Been Around The World: The Magical Odyssey Of The Avalanches’ Since I Left You

A concept album that transcended its concept, a stealth mix-CD, global disco, sampledelic exotica, yacht rock by other means: the Australian group’s debut was many things, writes David Bennun - and above all it was, and remains, a joy

Some things are far too wonderful to be serious. The first album by The Avalanches ranks high among them.

Doing what The Avalanches did on Since I Left You – and have continued to do; their third album in 20 years, We Will Always Love You, is due out in December 2020, and it’s a good ’un – is one of those nonchalant high-wire acts whose perils become evident only if it fails. Or to use a more prosaic metaphor: it’s always trickier to make a soufflé than a stew. To be serious in modern pop music is scant challenge; lummoxes and mediocrities do it all the time, and for the most part we just shrug them off and leave them to it. But to be happy and funny – at times, outright comical – requires extraordinary balance and deftness if you are not to become insufferable; to be either Hooray For Everything boosters, or a bumptuous elbow jabbing again and again into the audience’s ribs. To sustain it faultlessly over an hour-long album, as The Avalanches did, is something close to a miracle.

The latter years of the 20th century, through to the turn of the millennium, constituted a golden age for musical rag-and-bone men, sampler-wielding Steptoes scavenging nearly a hundred years’ worth of vinyl junk – or at least, the rest of the world had deemed it junk – and fashioning new art from it. “Plunderphonics”, it was called by John Oswald, who was perhaps the nearest thing this light-fingered mode had to an earnest theorist. It was a natural fit for hip hop and dance music, already largely premised on the idea of new records from old.

Some of the artists who went headlong into this method were essentially solemn about their task – DJ Shadow was surely the finest of these – but many had a distinctly frivolous side to their chuck-in-the-kitchen-sink approach. The Dust Brothers and Prince Paul were masters of plunderphonics. Coldcut showcased it on their celebrated 1987 ‘Seven Minutes Of Madness’ remix of Eric B & Rakim’s ‘Paid In Full’; while in the same year the rap duo were themselves sampled on another outstanding example of the style, the hugely popular ‘Pump Up The Volume’, by M|A|R|R|S – a one-off composite of two unlikely sources, the far from insouciant 4AD art-pop acts, Colourbox and A.R. Kane.

But with the arguable exception of Shadow, nobody working in the form had attempted, let alone carried off, anything so ambitious as what The Avalanches achieved on Since I Left You. The record was chiefly the work of two people, Robbie Chater and Darren Seltmann – who, prefiguring techniques made commonplace by internet broadband, operated in separate, matching studio set-ups, periodically exchanging tapes. Where their hip hop predecessors had created intricate, interwoven backdrops for, say, De La Soul or Beastie Boys, they took things a step further, seeking to create a cohesive record whose strong and discrete personality evolved in the almost complete absence of featured vocalists.

Since I Left You is an act of bricolage that forms a perfectly smooth and luxuriant entirety; a seamless Frankenstein’s monster that could pass for a supermodel. It is a work of hauntology, but with none of the sinister aura usually associated with that idea. Rather, it has a deep wistfulness that chimes just-so with all its rich humour and joy; a sense of elusiveness, of something forever slightly out of reach, of ecstasy so nearly grasped. It is redolent of longing, but also of the pleasures of the quest. At heart it is, as much as it is anything else, what the American critic Robert Christgau at the time identified as “string-section disco”. He was quite right; his error was to intend this as a slight. No genre has ever fused melancholy and bliss so delectably as did late disco, the kind most likely to be festooned with strings. It was the ideal basis for an album that dealt principally in those emotions.

This was also, making it a rarity in dance music, an album that was best heard on that undervalued format, compact disc. It was made available as a double LP, but the continuous CD version – resembling those DJ mix compilations so popular at the time – is the one to have (The Avalanches were also ardent devotees of that trick of leaving the source recording’s scratches and pops in for atmosphere; either that, or they just couldn’t be bothered to remove them. Either way, so frequently is the effect deployed that you forget you’re not listening to a much played piece of vinyl.) The whole truly is greater than the sum of the parts; the sum of the parts, and the parts themselves, being great enough to start with. It is patently influenced by the poppier end of Nineties British dance music; in it, you can hear The Orb (no strangers to droll plunderphonics themselves), The Chemical Brothers, Groove Armada (whose ‘At The River’ seems a likely influence) and Basement Jaxx. Literally, in the case of the last, who provided one of what Chater reckoned were the 3,500 samples from which the album was woven. That might be an exaggeration, or a number plucked from the air. But it’s just as plausible that it’s a fair estimate.

How does, why does Since I Left You hang together so effortlessly? For a start, the effortlessness is an illusion, as effortlessness always is. That old metaphor of the gliding swan atop the surface of the water, its legs paddling furiously beneath, has seldom been more apt, when you consider its painstaking, piecemeal assembly. But its sense of unity is not only a matter of execution. It stems from the way Seltmann and Chater initially envisioned it. It began life as a concept album, to be titled Pablo’s Cruise. The name itself, with its punning reference to the mellow Californian second-tier yacht rockers Pablo Cruise, was a typically multi-faceted Avalanches joke; a throwaway quip, on the face of it, but layered with meaning. If yacht rock was, in essence, all about contemplative moods in deluxe surroundings, about trouble in paradise – being sad on a boat, to borrow one neat summary – then that, too, was the concept of the album. As Chater told Matt LeMay in Pitchfork in 2001: “Originally, we thought we’d make a love story. An international search for love from country to country. The idea of a guy following a girl around the world and always being one port behind.” Been around the world and I, I, I can’t find my baby, then.

Pablo’s Cruise was to be both a love story set at sea, and a musical travelogue, “just because we had all these records from all over the world, and we’d like to use all that stuff.” But they dispensed with both of those ideas, at least in so unambiguous a form. The individual tracks don’t, as a rule, have a hokey link to one particular location, in the Tin Pan Alley novelty style that hit big between the wars (“Back in Nagasaki where the fellas chew tobaccy / And the women wicky-wacky-woo”). The closest they come to it is on the one Avalanches tune everybody who knows only one Avalanches tune knows. ‘Frontier Psychiatrist’ was a borderline-novelty hit, but to this day it transcends its wackiness, and never becomes tiresome. It’s preposterously catchy, stuffed with daft snippets of dialogue, snatches of horns, the other-worldly choir that adorns so much of their work, and fragments of dusty, long-forgotten horse operas. (The whinnying noise that embellishes the track is prefigured earlier on the album, where it sounds more like a synthetic squeal; The Avalanches love motifs and easter eggs, and this playfulness is one of their most endearing attributes.)

But the atmosphere of that ersatz old exotica, of a world imagined through music, infuses the whole album – as does that of another wave of exotica, the more expressionist post-war avant-lounge style of Les Baxter and company. As Seltmann noted, “We realized pretty quickly that we shouldn’t make it too literal. At least that thread [of the original concept], and that feeling, stayed.” This, over and above the many qualities in the music, is one of the most fascinating aspects of the record: the way that, in turning it from an overt concept album into an oblique one, from the narrative Pablo’s Cruise to the allusive Since I Left You, they (it’s fair to surmise) made the concept more memorable, and the piece more convincing.

If we are to be honest about concept albums, there’s a flaw in the whole, well, concept, and it’s this: the more obviously the concept manifests in the music, the less artistically successful the album tends to be. (There will, of course, be exceptions, but please don’t list them at me. Let’s take it as given.) With many of the best concept albums, we only know them to be so because we are told so. This goes back to the grandaddy of them all, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, of which Ringo Starr – always the least prone of The Beatles to self-mythologising, which admittedly is not a high bar – had this to say: “A bunch of songs and you stick two bits of Pepper on it and it’s a concept… It worked because we said it worked.”

Much the same is true of The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, whose title character is named explicitly in only two songs, and implicitly in one more, ‘Starman’, written after the rest of the album was completed, to fulfil the demand for a single. Otherwise he is more a figure of hints and shadows, there if you look – and more to the point, want to look. David Bowie rewrote several earlier, non-Ziggy related songs for the album, then imposed a far clearer vision of the concept upon it after the fact, turning the character into a stage persona, and it worked a treat. But if you first listen to the album cold, without any background knowledge – as I did, as a youngster – you get a vague sense of a story arc, and little more. What matters is that it feels complete; it feels as if it leads you from the start to the finish of a story, even though you can’t tell quite what that is. That, too, is the triumph – or one of the many triumphs – of Since I Left You. It’s satisfying, cathartic. It has, in that awful and abused phrase of the early 21st century, taken you on a journey. But in this case, it’s no metaphor; that was exactly the point.

What Sgt. Pepper’s, and Ziggy Stardust, and Since I Left You also have in common is each is a type of palimpsest; work that began as one thing, was reworked as another, yet offers salient glimpses of its original form, by which it remains crucially guided. In the case of Sgt. Pepper’s, it was built upon the foundations of an album that never was; its concept, the Liverpool childhood memories of Paul McCartney and John Lennon. The former’s ‘Penny Lane’ and the latter’s ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ had been intended as its cornerstones, but in desperate need of a new Beatles release, producer and label head George Martin put them out together as a single, and the songwriting duo moved on from the idea. Martin would later call this as grievous an error as he had made in his career, wondering at the LP that might have been had he left well alone.

Martin, one supposes, would have known better than we do. But perhaps he was harsh on himself. The psychological excavation of childhood would become a key component in psychedelia, a musical form that looked simultaneously backward and forward, and those two songs were largely responsible. Would a whole album have sustained their level of brilliance (Sgt. Pepper’s itself didn’t, after all), or might it have collapsed into whimsy, as so much other psychedelia of the time did? We’ll never know. But we do know that, before 1967 was out, The Beatles would record the magnificent and terrifying ‘I Am The Walrus’, which is not only the pinnacle of psychdelia’s first iteration, but also stands as the earliest all-in venture by a major band into plunderphonics. With its woozy strings, its choral vocals and its fusillade of found speech, it’s a direct ancestor to ‘Frontier Psychiatrist’, and to much else besides.

Since I Left You, however, has not an iota of menace in it; even its cover image, of sailors fleeing a torpedoed warship on lifeboats, has a curious gentleness to it. It is adapted from a 1920 illustration by Fred Dana Marsh, Sinking Of USS President Lincoln; the picture has been reversed, the focus pulled in; the ferocious waves seem gentler and bluer, like holiday surf atop which small craft hold participants on an exciting jolly. It is an entirely characteristic piece of re-appropriation, of repurposing, of détournement. Such switches of direction are axiomatic to the album. “Since I met you, I found the world so new”, runs the original lyric of ‘Everyday’ by The Main Attraction, who played the kind of opalescent, soap-bubble Sixties soul-pop ornamented with delicate female vocals that the Avalanches loved to ransack. You know, of course, what they changed it to – and in doing so, found a world so new.

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