Is Since I Left You (Modular/XL), the stunning debut from sample-happy Australian sextet the Avalanches, a concept album? At the least, the album feels vaguely thematic. Not only do each of its 18 tracks seamlessly segue into each another, but the songs constantly cross-reference one another: A whinnying horse pops up in both "Stay Another Season" and "Frontier Psychiatrist," and the first two songs on the album are hooked by the line, "Since I left you/I found a world so new."
Coming at the album's beginning, that sentiment puts a distinct stamp on how we hear the rest of the album. The music is a squishy, playful take on a variety of club styles--disco's sinuous thump, late-Eighties hip hop's sampledelic fever dreams, downtempo and ambient's kitschy twitter. So you might call Since I Left You a map of bumpy emotional terrain, surveying the thrill and dread of leaving a constricting relationship and entering the wider world--in this case, the night world of club culture--in order to find yourself. Not that you'd necessarily know it from the words, which are often absurd ("Frontier Psychiatrist" jumbles professorial voices declaring, "You're a nut! You're crazy in the coconut!"), or nonspecific (lots of ooohs and ululations). But who said concept albums had to be linear? Did anyone ever figure out the "plot" of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band?
Anyway, that's just my interpretation of the theme. As with the Beatles' most feted opus, there are plenty of other possible readings available here. For instance, you could hear Since I Left You as a broadside about copyright law being the hobgoblin of little minds. Constructed from some 900 samples, the album was released a year ago in Australia: The gap between then and its recent American issue came in large part from difficulties in negotiating the use of Madonna's "Holiday," a chunk of which buoys the song "Radio." Like the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique refracted through the rave-kissed bliss-out of Primal Scream's "Loaded," Since I Left You is ecstatic with the endless possibilities of sound, grounded in some of the airiest grooves ever constructed.
In fact, the album's most intriguing aspect is its blithe kitschiness. Part of this is purely technical: By abjuring the sonic extremities of most post-rave production (sizzling high end, gut-wrenching bottom), the Avalanches situate everything in a comfortable midrange, so everything sounds as fuzzy-warm as the cheesy orchestral recordings the album utilizes in excelsis. (That accentuated midrange is one reason the album feels conceptual--it's more like a record about club music than of it.)
But like Daft Punk, the Avalanches conflate disco and Seventies arena pop as lost vistas of possibility (and without an Urge Overkill-style smirk). Just as "Digital Love" (from Daft Punk's Discovery) is like the sound of Eurodisco auteur Giorgio Moroder rewriting the "Layla" riff, the Avalanches approach mindless soundtrack prettiness as a state of grace. The difference is that Daft Punk evoke giddy possibility viscerally, with a glossy loop or heaving bassline. They're more sonically literal, while the Avalanches are literal lyrically: They'll loop "book a flight tonight" over a jittery electro-groove, without saying where that flight leads. Like the vocal sprite says at the top of the album, where we find this "world so new" is up to us.
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