The Avalanches – Since I Left You

It’s summer in Melbourne, and stinking hot. I take solace where I can find it: stealing my sister’s fan any time I can, sculling bottles of juice at three in the morning, and listening to The Avalanches’ Since I Left You almost constantly, because context is everything and I’m determined to have a good time.

And I could end the review right here by telling you that this is what Since I Left You promises: the ability to infuse wonder back into everyday life, to make context where there was none. It’s a rare trick managed by few albums, though off the top of my head I can also think of Talk Talk’s Spirit Of Eden, Orb’s Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld and Primal Scream’s Screamadelica. Three wildly divergent albums perhaps, but what they all share is a very unassuming presentation of brilliance that you can drown in or merely let it wash over you as you get on with your life. Call it background music maybe, but instead of it fading into the background, it transforms it. Whatever you plan to do today will turn out differently merely because Since I Left You is playing. Needless to say, I’ve been using this album as medication to stave off depression when going to work.

The listener begins to understand some of the band’s aesthetic on the second track, “Stay Another Season”, which announces itself by stealing the bass and guitar parts from Madonna’s “Holiday” and transforming it into a lazy disco-funk number with Jamaican chanting, before suddenly veering off into an eerie, cavernous dub-groove of minor key piano cadences and horses neighing. The first rule of this album is that everything is sampled (apparently they can reproduce it live, and I’d be fascinated to know how). The second is that just as the listener thinks the band has settled into a comfortable groove, they’ll suddenly flip over to something improbably different. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to “Two Hearts In 3/4 Time” which is divided between old men chanting and whispering “money” , then the sound of guys moaning a waltz of “Ooh yeah/Oh yeah” and then a girl absent-mindedly singing “la la la” over a gorgeous french disco-pop backing Saint Etienne would be proud of, only with a Jaco-like fusionist bassline. Perhaps you could think of this album as DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing with pop aspirations, or Public Enemy’s Fear Of A Black Planet if Public Enemy were camp, or The Beta Band’s self-titled album with production values. Any of these conceptions would be limiting.

It’s plain from the outset that The Avalanches have a love of sound construction, and the unifying theme behind the swirl of styles that pours through the speakers with montage-like rapidity is a desire to let the sounds do the talking. And so, with some exceptions (the Bacharach influenced pop of the title track; the LSD-racked country-blues torchsong of “Tonight Will Have To Last Me For The Rest Of My Life”; the My Bloody Valentine haze of “Extra Kings”), the band generally draw on primarily electronic styles marked by their familiarity with sound itself: house, hip hop and armchair techno reminiscent of Plaid or Boards Of Canada. That list implies a fractured scramble between styles, but the album is in fact made up of one track, and the flow is so natural and unforced that when listening it’s just easier to mentally divide it up between the fast moments and the slow moments. The edges of the genres are blurred as well ? the segue from the raggafied bounce hip hop of “This Flight Tonite” (complete with awesome Kraftwerk synthesisers, computer game bleeps and a surprisingly limber sampled breakbeat) to the thumping house of “Close To You” is so cunning that it’s hard to remember that the band is flitting between two distinct styles.

Despite the strong grounding of memorable basslines on most tracks, the band also have a love high, trebly sounds: flutes, clarinets, recorders, strings, harps, xylophones, glockenspiels, sleighbells, synthesisers, computer bleeps, whistles, soprano opera singers and girls’ coos swoop through the mix like butterflies alighting on a melody for a moment, before vanishing in a flutter, only to reappear, nestled among the musical foliage. It gives the album a sparkly, spangly air: the title track opens the album, and is swathed in effervescent harp cascades and Tinkerbell tinkles, and a woman’s breathless gasp of a vocal, “since I left you/I found a world so new!” It sounds not so much like a cry of independence as the excited exclamation of a young traveller writing home. And indeed the whole album could almost be a piece of aural travel writing, a show-and-tell for a band themselves stunned at what they found in the world outside their original minimalist hip hop template.

The intermittent party vibe of the album is largely a result of the group’s incongruous leap into the world of house music. Their take on the style on tracks like “Radio”, “Close To You”, “Diners Only” and “Live At Dominoes” is something like a collaboration between The Beta Band and Basement Jaxx: at once both precise and ramshackle in its messy approximation of house’s sleek groove, and absolutely overburdened with a profusion of sonic detail. “Radio” is a squelchy riot riding on a deathless disco bassline and drenched in wah wah guitar. While the kickdrum keeps pace throughout, it sounds inexact and coincidental, as if a caveman were banging on a giant drum and only happened to be keeping 4/4 time.

“Close To You” and “Diners Only” (really the same track, although they have enough ideas for five) take this amateur-house aesthetic one step further, careening from shimmering flute and computer bleep driven phased disco to a sort of voluptuous swamp-funk of kitchen-sink percussion, latin piano and, bizarrely, jingles from the 50s. Toward the end the flutes flood back in, creating a hypnotic groove spiralling upwards into “A Different Feeling” , a rapturous mixture of a disco string loop and raining video game bleeps that surprises with its sheer unexpected loveliness no matter how prepared I am for its arrival. The album’s centrepiece numerically and emotionally, “A Different Feeling” turns poignant towards the end, easing it into a bittersweet coda of haunting strings and uneasy synthesisers. After constantly building for the first half of the album, The Avalanches now set-up the second for an uneasy comedown in the glorious tradition of Screamadelica.

When he next track, “Electricity”, combines a nasty Sly & Family Stone funk-groove with hauntingly ethereal aria vocals, you know that the spell has been broken, revealing an even wider palette of emotional material for the band to work with. And while there are real highs later on (the comically overblown Bacharach-meets-RZA-meets-turntablism of first single “Frontier Psychiatrist” or the heaven’s breath ambience of “Etoh” being prime examples), the tracks are infused with a sort of nervous knowledge that “this can’t last”, and correspondingly try to work even more ideas into their sonic templates.

It’s difficult to think of many albums as consistently ambitious as this, but this album seems to me to be spiritually in tune with landmark efforts like A.R. Kane’s I and Disco Inferno’s D.I. Go Pop; taking the former’s wide-eyed wonder and the latter’s revolutionary sampling aesthetic, Since I Left You also shares their sense of accidental importance, pointing a hundred different ways forward. Here is an hour’s proof that sampladelica is not a dead concept, an empty corpse left for vultures such as Beck with their post-modern inferiority complexes to pick at for passing value. And best of all it’s the most heartbreaking, eye-opening, pulse-setting, foot-tapping, ear-caressing fun to be had, this summer or any other.

Tim Finney