What does it sound like?:
It pains me to say this, as I have long championed this band, but this new album from the The Avalanches isn’t that good.
The Avalanches started as cheeky young upstarts at the end of the last millennium, joining a long list of hip hop and dance artists who worked with samples, weaving cut and paste collages into new material. They didn’t really fit into any genre, but created a happy-sad genre of their own, and their classic debut Since I Left You in 2000 was a glorious mashup of cheap charity shop records.
But with the advent on online music, obscure tunes became easier to find with just a click (undercutting the crate-diggers of the 80s and 90s) and the legal claws tightened around “stealing music”, so it became harder and harder to do this kind of thing. That it took 16 years to make a follow-up, Wildflower, was perhaps not surprising. But what WAS surprising was how good Wildflower actually was, smoothing out and subtly updating the Since I Left You sound and showing there was still life in the genre yet (a genre which, in the intervening years had acquired a name, “plunderphonics” – ugh).
So four years after Wildflower (astonishingly quick for these guys), we have We Will Always Love You. It sounds strange to describe an album with a gestation period of four years as rushed, but I think it was.
The opening single, the title track, released back in February this year, was sparkly and magical. But in hindsight the writing was maybe on the wall. Instead of the kitchen sink collage approach of before (Avalanches music sounded sometimes a bit like ten records all playing at the same time), this was based around a snippet from a single source (Hammond Song by The Roches) and filled out with a wash of slow beats, synths, twinkly noises and muted rapping. (Oh, apologies, yes, there was a Smokey Robinson vocal sample as well, but so echoey and distant you would hardly notice it).
From then until now there has been a run of gradually more and more disappointing singles. And worryingly the two remaining band members seem to have lost all sense of humour (there is zero humour on this record) and have resorted to making cryptic statements about cosmic love. It’s as if they’ve been kidnapped by a cult. The Avalanches never sounded this humourless, this polished or this dull.
The album itself is a sprawling mass (70 minutes long – uh oh) of collaborations with a bizarre crew, from old hipsters like Mick Jones and Terence Trent D’Arby (what?) to flavour of the month newbies I have never heard of (but who sound as if they below on the Quietus’ album of the year poll) like Cola Boyy, Jamie XX and Rivers Cuomo.
It’s all very underwhelming and samey, with poignant pianos, muffled beats and warm synths in full effect, and the party/street noises of their previous two albums replaced with Vangelis-type spacey sound effects. I can’t decide whether it sounds too dated (like 90s era landfill trip hop – think Morcheeba or Sneaker Pimps) or too modern (the “new psychedelia” of Tame Impala and MGMT) for me. Either way, I find it a tough listen.
On a couple of songs it kicks into the same unique party vibe The Avalanches used to be good at. One song, for example, is based around a loop from The Carpenters (Hurting Each Other) and it brings back happy memories of when they used loops from Boney M and Madonna on Since I Left You. A dabbling in kitsch.
I’ve managed to pick out six tunes I quite like, which would have made a nice little 20 minute EP. But I doubt I’ll play the whole album much, if at all.
What does it all *mean*?
It means bands sometimes need to grow up and work within the limitations of the industry. Twenty years of poverty and begging for permission to use samples is obviously a tiring life, so I don’t blame the band for trying to go a bit more mainstream and write some original songs of their own. In fact, I’m happy for them as it seems to have worked for them. But it doesn’t mean I have to like it.
Goes well with…
It sounds fine as unchallenging background music. The big criticism of trip-hop in the nineties was that it just turned into the kind of music you would hear in the background of a trendy hair salon, and this sounds the same.
December 11 2020 – out now
Might suit people who like…
Any of these acts like the aforementioned Tame Impala and MGMT. It’s not really my scene so I won’t pretend to know the names (Spotify tells me Mild High Club, Pond, Beach Fossils and Melody’s Echo Chamber….). But it certainly sounds like The Avalanches have managed to squeeze their way into this scene. As they said in their recent NME interview, they are overjoyed at now being “just another band”. It’s odd saying that, because their strength used to be their uniqueness.