I knew that The Avalanches were from Australia and that one of the strange animals that resided in that hemisphere is the two-toed sloth, which like its equally zoned-out koala counterpart, is renowned for its somewhat soporific attitude.
It’s slow and virtually supine all day, so the fact that the Avalanches have not released an album since 2000’sSince I Left You seems to confirm the suspicion that this Antipodean apathy may well extend to its human counterpart, and to the male of the species in particular.
Way back in 1997 the Avalanches first tentative release was via an EP called El Producto, which featured the standout tracks “Rock City” and “Rolling High.” Clearly the group was still a long way from the shiny pop machine they were to become, and stylistic comparisons at that time would lean more toward Cypress Hill and the Beastie Boys. Haphazard hip-hop if you will.
Founding members Robbie Chater & Darren Steltmanns decided a keyboardist, James De La Cruz, would add some new textures to expand their hip-hop horizons and it did seem to work.
The result of this reconfiguring was the “Frontier Psychiatrist” maxi-single in 2000, and even Madonna allowed them to scoop up a sample of her breathless 1983 hit “Holiday” for “Stay Another Season.” Anything and everything was now possible.
The single “Since I Left You” would become a sonic template of sorts, with sweeping Studio 54 era-like strings, heart fluttering flutes, and a dash of love and loss. The parent album of the same name brimmed with in-the-moment confidence and their collective tastes seemed favour Stax records, plus John Barry with a little modern house as a kicker.
Another single, “Frontier Psychiatrist” was a departure from the template and it demonstrated perfectly that the “anything goes” ethos was in full effect. It sounded like an eccentric electro opera with Carl Jung on trombone & Groucho Marx directing proceedings.
They then opted to tour this sequinned, modern masterpiece, but after increasingly chaotic shows, the band ground to a halt, with Chater admitting that he was an alcoholic and bound for rehab. Unfortunately for him this became a protracted illness as his withdrawal from alcohol was made far more serious by him contracting several autoimmune illnesses. This was clearly a very dark time for the band.
With Chater newly clean and sober in 2006, the Avalanches’ label optimistically and ostentatiously trumpeted that “they’ve made the best record of their lives.” In pre-release interviews, Chater & Steltmanns announced that it was a “back to hip-hop roots” album.
Again, nothing much happened. The predicted avalanche didn’t arrive.
Fast forward another five years and they were now a settled three piece comprised of Chater, Tony Di Blasi, and James Dela Cruz.
It’s now July 2016 and their long overdue follow-up LP Wildflower is a case of “as you were,” replete with all of the unique selling points that had made Since I Left You so compelling. Not to mention that while most artists’ cover artwork is disappointingly mundane and seems life an afterthought these days, Wildflower’s cover is just beautiful, and hints at what music lies within.
Among the many textures and rhythmic underpinnings, there’s even room for a little De La Soul style daisy age-like nursery rhyme rap shtick with the Beach Boys and Burt Bacharach thrown in for good measure.
So we’re straight in and straight out pops an almost obligatory scene setting skit, and then we plunge into a glittering gem of a song, “Because I’m Me.” Think Michael Jackson when was he a chirpy “Rockin’ Robin” with gorgeously soulful strings for company. Summer in a song.
Then a real stylistic switch with “Frankie Sinatra” featuring MF Doom. Imagine a badly lit Tijuana cantina on the wrong side of the Tex-Mex border, a fight ensues between the house Mariachi trio and a Hungarian polka band. Absolutely ridiculous. And absolutely wonderful.
Next the shimmering “Subways” featuring Chandra Oppenheim, which has a sweet vocal and an appealing ebb and flow of gentle funk.
“If I Was a Folkstar” is a collaborative effort with Toro y Moi and it ploughs a similarly stylistic furrow as “Subways,” as it passes by gently for a full two minutes before our ears are caressed by the velvet- voiced Chazwick.
The weird wand is waved once again for “The Noisy Eater.” Rap originator Biz Markie finds himself up against a children’s choir riffing on the Beatles’ “Come Together!”
The titular “Wildflower” is a slight skit that’s never quite fleshed out fully.
“Harmony” evinces exactly as its title implies thanks to a multitude of layered vocals courtesy of Mercury Rev’s mercurial Jonathan Donahue.
“The Wozard of Iz” arrives and I’m beginning to think that there may be too much common ground with previous tracks in terms of song structure, arrangement, and musical chords favoured. Major 7ths for example.
There seems also to be repetition and overreliance on the same instrument samples such as strings, children’s voices, flutes and whistles. This is fine if one digs into the album sporadically, and in two or three song bursts, but can be problematic if you are listening to the album in a single sitting. Tt’s akin to too many trips to the sweet trolley.
“Sunshine” is a good example. It actually has the same feel as both “Since I Left You” & lead-off track “Because I’m Free.” If one had never heard either of those songs before, then it would be perfectly fine. But it just sounds like a slightly inferior version of both. Ditto with both “Kaleidoscopic Lovers” & “Stepkids.”
I’m happy to report however that the penultimate track “Saturday Night Inside Out” (the last track is a perfunctory extended mix of “Frankie Sinatra”) is interesting in that it appears to cherry pick the best ideas from the rest of the album and feed them through a stylistic musical mincer. What emerges is an airy undulating groove that’s assisted by spoken word asides and some interesting guitar work on the break down.
After the triumph of Since I Left You, the band have been intermittently waylaid by illness, multiple line-up changes, and the constant starting but never finishing of their sophomore release.
It must be a blessed relief for the band, and their beleaguered record company, to have finally unleashedWildflower into the public domain.
Shame then that its moments of brilliance have been somewhat tempered by repetition elsewhere on the album. In hindsight, this issue could have been resolved with a little judicious pruning, and then we’d have had an album worthy of rubbing its shoulders with its mighty predecessor.
Notable Tracks: “Because I’m Me” | “Frankie Sinatra” | “Harmony” | “Saturday Night Inside Out” | “Sunshine”