Sunday, February 27, 2011

Underneath the Pine
Carpark Records
The Wire, February 2011

by Simon Reynolds

Have you noticed? Pop music sounds shit these days. I'm not talking about deficiencies of playing, singing, or writing (although doubtless these all play their part). No, I'm referring strictly to sound quality. Compressed, ProTooled, AutoTuned, and God knows what else, modern pop is engineered to cut through on iPods, smartphones, computer speakers: it reaches the consumer's ear pre-shittified, essentially. Meanwhile, down in the underground, it's the opposite: everybody wants their records to sound expensive. That makes perfect sense: if the mainstream sounds cheap 'n 'nasty and chartpop hurts your ears, ideas like lo-fi and noise become meaningless. "Slick" and "shiny" cease to be hallmarks of sterile, soul-less professionalism: they become ideals. They are also achievable goals these days. Digital audio workstations, soft synths, and sundry technologies of tweaking, tinting and tidying-up have placed the kind of production quality and session-player tightness that in the Seventies and Eighties required weeks of £ 500-a-day studio time within the reach of bedroom operators.

Where hypnagogic pop outfits generally look to back to the cocaine-crisp gloss of Eighties AOR and Seventies soft-rock, or to New Wave at its most synthetic, the coordinates for Toro Y Moi's sound lie more with black music of the same era: the utopian luxuriance of disco, jazz-funk, and those Eighties mid-tempo club grooves that cognoscenti and collectors nowadays seem to term "boogie". Listening to the skipping 'n' sliding beats of Causers of This, the debut LP from South Carolina's Chas Bundick, it seemed clear that these influences were mediated to a large extent by Daft Punk and J Dilla. But on Underneath the Pine, Bundick's dropped the digital tricknology for a sound that's all live instrumentation and no samples. In fact, the two albums were originally meant to be non-identical twins released into the world in the same year, 2010, to showcase different facets of Bundick's talent.

That Toro Y Moi are considered "indie" only highlights how confused and meaningless the term has become in the post-Ariel Pink/Panda Bear era. Opener "Intro/Chi Chi" features shoegaze guitar over its nimble, sinewy bassline and rippling hand-percussion, resulting in a cross between Slowdive and "Southern Freez". But otherwise the only real clue that this isn't a slab of vintage discofunk are a slight excess of reverb and Bundick's singing. Pale and introspective, dreamy and faraway-eyed, his often multitracked vocals float alongside the grooves rather get down 'n'dirty inside the music's engine room of rhythm. Bundick has talked about belonging to the tradition of danceable pop with "depressing subject matter", which suggests New Order as a reference point. Taken from the lyric to "How I Know", the title Underneath the Pine is an oblique reference to where Bundrick would like to be buried, while the album's recording was colored by the fact that the sessions started immediately after the funeral of a friend.

Not that you can really tell from a casual listen: on the surface, most of the music is upbeat, all succulent sensuousness and palatial polish. The sound is dominated by keyboards of every hue and grain: warm-milk swirls of Rhodes, smoky electric piano out of In A Silent Way, squelchy synths that summon the NYC postdisco of Peech Boys and Vicky D, gnarly distorted organ like Soft Machine and Hatfield and the North. "How I Know" is almost too sumptuous with its wedding-cake layers of keyboard timbres: upper register tinkles, fairy tale twinkles, bright Steve Reich pulse-work, thumping lower-octave booms.

That song occurs at the end of what is something of a soggy center to this album, where deities of rock overproduction like Todd Rundgren seem present in spirit if not as overt influence. "Divina" is sickly like Black Forest gateau, intersecting with that style of gussied-up, orchestrally embellished American indie that I call "cutesy-poo". "Got Blinded" is better, its white-on-white-on-white glare reminding me of the video for "Imagine", but the cooing vocals have a fragrant flutteriness vaguely redolent of Flora Purim. (In interviews, Bundick cites space disco and soundtracks, figures like Mandre and Morricone and de Roubaix, as prime influences on this record, but I'd be surprised if there wasn't some Brazilian fusion-funk in his iPod). Thankfully Underneath the Pine burns brightly at both ends. "New Beat" , the second track, is a glitterball groove that suddenly loses its way in a Miles-like maze; "Go With You", the tune that follows, is aquafunk of the sort we've not heard since Happy Monday's Hannett-produced and reverb-refracted Bummed. In the closing stretch, "Light Black" describes itself perfectly: dazzling yet dark, silky but sinister, its velvet-glove pummel eventually heads off into a stranger region, like Tim Buckley if he'd tried to fuse the astral vocalese of "Starsailor" with the gritty R&B of "Devil Eyes" from Greetings From LA. Closer "Elise" passes through similar weird-zones, sounding in places like Matching Mole meets the Blockheads, a stoned Chas Jankel languidly rinky-dinking the ivories while Wyatt gets gaseous a la "Instant Pussy".

In between there's stand-out track "Still Sound". I first heard the song unawares, on Los Angeles's public radio station KRCW, whose celebrated and influential "Morning Becomes Eclectic" programming template mixes up genres and eras. As so often with this and similar "alternative" stations, I couldn't tell if the song was a current release or made thirty years ago. "Still Sound" could easily be a lost Loft classic, or a track laid down during the sessions for Ultramarine's 1991 Every Man and Woman Is A Star, or some immaculate Arthur Russell-emulating simulacrum forged by Faze Action at the turn of the millennium. Again, only the listless vocals tie the song to the contemporary context of, ugh, chillwave. "I go for a timeless feel," Bundick has said. In that sense Toro Y Moi are exemplary hypnagogues, scrambling history to make real nowhen-and-everywhen pop.

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