Thursday, January 17, 2013

Transcendent vibes: on chillwave, the growth of Toro y Moi, and escaping your subgenre


One of the first music criticism microbursts I remember digesting as it happened was the Great Chillwave Rush of 2009. Thinking about that term three or four years after the fact, it’s easy to recall the way it was beaten into the ground. Chillwave wasn’t much more than a loosely related group of (mostly) young artists producing electronic pop and R&B who used a similar set of sounds and textures. But back in 2009, I hadn’t yet read thousands of thinkpieces and Tumblr posts and Twitter conversation threads. My perspective wasn’t nearly as nuanced as it is now (still not saying much), but I had this unbelievably untarnished enthusiasm that can’t ever be fully restored. I loved chillwave! I loved everything about it. If a song on the Forkcast or some random blog mp3 had the C-word attached to it, I would give it a full listen at the very least, and for a while I had dozens of random crappy chillwave songs sitting in a folder on my computer. This probably helps to explain my enduring, above-average levels of affection for the three young princes of chillwave who have since risen from humble beginnings to nascent indie stardom: Washed Out (Ernest Greene), Neon Indian (Alan Palomo), and Toro y Moi (Chaz Bundick). 

With apologies to those Small Black and Memory Cassette/Memory Tapes fans out there, there were only ever three chillwave artists that had the talent to distance themselves from their scene-level contemporaries, and it was obvious even from their first album cuts. (I will note here that Memory Cassette’s “Surfin’” is one of my five favourite chillwave tracks of all time - it’s too bad there wasn’t any more heat coming from that direction.) Toro’s “Blessa” went up on Pitchfork on July 15th, 2009; Neon Indian’s “Deadbeat Summer” dropped nine days later, on July 24th; Washed Out’s “You’ll See It” came three days later, on July 27th. His second single to hit P4k, "Feel It All Around", was posted less than a month later, on August 25th. Two of those track reviews were written by Richard Armitage, hereafter known as the Godfather of Chillwave; two of the songs, “Deadbeat Summer” and “Feel It All Around”, received Best New Track status. In the span of about a month, the foundational texts of chillwave’s best and most important artists had been positively reviewed on the Internet’s most influential hub for new music. I love all of these songs to this day.

By the end of January 2010, all three artists had released either a sizeable EP or their debut studio LP: Washed Out dropped the High Times and Life of Leisure tapes, Neon Indian released Psychic Chasms, and Toro offered up Causers of This. Each of these releases has its charms; my favourite of the four is Psychic Chasms, armed with two titanic singles (“Deadbeat Summer” and "Should Have Taken Acid With You") and a handful of bubbly album cuts with a sense of humour that sound like tiny hits of nitrous oxide. (I mean, one such track is called “Laughing Gas” - this isn’t a stretch.) But our trio of heroes aren’t remarkable because of their debut albums: it’s the steps they took after those albums that rendered them interesting and worthy of fawning blog posts like this one. 

It’s fair to say that a similar aesthetic was employed across all three debut albums, but cracks were already beginning to show in that simple reduction. Washed Out cultivated and made excellent use of a thick, claustrophobia-inducing atmosphere on both his tapes; listening to “Feel It All Around” is like having a feverish, kinda sexy dream on the most humid day of the year. As previously mentioned, Psychic Chasms is airier, lighter, and funnier than its counterparts. Meanwhile, Causers of This found Toro playing with more fluid arrangements and instrumentation while finding a midpoint between Neon Indian’s SNES-damaged pop and Washed Out’s more overt house and R&B maneuvers. If the differences between these albums are cracks, then the next releases from each artist blew those cracks into the sort of fissures that split houses in two and swallow up farm animals.

Over the course of 2011, each camp issued their next major release. Toro’s second album, Underneath the Pine, came in February; Washed Out’s debut LP Within and Without was released in July; Neon Indian’s second, Era Extraña, hit shelves in September. Each release was a showcase for a great amount of personal growth, and each moved towards entirely new and different terrain. Our three princes of chillwave were embarking on quests for three different thrones. Underneath the Pine was an assortment of organic bachelor pad pop anchored by two brilliant contemporary disco singles in "Still Sound" and "New Beat", a far cry from the aqueous sonics of Causers of This. Within and Without might’ve constituted the most predictable move forward, an album where the thick haze of those early Washed Out cassettes was ratcheted to Mexico City levels and married to the odd Balearic pulse, like on "Echoes". Finally, my favourite of the three albums was Era Extraña, which transformed the giddy day-glo high of Psychic Chasms into future shocked, twilit drama. I’d place its trio of “big singles” - the swooning "Polish Girl", lovestruck "Fallout", and stratospheric "Halogen (I Could Be a Shadow)" - against any other handful of cuts from a 2011 record. The year also saw the release of Toro’s Freaking Out EP, a short but sweet collection that found him delving into pop-funk and straightforward disco more readily than on Underneath the Pine.

From the end of 2011 until this month, each artist has remained mostly quiet. The only 2012 release from any of the three was Toro’s early tracks compilation June 2009, featuring nothing but songs recorded before the Summer of Chillwave really kicked off. There’s a line on Neon Indian’s Wiki page about working on some tracks with Baby Spice, and although that would be totally awesome, I feel safe postulating that it’s probably untrue. But this month marks the release of Toro’s third album, entitled Anything in Return, and now I can finally get to the part of this piece that’s hinted at in the title: this album is fantastic

Anything in Return is the fulfillment of every bit of promise Chaz Bundick has shown since 2009, and a thrilling amalgamation of the various styles he’s experimented with across the Toro y Moi flagship and his side projects (like the straightforward house of Les Sins) since that date. At 52 minutes, it’s an ambitious effort, and I’m still finding ways into some of the middle tracks, but the opening and closing stretches of this album are pure pleasure. The first four tracks - "Harm in Change", "Say That", "So Many Details", and "Rose Quartz" - are songs where Toro has found the optimal blend of pop, R&B, and house and then applied that blend to short form singles with strong hooks. “Harm in Change” begins with a rhythm that invites office chair shimmying, but it’s broken open by his strongest vocal take to date, a sensual, controlled performance that plays well with his chosen cut-up samples. “Say That” builds with layer upon layer of percussive lines into a throbbing, club-ready single. With its cycling, ascending synth pattern and four-on-the-floor beat, “Rose Quartz” is reminiscent of none other than contemporary Four Tet at single length. And when all of these songs are taken in together in one sitting, they fit together seamlessly. They sound like the work of an artist who has grown into a signature sound and then paired that sound with top-notch songs.

If I were Brostradamus, I’d be able to tell you with certainty that the next albums from Neon Indian and Washed Out will contain similar leaps in quality, but I’m not and I can’t. However, I feel safe predicting that both artists will continue to evolve and transcend the label that united them once upon a super gorgeous, nostalgia-inducing July 2009 sunset. The mark of the subgenre’s brightest stars was their ability to distance themselves from the silly term that so many of their contemporaries drowned under. Four years from the Summer of Chillwave, and these three are left standing; I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling pretty good vibes.

(Note: this post has been slightly amended to include details about Toro’s 2011 EP Freaking Out, which is really solid and shouldn’t have been forgotten. The perils of binge writing!)

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Greatest Hits 2011: Albums I really liked (but didn’t love), part two

Yesterday I started end-of-2011 coverage (unimaginatively dubbed Greatest Hits) with a first chunk of albums I liked a lot but didn’t quite love. Here’s the second bundle of 5:

Neon Indian - Era Extraña

Era Extraña drew me in with its fantastic, memorable singles and then trapped me with its unique brand of dizzy, future-shocked romanticism. First, those singles: I’d put up this album’s triptych of “Polish Girl”, “Fallout” and “Halogen (I Could Be a Star)” against any other 2011 record’s best three. I can’t say enough about them: all three explode from gooey, synth-laden verses into these titanic, starry-eyed choruses. They dwarf you as you listen. After their effects wear off, the rest of the album starts to sink in: the humid atmospherics of the “Heart:” series, the pop-glitch of “Hex Girlfriend”. Era Extraña is the sound of Alan Palomo murdering chillwave and bringing it back to life as a lovelorn cyborg. 

Panda Bear - Tomboy

Roughly a week ago, Rawkblog proprietor Dave Greenwald posited the following questions: “Do you remember that Panda Bear even put out a record? Could you name a single song from it?” I think Tomboy was destined to fall through the cracks from the very beginning, devoid of the sunny glow and euphoric release that defined Person Pitch. It’s a very dark album, rich with mysticism and desolate moments; even its most melodic entry (the sublime “Last Night at the Jetty”) is underlined by longing and failing memory. Its climax and defining track is the angry, clashing maelstrom of “Afterburner”, and relief doesn’t arrive until the soothing waves of closer “Benfica”. It’s an album that forces you to confront ugly, misshapen sounds and uncomfortable ideas. Tomboy was never going to match Person Pitch; honestly, I’m glad it didn’t try. 

St. Vincent - Strange Mercy

Strange Mercy is another album that crept up on me over multiple listens and wormed its way into my heart. It’s a testament to the quality of these songs that they still find ways to surprise me, even after spending hours with them: the lurching “Dilettante”, the jittery art-funk of “Surgeon”, the lyrical unpleasantries of the title track. And if “lurching” and “jittery” don’t sound particularly appetizing to you, there’s always “Cruel”, Annie Clark’s turn towards the pop light that’s one of my favourite cuts from 2011. If you haven’t given the album a chance, don’t get scared away by the seasick atmosphere or the guitar crunch; let Strange Mercy find your weak point.

tUnE-yArDs - w h o k i l l

I like this album so much that it’s included despite possessing the most frustrating artist/album name combo of the year. w h o k i l l is a record defined by its balance between moments of ecstatic joy and uncomfortable, unrelenting darkness. The juxtaposition of sweet musical elements and startling lyrical imagery, like the flighty coo of “Policeman shot my baby as he crossed over my doorstep”, remains fresh and intriguing months after the first listen. The peaks of “Powa” and “Bizness” are still undeniable too, although my favourite song from w h o k i l l is “You Yes You”, a beacon of unfiltered optimism. Everything’s going to be OK, everything’s going to be alright, I put my back into it, hit repeat.

Washed Out - Within and Without

Within and Without represents the other path of chillwave evolution: where Alan Palomo moved into the future and embraced glitchy electronic landscapes, Ernest Greene looked to the (recent) past, to trip-hop and R&B. (I suppose Chaz Bundick traveled even further, into the realm of ’70s jazz-pop, but I digress.) Within and Without is a sweaty, humid record: synths and percussion hang heavy and low over every single track. I spent all of July and August grooving to the muted thump of “Echoes” and the glittering sheen of “Soft”, and to my surprise they still play relatively well in the frosty Canadian December. Between Era Extraña, Within and Without, and Toro y Moi’s quite-solid Underneath the Pine, 2011 offered plenty of proof that chillwave’s leading men could support the style that initially defined them with individual chunks of musical substance.  

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Thoughts on this week’s Neon Indian and Toro y Moi releases

I’m hoping that the musical community will look back on this week’s Neon Indian and Toro y Moi releases and fondly recall the time when the term “chillwave” ceased to be relevant. Era Extraña and the Freaking Out EP both defy that trendy, casual sub-genre categorization. Here’s what they actually sound like:

Era Extraña: Perhaps you’re the type of person who actually enjoys trendy, casual sub-genre categorization. In that case, allow me to propose the pico-genre “stargaze” to describe Era Extraña, an album that’s leagues away from the stereotypical sunburnt, melted-tape “chillwave” aesthetic. If Washed Out’s Within and Without (a record that will inevitably be mentioned in conjunction with this album) captures the sound of humid late-summer afternoons, then Era Extraña soundtracks the cool moonlit nights that follow, more crisp and more dark. There are songs that deliver a head rush of dizzy romanticism (the sublime “Polish Girl”, “Halogen (I Could Be a Shadow)”) and others that are more foreboding and squirming (“Hex Girlfriend”, “Suns Irrupt”). A select few manage to find a spot somewhere on the continuum between these two extremes; “Fallout” does the finest job of walking that tightrope. On many tracks, synths and effects twinkle in the background like tiny stars (and thus, “stargaze”). There’s a feeling of queasiness that permeates the album and stops the proceedings from becoming too saccharine. Overall, the record represents a great leap from the warped, lo-fi synth ditties of Psychic Chasms

Freaking Out: This five-song blast represents a movement in a completely different direction than the path Alan Palomo is tracing with Era Extraña. Freaking Out radiates warmth and lushness. In spots, it can actually sound quite lusty, a far cry from the relative chill and cerebral feel of Era Extraña. The EP succeeds in many of the same ways the earlier Underneath the Pine did, because both discs showcase Chaz Bundick’s ability to create organic sounds and feel from electronic tools. Some of the more obvious reference points on Freaking Out: Arthur Russell, Stereolab and Ariel Pink. That’s quite a diverse list of touchstones! Few artists have displayed the rapid evolution that Bundick has over the last year or so. It’s exciting to imagine what his next move will be. 

Let’s take a quick step back. Is it possible to abandon attempts at rationalization and contextualization for a second and acknowledge that these two records are, very simply, slabs of well-crafted pop music? In a utopian musical world, yes. However, listeners will always yearn for context and comparison in order to help them digest and enjoy material, which renders the above paragraphs at least somewhat useful. The purest distillation of all those adjectives and imaginative descriptors is this: don’t ignore or dismiss these records because of the tent their creators were dragged under during previous hype cycles. If you enjoy thoughtful, creative spins on pure pop confectionery, they are worth your time. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Washed Out, Eleanor Friedberger and pairing music with weather

A moment I treasure as a music fan is the rare discovery of the “pleasant surprise” album, records that I had planned to gloss over or ignore that wormed their way into a significant stay in my listening rotation. An example of such an album from last year is Emeralds’ Does It Look Like I’m Here?, which became my de facto “before bed” play for several months. Recently I’ve found two 2011 pleasant surprises: Washed Out’s debut full-length Within and Without and Eleanor Friedberger’s solo jaunt Last Summer.

Oddly enough, I think my reception of these records has been coloured by recent weather in my neck of the woods. I spent last week at a friend’s cottage in the Muskokas, enduring dense, moist heat and crafty swarms of horse flies. I reached for Within and Without's narcotized, humid shimmer over and over again while reading on the dock or running at sunset. Did the coupling of sticky conditions and the similarly sticky throb of tracks like “Soft” result in greater enjoyment of the album?

While Within and Without trades in hazy warmth, Last Summer represents the cooler, more breezy aspects of the summer season. It sounds best at dawn and dusk, before and after an oppressive blanket of UV rays has descended. I like to head to the park on my bike accompanied by the funky strut of “Roosevelt Island” and the stately march of “Heaven”. Once again, I have unconsciously coupled Last Summer with a certain time of day and type of weather that accentuates the album’s best traits. Should any significance be assigned to this phenomenon? Summer isn’t the only season that pairs well with certain records. I have a hard time separating the cold elegance of Thurston Moore’s Demolished Thoughts from my winter work term spent in engineering consulting, and this year’s James Blake debut occupies a similar headspace.  

One note I can make regarding these instances is that none of the albums mentioned have proven themselves to be long-term favourites. It remains to be seen whether or not Within and Without and Last Summer hold up in the autumn and winter, or wither when removed from their companion season. Perhaps truly great albums transcend setting and season. For example, a record like Kaputt is well-suited to frosty winter conditions, but I’ve kept listening to it often, even as the mercury’s risen. In fact, certain songs have transformed over time when placed in new contexts; the sleazy, saxy gloss of the title track syncs perfectly with a midsummer sunset. I’m looking forward to finding out if this season’s pleasant surprises have staying power when the leaves and snow start to fall later this year.