As a child, some of my favorite toys were building toys. I had a fondness for Legos, Lincoln Logs, and jigsaw puzzles. There was something about creating something out of seemingly simple distractions, about creating a whole out of individual pieces, about creating order out of chaos. I wonder now whether the six Aussies that make up The Avalanches had the same toys I did.
A lot of the kids with those toys probably did turn out to be DJs or samplers. I remember back in the day when hip-hop was just starting to get big, which meant that record companies were just starting to notice that DJ’ were making money off of using samples from their property. Millions of naysayers came out spouting that there was no way a band could be successful just by using samples, that you had to use traditional instruments at some point. Phooey, I said back then, and phooey I say now. I give you exhibit A: The Avalanches’ Since I Left You.
Originally released by Sire in 2001, Modular has just reissued The Avalanches great breakthrough album. For those of you who missed out on its initial release and then lived blissfully unaware during its out-of-print status, you owe it to yourself to pick up this aural treat. It takes something truly extraordinary in the genre of electronic music for me to stand up and take notice, much less to buy. Upon hearing the album, I didn’t simply want to buy it; I wanted to buy some for friends for fear of it falling out of print again.
Since I Left You is essentially an hour-long foray into the patchwork of electronic beats and sampling from anything and everything available. When you can take songs from late sixties and early seventies a.m. radio, and I’m talking bad a.m. radio, and turn it into a danceable and fun track, you have ridiculous talent. When you can take a song that should be piped into a dentist’s office and layer in vocal samples, beats, and grooves, then you deserve to be recognized. Lots of people have recognized the sestet, including the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy who invited them on tour, and also Madonna who allowed them to sample her early hit “Holiday.” It’s the only time she’s done such a thing.
Each song is unique, but they also flow into one another, acting as segues as well as tracks in their own right. While the first track intones “Since I left you, I found a world so new,” so does the second track, as a continuation and reprise of the first. The sample of “Borderline” appears between the first two tracks and then again at the end as a kind of `wrap-up’ to the album. There are many other instances of these recurring themes and samples to act as hidden gems for you to find as you listen.
The true centerpiece of the album, released as an introductory EP before the album’s release, is the song “Frontier Psychiatrist.” The mosaic of this song, complete with very odd vocal samples, is as entertaining as it is complex. It will get you dancing, laughing, and sitting on the edge of your seat near the stereo speakers trying to pick out the layers of samples that make up the dense framework. With everything from horns that sound straight out of Kill Bill, flamenco guitar, horses braying, and the scratched and mixed voice of a parrot, “Frontier Psychiatrist” is just one of those songs that stays with you. Nick Hornby wrote about “Frontier Psychiatrist” in his Songbook, and did such a nice piece on it that I would be reluctant to spend any more time on it, except to say that Nick is right and the song is excellent.
The Avalanches proved that not only could you make an entire album out of samples, but you could make an astounding one at that. After the word spread slowly and the album gained a kind of cult status, someone was smart enough to get Since I Left You back out into the CD bins to sate us.