears have been clamouring for three times that long.