Since I Left You by The Avalanches (Review)

It’s a whole new world, one that contains new discoveries in every track, every minute, every second.
Since I Left You, The Avalanches

I’ll be honest; I’ve been burned out on music lately. It’s not that there aren’t good records out there. It’s just that the ones I’d been listening to lately weren’t doing a whole lot for me. I’d expected great things and was left disappointed. In fact, it was even a labor to even really listen to anything, and I mean really listen. I’d put a CD in at work, and quickly zone it out. It’s a sad thing for me when PHP coding and MySQL queries become more interesting than music.

Maybe this sounds shallow and fickle, but I needed something, even though I didn’t necessarily realize it at the time. Something that I couldn’t wait to listen to again and again, without fear of it becoming stale after a handful of listens. Something that would leave me confused and bewildered, but satisfied and overjoyed. In short, something I could rant and rave about. And so I wandered aimlessly from one CD to another, until a friend placed Since I Left You into my hands after church.

I’d heard about the Avalanches, seen articles about them, but I don’t put a lot of stock into what Spin is raving about. And so I was a little skeptical when I slipped the disc into my G4, ready for an interesting, but ultimately forgettable experience. What I got was pure joy.

Since I Left You begins with 6 minutes of some of the most exuberant, joyful sounds I’ve heard in a long time. Hip-hop beats, flowing strings, trilling flutes, and breathless voices all merge under the looped sample of some pop songstress defiantly singing “Since I left you/I’ve found a world so new.” It’s an apt description of what listening to this album is like. It’s a whole new world, one that contains new discoveries in every track, every minute, every second.

Much of that sense of newness, of freshness comes from the very nature of the recording. Over 900 samples were used in Since I Left You, from self-help and religious programming to TV commercials, from old western movies to countless soul and funk records, and everything in between. But these various sound sources aren’t merely sampled. They’re morphed and transformed, turned from snippets into full compositions, complete with emotions and depth.

Along with that depth comes variety, and plenty of it. There’s the title track’s orchestral disco funk. “Two Hearts In 3/4 Time” and “Summer Crane” both one-up Stereolab, creating beguiling electro-pop atmospheres complete with a French chanteuse. “Flight Tonight“ s robotic sounds create a futuristic, Blade Runner mood by way of DJ Shadow. “Little Journey” combines a driving funk beat with random crowd noises and vocals straight out of Daft Punk’s latest.

The whole album reaches its climax on “Frontier Psychiatrist,” which gets my vote for “Single of the Year.” It’s hard to describe just how madcap this song is. Here, the humor that pervades much of the album becomes really noticeable, as the song begins with the overwrought story of a boy being expelled from school. It suddenly launches into a twisted mix out of Beck’s wildest dreams, as an aerobics video, dueling English psychiatrists, cowboys, a parrot, and a mariachi band all try to get in their 2 cents. It becomes much clearer if you watch the video, but it never loses its charm or novelty. And rather than overstaying its welcome, it gladly gives way to the gorgeous, downtempo sounds of “Etoh.”

From what I’ve just written, it would seem like Since I Left You is a terribly incoherent album. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s a testament to the Avalanches’ skill that they’re able to take 900+ samples and craft such a cohesive and accessible album from them. To be fair, if you were to just skip around from track to track, it would sound very schizophrenic. But to really get the album’s full impact, you need to listen to it from beginning to end (though noone will blame you if you have to listen to “Frontier Psychiatrist” 3 or 4 times straight).

The first time I heard Since I Left You, I listened to it 3 times in a row. And then I did it again the next day. I’ve grooved to it at work, in the car, and while writing this review. When the neighbors see a strange silhouette in the window gyrating madly, it’s probably me listening to “Frontier Psychiatrist.” It’s been a long time since an album has made this kind of impression on me. I was almost afraid it would never happen again, which is why I was so overjoyed after just a few minutes into the album. Yeah, that’s pretty shallow, but I don’t care. Listening to Since I Left You, it somehow makes perfect sense.

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