Avalanches – Wildflower (2016)


It’s only appropriate that I pick this album for the return of Critter Jams, as Wildflower is also a highly anticipated comeback that many people said was never gonna happen. Can’t say I caught Avalanche fever the first time around, but these sort of constantly teased and perpetually delayed albums are always interesting to me, even when they turn out to be as overcooked and joyless as Chinese Democracy. I mean this thing was in the works for over a decade; I remember its release seeming imminent way back in 2007. By the time it actually came out they’d pulled the football so many times that its existence practically felt surreal.

But time is a strange concept when dealing with The Avalanches; as with many plunderphonics artists, the sounds you hear coming out of the speakers span across several decades and continents. Wildflower takes this a step further, as some of it dates all the way back to 2000, and much of the music was drawn from aborted projects and collaborations that never saw the light of day. Not to mention the arduous process of sample clearance, which determined what tracks they could and couldn’t put on the album. In all they wound up with about 3,500 samples, plus some original instrumentation and orchestration, plus a bunch of guest vocal spots, some of which were recorded a decade prior.

All of which is to say there are certain elements of chaos and fate on here, elements which cannot really be replicated. The record feels timeless by design. Much like their debut record, you’re not really supposed to be focusing on where exactly this stuff is coming from; they do use a lot of well-known tracks, but they often sample in such thin slices that you can’t quite figure it out. They draw across many decades and genres – “Frankie Sinatra” seamlessly turns a 40’s song about calypso into Fatboy Slim-style hip-hop. To obfuscate things even further, a fair amount of the vocal spots here are original, albeit usually done in a way that tries to hide the fact. Jonathan Donahue and Father John Misty not only sing like the psychedelic and folk artists of the 60’s, but their voices are produced on here in much the same way. Even Biz Markie, the one instantly recognizable guy on here, does a straightforward rap about breakfast cereal that sounds like it was pulled from an early Fat Boys cut.

The effect here is somewhat akin to those big budget films that depict a bygone era, but do so in an overly vivid and colorful way that’s well beyond what anyone could have achieved at the time. Think perhaps of The Great Gatsby with Leonardo DiCaprio, or Moulin Rouge, both of which played around in this same space; 1900 by way of 2000. Take “Kaleidoscopic Lovers”, which features Donahue and is based on a stitched-together melody that might be pulled from rearranged pieces of “Caroline, No”, as though the record was shattered and incorrectly pieced together, and maybe played at the wrong speed to boot. It’s gorgeous and a more than a little unsettling, but despite its 60’s atmosphere there’s no way a track like this could’ve been made back in the day.

But the important thing is that it sounds like it. For all the chaos and creation on this disc you really get the sense that they were aiming for a particular aesthetic. Some of the tracks near the beginning (“Because I’m Me”, “Subways”) have a disco Jackson 5 vibe to them; as the record progresses it takes on the sort of lush, colorful atmosphere that you’d associate with something like Sesame Street. I don’t know if I’ve ever encountered a record that nailed that sound so thoroughly.

For my money this is a better record than Since I Left You; it’s more dynamic, more playful, more complete – it doesn’t feel like a couple of tunes and a bunch of neat interludes. It’s just as meticulous and difficult to reproduce, but it doesn’t feel like a retread or sequel.  It really does live up to the hype.

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