Every now and then we can’t decide who should write about something. So here’s a collaborative review (that’s a posh way of saying ‘a chat’) of the new Avalanches album from Tom Burrows and James Spearing.
James: Being a fan of Since I Left You, I was excited for this album’s release, but I was definitely holding some of that excitement in reserve. The likes of Disclosure and Gorillaz have done feature-laden albums this year and they were supremely underwhelming. Seeing the list of names on We Will Always Love You I guess made me nervous. Now that it’s out, and I’ve heard how great it is, I can relax. I know you’re a fan of their past work too Tom, so how did the anticipation for something new sit with you?
Tom: I’ve had similar feelings to you James. Though I felt that the many features on [previous record] Wildflower didn’t massively detract from an enjoyable album, they did lack the ‘plucked from the ether’ anonymity of the vocals on Since I Left You which were part of its timeless magic. There are a lot of familiar names on the WWALY tracklist so I’m intrigued to see how they fit together. Did you check out any of the songs they released in advance?
James: I’ve not heard Wildflower so it’s interesting to hear your take on it. It sounds like on the new album they’ve got the best of both – something familiar combined with something ethereal. And even though they’re familiar sounds or voices, they’re out of their normal context so you hear them and think ‘oh I know that, what is it?’. I had a similar experience listening to the J Dilla album you recommended to me earlier this year. I can go back to your question to illustrate my point. I’d heard ‘Wherever You Go’ a couple of months back and there’s a Sergio Mendes sample in there, a song I’m really familiar with, but it took me a while to place it. They’re not all that successful though. The Tricky appearance is lifted straight from his latest album, which I really like, but didn’t work here for me. What’s your highlight from the artists featured on the album?
Tom: I know what you mean about the familiarity of samples. There’s something I find quite dissatisfying about being able to instantly recognise one. I find that Kanye West, for instance, sounds ingenious when using something obscure, but very obvious when using Daft Punk or Billie Holliday. I imagine knowing the Sergio Mendes and Tricky ones would have really altered your experience of those moments. I spotted a couple, like the Frank Ocean and Leon Bridges ones on ‘Born to Lose’, but I thought they were really well deployed and that track is great.
In terms of feature highlights, I generally think they’re really well used so there’s quite a few. I think Denzel Curry and Sampa The Great’s verses about their backstories are really sharp on ‘Take Care In Your Dreaming’ and the playful nature of MGMT and Neneh Cherry’s vocals fit like a dream on an Avalanches record. The decision to call on Jamie xx, someone who understands the emotional power of electronic music, was an inspired one as well. How about you?
James: I think you’ve picked all the best ones there! Even Rivers Cuomo isn’t terrible which is unlike him these days. I enjoyed Mick Jones too – lovely bit of Clash backing vocals coming to the fore.
Compared again to Since I Left You, I wonder how they approached it. It must have been structured completely differently with all the extra people involved, rather than letting loose with all the samples.
I wondered what you thought about the sound their approach results in overall? For me it’s quite cinematic, or even 70s musicals. It’s been quite a year for disco too with the likes of Jessie Ware and Roisin Murphy, so good to hear some more here, but with a slightly different take on it. ‘Music Makes Me High’ is a good example. Another thing I hear in there is something very Australian. Which might sound stupid considering they are Australian. Anyway what it specifically reminds me of is the sort of stuff coming out of Australian label Modular in the mid 00s. In short, a fantastic balance between the new and the nostalgic. For me there’s nothing wrong here with being able to recognise samples.
Tom: ‘Cinematic’ is a nice way of describing their sound. As when watching a film, you get emotionally immersed in their records – in the atmosphere that their collage-like approach creates. It’s said that a film is only as good as its script, and I think that’s true of the concept here. It feels like they came up with this incredible concept of love, the universe, time and space, and everything from the samples to the collaborators fed into it to create a cohesive whole.
Even though they use so many samples and genres, I think there is a signature Avalanches sound and it’s in that dance music that you’ve mentioned. Their music seems broadly celebratory and danceable, but it’s also tinged with a wistful melancholy. They communicate emotions that are hard to describe – I think the best way of describing it is just the experience of living.
Like you, I think they’ve done a great job once again with this record. And as a proponent of the album as a format, all I can say is thank god for these guys. I don’t think it’s perfect though. This is their longest record and I think a more rigorous editor would have trimmed a couple of the more interlude-like passages and transitions (‘Ghost Story pt.2’, ‘Until Daylight Comes’), and I wasn’t as enamoured with a couple of the more conventional songs (‘Interstellar Love’, ‘Reflecting Light’) or the morse code of closer ‘Weightless’ – a cool concept, but a bit of a drag on repeat listens.
What about you? Highlights? Lowlights?
James: Agreed on the length. This is a world champion boxer who has not quite made the weight. I don’t think I’ve managed to get through it all in one go yet. It’s so varied though so I think it’s a minor flaw. I don’t get bored or feel it drags when listening.
Highlights for me, ‘Music Makes Me High’ I’ve already mentioned, ‘Oh The Sunn’ and ‘We Go On’. I could add the two conventional songs you listed too. Oh and ‘Wherever You Go’ of course!
You touch on the idea of album as concept. I’d say it’s got legs as both a great album (I’m going to have to revise my top 20 for the year – it came along just too late) but also as a collection of singles. You could imagine them releasing eight or nine songs on here and I don’t think they will have been able to do that on any of their earlier albums. Maybe this is a reflection on music consumption today but hopefully this will bring a streaming audience to more of their work. Let’s see if we can convert some of the other Bastards too!
Tom: I love ‘Oh The Sunn’ and ‘We Go On’ – such a great flow between the two! Those two songs back to back highlight what they do so well, and why I don’t necessarily think it’s a good thing that there are more ‘single’ moments on here. I think you’re right that it’s a product of the way we consume things in the streaming era, but I want my concept albums to basically ignore that and focus on the whole. Maybe I need to get with the times. And yeah, the more people who hear their work the better.
It’s been a pleasure to ponder this gem with you James. I’m off to
waste productively spend hours of my life going through their WhoSampled pages.