Easy listening music is rarely this exciting.
Until not long ago, Michael Silver was easy to underestimate. The Montreal producer known better as CFCF came to prominence in 2009 as a hungry 21-year-old Crystal Castles remix contest winner. He released a solid debut, Continent. He tried to start a microgenre called “night bus” that never took off, and for seven years he’s reliably doled out bite-sized helpings of lush, Balearic-inspired chill-out music to a small audience every year or so.
But Balearic music has enjoyed an incredible revival in the last few years, with OG Ibiza kingpins like Mark Barrott and Jose Padilla releasing some of their best work ever and young producers like Gonno and Suzanne Kraft picking up the torch. As such, Silver – now recording for Barrott’s International Feel label – is beginning to feel very important. He’s the closest thing Balearic has to a modern great, and his latest album On Vacation confirms this.
When Silver dropped The Colours Of Life last year, he described his intent for the record as “trying to push to the edges of tolerable cheese in some places, but also have it be totally sincere and not ironic.” That album was replete with sounds jaded audiences in 2015 have every reason to scoff at: Kenny G saxophones, panpipes, marimbas that are more the Doobie Brothers kind than the cool Steve Reich kind. On Vacation pushes the envelope even further, eschewing the knowing winks of The Colours Of Life (there’s almost no sax here) and focusing squarely on expertly wrought, edgeless, gorgeous chill-out music.
The phrase “pushes the envelope” might sound counterintuitive for music this explicitly chill. But Silver has taken a major risk in making this kind of music, in that he’s in the line of fire of all those hateful words – “wussy,” “wimpy,” “cheesy,” “corny” – that are invariably thrown at music that rejects any negative emotion or pretense of edginess. He makes it clear in interviews that he is aware just how uncool and potentially unlikable the music he’s making is to his audience. Of course, CFCF’s nowhere near big enough to engender mass-scale vitriol. But if he actually develops anything like a legacy, he could be absolutely loathed in the future. If Silver were trying to accrue more festival gigs and Pitchfork points, he wouldn’t make chill-out music. But he would be a shadow of himself without his most polarizing features, and he’s better for his rare boldness.
What Silver has created with On Vacation is something rare: a work that refuses to make itself more likable or palatable to compromise its vision. And the guy has nothing if not a vision. On Vacation succeeds in part because of how tightly realized it is. One gets the sense Silver didn’t just make up these songs while noodling around on his keyboard but came in with something very clear in his mind – perhaps a melody, or a place he wanted to evoke – and then used the best of his talents to make it spring to life.
It would be one thing if On Vacation was just excellent pastiche. But On Vacation has a sense of mystery that elevates it above most of its peers. Most Balearic is content to evoke a beach or somewhere in Brazil or Africa and can thus creep into exotica territory. Silver smartly avoids giving us place-specific cues. The accordion-driven “Arto” will scan as European to anyone who’s never seen a Hayao Miyazaki film, but to those who have, it will instantly evoke the work of his musical partner, Joe Hisaishi, particularly on their more nostalgic joints like Porco Rosso and Kiki’s Delivery Service. Elsewhere, names mislead. “Vermont” sounds coastal rather than sylvan. “Sate Padang,” named after an Indonesian dish, has more of an Afrobeat vibe. This is wonderful not only because it allows listeners to create their own mental slideshows but because it avoids the tendency of exotica to construct phony, patronizing ideas of foreign music.
Silver makes up for not giving us a sense of place by giving us a sense of space. There’s a tasteful coat of reverb on most of the instruments here, but sometimes he cranks it up for extra transportive oomph. On “Lighthouse On Chatham Sound,” delicate keyboards and fretless bass seem to echo off rocks and cave walls as a Oneohtrix-esque drone sloshes about like water close by. “Chasing” surrounds an accordion in a dense, noisy fog that creates a palpable wetness. And “In The Courtyard” gazes endlessly skyward, as distant and amorphous as clouds; it’s the closest thing to pure ambient here.
On Vacation isn’t perfect. The horn hook of “Sate Padang” gets annoying after so many repetitions, and at 31 minutes, the album leaves a lot to be desired. Its arc is also a bit awkward due to the stylistic discrepancies between a lot of these tracks, and there isn’t really one consistent mood here as there was on Colours Of Life. This isn’t CFCF’s masterpiece, though it’s his best release since 2012’s Exercises. But it’s a statement of purpose, a vision stepping dazzlingly to the fore. Easy listening music is rarely this exciting, and I can’t wait to see what Silver does next.