Whatever you might think about sampling others’ music rather than making your own, The Avalanches’ Since I Left You is arguably the apex of the art form/act of wanton criminality. The Australian group’s 2000 debut made even the expertly crate-digging DJ Shadow look like a bored Sam Goody browser. Its surgical extractions on thousands of vinyl castaways composed a monster headphone rave by shredding the kind of soul, disco, easy listening, and long-forgotten comedy records you can find nicotine-stained copies of crowding used bins everywhere. Theirs was a daring heist, one that exploded the craft of cinematically editing scraps of audio to create a dizzying, Technicolor three-reeler of musical celebration.
But it was still a heist. And during the 16 years since the album’s release, it’s easy to imagine The Avalanches’ core duo of Robbie Chater and Tony Di Blasi (co-founder Darren Seltmann left in 2014) wondering how they could ever top it, all while watching in dismay as the casual theft that was their way of life became music industry enemy No. 1. In a year when Taylor Swift is declaring war on YouTube and copyright lawyers are Kanye West’s most eager listeners, it seems the art of “plunderphonics” has never been more dangerous. And yet it’s never more widespread: Since 2000, everyone from Girl Talk to anyone else with Ableton on their laptop has made the mashup a genre unto itself. It’s also easy to imagine Chater and Di Blasi being fine with resting on a benchmark that’s only grown more legendary with their absence—one that’s even prompted fans to ask, with evident sympathy, whether it was simply “too good to follow up.”
Instead they’ve been pulled back in for one last score, albeit one that’s been given the legal all-clear. And if Wildflower lacks the same how’d-they-do-that awe after an entire generation of professional and bedroom imitators, the best compliment this sequel can receive is that it feels like a natural successor without being a total rehash. Chater has mentioned being inspired by the wall of sounds of Phil Spector and The Beach Boys, and the group itself has compared Wildflower to Brian Wilson’s Smile, a fitting analogy for an album that’s been so exhaustively tinkered over. Like Smile, it’s a far more abstract statement than Since I Left You’s transcontinental, 24-hour party vibe, taking that album’s occasional psychedelic smears and making them the focus, blending them with snatches of drunken revelers, morning DJs, swimming pool splashes, and criminal misdemeanors to create a blurry, hallucinatory block party of idle youth and endless summer.
That increased emphasis on breezy, sun-smacked pop—much of it provided here, for the first time, by original instrumentation and guest vocalists—is the most obvious distinction from Since I Left You. It’s also its biggest obstacle. Wildflower abounds with so many trilling flutes, Muzak strings, singing children, and Up With People positivity that at times it feels like being trapped on a malfunctioning Epcot Center ride. All that sunshine gets a bit exhausting, particularly during the 21-track record’s back third—bookended by two songs fronted by Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donahue, whose sense of wide-eyed, acid-induced wonder (“Where do all the mermaids go?” he asks on “Colours”) saturates the entire album. Those with a low tolerance for smacked-out saccharinity may eventually find themselves longing for the dirty electro funk of a “Radio” or “Flight Tonight” to add some ballast to all this dreamy bliss; it’s for their lack that Wildflower falls just short of Since I Left You, whose pivots were slightly more unpredictable.
Instead, Wildflower finds most of its grit in guest rappers like Camp Lo, with the Bronx duo giving opener “Because I’m Me” a puffed-chest swagger, and especially Danny Brown, whose adenoidal quacks about pills and blunts pull double duty on two standouts here: the yawing, drunk-at-the-carnival “Frankie Sinatra,” whose calypso hook grates until it gets all the way under the skin; and “The Wozard Of Iz,” which combines a forgotten Tommy James And The Shondells bridge and a Space Age electronic music oddity into a cinematic head-trip.
There’s also lovable goofball Biz Markie, who, on “The Noisy Eater,” drops what amounts to a breakfast cereal jingle over an old Jerry Lewis bit and a (Paul McCartney-sanctioned!) children’s choir doing “Come Together.” It feels like Wildflower’s clearest bid to match the daffy lunacy of Since I Left You breakout “Frontier Psychiatrist,” though there’s nothing really matching that song’s spinning-plate sample juggling to be found here. It’s possibly a reflection of the departure of turntablist Dexter Fabay or just changing fashions—or maybe it’s just that after spending so many years tied up in legal red tape, The Avalanches wanted to make sure to get the most out of every sample. Whatever the reason, while Chater and Di Blasi are as adept as ever at patching together disparate sounds into something alchemically magical, once their collages are constructed, here they seem far more content to just let them bloom prettily.
“Subways” mashes up an obscure song from 12-year-old no-wave curio Chandra with a Bee Gees cover, turns the whole thing into a laser-strobed, sunset groove, then lets it strut while doing little besides dropping the bass in and out, perhaps mirroring the effect of dipping from a sidewalk to a subway station (but mostly of someone annoyingly fiddling with your equalizer). “If I Was A Folkstar” picks up the “Subways” pulse and builds it into a lovely, wistful Toro Y Moi pop tune, then lolls in the backseat while its keyboard-demo hook does most of the driving. A zen stasis fully sets in during the five-track span from “Harmony” to “Wozard Of Iz,” where—a stomping verse from Southern rappers A.Dd+ on “Live A Lifetime Love” aside—Wildflower treads pleasantly cool water in a babbling brook of ghostly choral voices, fluttering woodwinds, and pastoral folk sketches.
It’s all lovely and typically seamless, and it remains ideal for creating the kind of swimmy headspace where The Avalanches’ music lives. But this kind of sustained tranquility, without much shift in tempo or mood, also makes the bulk of the album feel like an interlude. It’s enough to make you wonder how Wildflower could have benefited from some more unsparing editing. Compared to what immediately precedes them, final tracks “Stepkids” and “Saturday Night Inside Out” feel exceptionally realized, despite being two of the more thrown-together collaborations on paper: On the former, Royal Trux’s Jennifer Herrema and The Dirty Three’s Warren Ellis pay wracked homage to teenage idleness, while Father John Misty and Silver Jews’ David Berman craft a spooky spoken-word ode to a lost crush on the latter. Much like “Because I’m Me,” “Frankie Sinatra,” and “Colours,” these feel far more composed and idiosyncratically new, and they close out an album that occasionally fades into a lite FM haze on a memorable note.
Still, semiconscious, half-remembered reverie is kind of The Avalanches’ deal. Any comparisons to an undisputed classic or tonal quibbles aside, there remains no shortage of bubbly euphoria, stoned bonhomie, or straight-up pleasure to be found here. Wildflower may not inspire the same years of obsessive unpacking as its predecessor, but the joyful feelings it leaves behind linger just the same.