Home Music The Avalanches: Since I Left You (20th Anniversary Edition)

The Avalanches: Since I Left You (20th Anniversary Edition)

Do you remember a time before mashups? Before Danger Mouse made a name for himself splicing together Jay Z’s The Black Album and the Beatles’ The White Album, or biomed engineer Gregg Gillis catapulting the genre into a world of nonstop blends of Biggie Smalls and Elton John or Birdman and Temple of the Dog? Before you could, essentially, type two similar songs into YouTube to discover that somebody cooked up the “Head Like a Hole”/”Call Me Maybe” mashup you imagined in your head? We won’t pretend that the Avalanches invented doing this around the dawn of the new millennium — to do so would ignore the Negativlands of the world, they of a strong lineage of splicers and visionaries who were doing things the hard way, without the help of Audacity or GarageBand or whatever program they chose to do it in.

And maybe it’s disingenuous to even label Australia’s the Avalanches a “mashup band” — one might argue that what they do is plunderphonics, a term that sounds like your coolest uncle attempting to make up a word for, essentially, the same thing. It doesn’t matter what you call it, though. In a worst-case scenario, you might produce an unlistenable mess of incongruous sounds that you’d never foist on your worst enemy. But in the best-case — which is where we find ourselves with Since I Left You — you’ll find yourself immersed in a rich, shimmering tapestry of sounds and sensations that leave you wondering, “Now, how the fuck did they do that?”

These questions are the fairest ones to ask of any album this side of Paul’s Boutique. How did the Avalanches do that, and how the fuck did they get away with it? The actual number of samples contained within the hourlong journey of Since I Left You — now re-released in a gargantuan 4LP format to celebrate its 20th(!) anniversary — is difficult to pin down. While some estimate that the number sits within the 900 range, Robbie Chater (one of the two founding members still with the group to this day) puts it somewhere in the 3,500 range. For those that somehow missed Since I Left You, the fact that there’s a dispute over whether or not the album only contains 900 samples should give you an idea of the magical beast we’re working with here.

This article/love letter could be double in size if we covered the spiraling galaxy of removals and revisions that have taken place over the years; because the band never really foresaw anyone listening to the album, much less anyone giving it distribution outside of Australia, the matter of clearance becomes murky and impossible. That lack of foresight means that they did a ludicrously bad job of even cataloguing the samples they used and tossed in some biggies just for kicks — and as such, some sacrifices to the Clearance Gods had to be made in order to introduce the rest of the world to the record. It’s entirely possible that you’ve only heard the version of “Frontier Psychiatrist” with vocals re-recorded in-house, and you may not have heard any clips from the film Midnight Run in the mix.

Underneath the dizzying number of samples and different versions of Since I Left You, though, there’s this album. It never truly feels like a real “album” — many songs here present themselves more as connective tissue between bigger set pieces. If Since I Left You is the ultimate summer party captured by thousands of sound fragments, these moments are like hallways full of different conversations within the microparties that can bloom in those events. You’d expect it to feel disjointed, even disorienting, right? But no — even when they’re sampling the shit out of horses neighing, Since I Left You is a fully fleshed-out world, and one that feels staggeringly visual; Wildflower and We Will Always Love You would show the Avalanches expanding their ability to construct remarkably vivid albums that induce temporary synesthesia, urging you to hear the music in colors and shapes and whole vistas, but what becomes clear as time goes on is that they more or less arrived fully capable of performing this magic trick, immediately capable of invoking technicolor worlds you yearn to live in. They don’t even need hits to keep you stoked — take a look at the beloved “Frontier Psychiatrist,” which moves away from the “song” part of the song long before the track itself ends, but totally organically.

Even given 20 years to spend with Since I Left You, it’s hard to put a finger on what it is about these songs that endures like it does. From a certain view, the album can seem like amorphous noise that occasionally coalesces into a real “song.” This feels myopic, though. The fact that the album is so easily equated to a party points to the fact that the album doesn’t always feel like it was meant to serve as proper music, but instead, an aural gateway into your most fond memories. It’s a dreamworld dense with sounds that you feel like you must have heard somewhere, and just when you think you’ve caught it, the sound passes. Every sound in the world might be totally new to you, but when you’re hit with so many different things, it can create a strange phantom nostalgia for a formative experience that you never actually had. Songs like “Extra Kings” don’t need to have cohesive structure for it to do to you what it wants to do — the Avalanches are powerful wizards, and they can give you those moments even without it.

We’d be remiss if we didn’t go into the second half of this set. This massive 4LP reissue devotes two of those LPs to various remixes and (in the case of “Thank You Caroline,” seen in its infancy at the tail end) alternate versions of album tracks. The very nature of the record lends itself to those remixes — artists like Stereolab, Black Dice, Deakin, and the late MF Doom tear the songs apart easily, inserting themselves into these worlds effortlessly. Your enjoyment in this aspect may vary: if you come to the Avalanches to spend your time within the world they designed, you may find these remixes unnecessary. After all, doesn’t some of the magic of Since I Left You fade when you subject it to the standards of more typical dance music? Yet, for those willing to see what parts of each song are adopted and repurposed by each song’s rebuilder. This is true of all remixes, but the album is such a treasure trove of sights and sounds, and each remix sneakily represents a love letter from the artist about the moments during that grand party that stuck in their minds the most.

The remixes here run the gamut, like the propulsive, gargantuan Carl Craig’s Paperclip People Remix of “A Different Feeling,” or Sun Araw’s psychedelic take on “Close to You.” The most perplexing omission is the eternal barnburner “Stay Another Season,” but we do get Black Dice’s thoroughly Black Dice-y spin on “Summer Crane,” which sees the band throwing the original into a blender with plenty of classic noise they’ve had sitting around, and then recording the sound of that blender on Max. This song is destined to be polarizing as hell, but it’s easily the most unique track of the bunch (next to Deakin’s zonked “Extra Kings,” that is). And then there’s the two sets of triplets: “Since I Left You” and, most surprisingly, “Tonight May Have to Last Me All My Life” each get a trio of different remixes, allowing us to compare and contrast. Watch as Cornelius steals the vocal hook of “Since I Left You” and lovingly sews it into a shimmering sea of beats, Prince Paul cranks the funkiness and Stereolab reveals how easily the song fits into their French futurist aesthetic. “Tonight May Have to Last Me All My Life,” while existing squarely in the category of songs that feel representative of the space in between bigger set pieces, reveals itself as being highly remixable. Edan and MF Doom both choose to rap over the track, but the Dragged by Leon Vynehall version reconfigures the song into a bona fide dubstep banger worthy of a FactMag mix by Joy Orbison or Four Tet.

Twenty years on, the legacy of the Avalanches is a confusing one full of letdowns (the 16-year wait for its follow up) and triumphs (their follow-ups, Wildflower and We Will Always Love You, each a surprising and distinct masterpiece in their own ways), but as they broaden their scope and creation methods, their talent feels unassailable. The worst thing about their remarkable and unassuming debut is also one of the best things: it’s an album that presents sounds that aren’t always musical or even listenable when not in context, an aspect which then asks you to exist within its curious world instead of simply dipping your toe into certain moments. Since I Left You is still a breath of fresh air after two decades, its heady trajectory providing endless revisits and the constant discovery of new, exciting aspects. Ultimately, labeling the band anything at all is a gross misunderstanding of what makes the Avalanches special in the first place. They were — and are — just a band transforming the sounds they love into sounds they know we’ll love, and that pursuit exists beyond any boxes we might try to put them in.

Now celebrating its 20th birthday, the Avalanches’ Since I Left You remains a triumph capable of synthesizing potent nostalgia and causing temporary synesthesia, using all that and more to usher you into the greatest party of your life.
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Frontier Plunderphonics

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