Mention The Avalanches and you’ll usually get a blank stare in return—which always surprises the hell out of me because they had big hits in 2001 with “Since I Left You” and “Frontier Psychiatrist,” and their videos have millions of views. But more importantly, they reinvented pop.
I’m not saying they were the first to explore this territory—far from it. Appropriation has been rampant in the avant-garde ever since reel-to-reel recorders, it entered the mainstream in the ‘80s, and bands like the Beastie Boys—a key influence on The Avalanches—and Propellerheads made it part of the lingua franca.
But The Avalanches changed everything by not just sampling in a certain way at a certain time—they did it by sampling everything, all the time. And that might help explain why they, like Propellerheads, were kind of a one-album wonder. (They released a second album, Wildflower, last year, but their genius is really contained in their first album, Since I Left You.)
What makes their work sublime is that they’re both completely self-conscious and utterly unself-conscious at the same time. The “Since I Left You” track works so seamlessly as a seemingly fluffy retro pop song that most people probably don’t know it’s almost completely made up of samples. And that speaks to an extraordinary amount of effort and taste and talent.
But once you’re aware of the origins of the various sounds and songs, that almost everything on Since I Left You comes from somewhere else, that really the only thing original about it is the way the band—Robbie Chater and Darren Saltmann, really—brought those existing pieces together, it becomes a completely different experience. And, yes, I’m being ironic when I say “really the only thing original” because an astounding amount of creativity went into crafting these tracks, and a lot of the samples are so heavily manipulated you’d probably never recognize them in their original form.
But that’s a big part of the album’s deadly serious playfulness, retaining the essence of what is, for the most part, some pretty trivial raw material while transmuting it into something that becomes an essential part of a radically different whole.
The greatest thing about Since I Left You is that it troubles notions of creativity and originality in very fundamental ways—which both does and doesn’t lead to what I really wanted to talk about here: What does it mean to listen to Since I Left You on vinyl?
Unless I’m missing something (which is completely possible), the whole point behind the vinyl revival—or renaissance or backlash, or whatever you want to call it—is to assert vinyl’s superiority over digital media. Simply put, that’s nothing but bullcrap because most people don’t have good enough equipment—or, if they do, it’s usually set up in a way that compromises the sound quality—to tell the difference.
The so-called revival is really just a vaguely elitist fad—and a preference for coloration (a supposedly warmer sound) over authenticity. And boy does that open up a huge can of worms.
Since I Left You was reissued earlier this year as a two-LP gatefold, including a limited-release colored-vinyl version. So what are you actually hearing on those LPs? What nuances can vinyl reveal that digital media can’t?
I mean, we’re talking about an album made up of samples from all kinds of sources—including, inevitably, old records—all tossed into a vast bouillabaisse that made it virtually impossible to maintain an optimal level of sound quality. Since I Left You is filled with distortion—the kind of stuff that makes hardcore audiophiles want to rally for an old-fashioned album burning. But that distortion—which sometimes borders on outright muddiness, and is very much deliberate—is one of the most beautiful things about this very beautiful record.
So, again, when you listen to Since I Left You on vinyl, what are you really hearing? It could be argued that it’s still an audiophile experience because the vinyl could have greater fidelity than the CD—but faithful to what? It can’t possibly be to any kind of absolute sound, because that wasn’t relevant to the album’s creation, so I guess it’s to all that distortion—and the pops, hiss, and sometimes questionable engineering in the sampled tracks, and to everything else that represents the antithesis of audiophile dogma.
Which might be why I love it so much—both the original CD and the recent LP—because it makes a mockery of all these sacred cows, not viciously, but by doing something really transgressive with wit and a deft touch, and a genuine love for the source material.
So if you cue up Since I Left You on your turntable, you can’t be listening to it for any kind of traditional notion of fidelity—unless you’re deeply deluded. If you do prefer it to digital, it has to be because of a coloration, because of something that goes completely against the grain of the “vinyl’s better” battle cry.
You’re preferring it just because it sounds warmer—in other words, because it creates the illusion of comfort in a very cold world. Which means you’re just trying to crawl back into the womb.
Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
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