By Hollister Dixon
The Avalanches put out one legendary album, Since I Left You, back in 2000. A kaleidoscopic core sample of half-remembered music, Since I Left You was a tour de force that made guest vocals redundant. But that was 2000, and when they made Wildflower sixteen years later, having a stable of guests was almost a no-brainer. Why not have Danny Brown and MF Doom on a track? Why not have David Berman of Silver Jews deliver his own John Hughes monologue? Why not have Biz Markie talk about eating food loudly? And you know what? That experiment worked. I loved Wildflower – even if I skip “The Noisy Eater” about half the time (misophonia is real, friends!). I played it constantly. I still do – it was my “Album Of The Summer” last year, and it’ll be that again this year. You can count on it. It’s an album fueled by pure joy. It’s also fueled by those guests.
There’s a part of me that wonders if Daft Punk didn’t tour behind Random Access Memories because it would have required the presence of its guests. It would be prohibitively expensive to bring along Pharrell Williams, Nile Rodgers, Giorgio Moroder, Panda Bear, Julian Casablancas, and Chilly Gonzales on tour, even for a short one. Even if you only do “Get Lucky” – which, let’s be real, would be as mandatory as “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” – you still need Pharrell and Nile, and that’s a mint alone. On the other hand, Gorillaz are equally as big and when touring behind Plastic Beach, they had no trouble having Miho Hatori stop by to do “19-2000”, or bringing De La Soul along to do “Feel Good, Inc.” If you’re going to build your music around the presence of others, it’s all or nothing – you either play pre-recorded vocals, or you bring the real deal out with you.
With that in mind, I don’t know what I was expecting from The Avalanches as a live act, but I can’t pretend to not be a little disappointed. I wanted to love The Avalanches as a live act, because I think The Avalanches are a phenomenal band. Really, the biggest problem is that The Avalanches aren’t a typical “band” at all, much in the same way, say, Girl Talk is not a band – the people onstage may have created the music, but the sounds are not always their own. So, to help them bring this music to life in an engaging way, they brought Spank Rock and Eliza Wolfgramm – and this is where the trouble begins. I’m unfamiliar with Wolfgramm, and only passingly familiar with Spank Rock, who is fine in his own right. The problem is, Spank Rock is not Danny Brown, nor is he Biz Markie. He’s not MF DOOM, which he clearly knew, because he opted to not perform his verse on “Frankie Sinatra”. Danny Brown’s verse on “Frankie Sinatra” works because it’s quintessential Danny Brown, but when performed by anyone else, it becomes pointless, and the same is largely true of Biz Markie’s “The Noisy Eater”, though Spank Rock thankfully rapped his own lyrics for this one. While I understand and appreciate the motivation behind bringing an actual human being along to perform these songs, it ends up detracting from the performance and, in the end, it just feels like the audience has paid to watch a really, really legitimate cover band.
It wasn’t all bad, though. The songs where Robbie Chater and Tony Di Blasi got to lock into the grooves they built seventeen years ago were the highlights of the 70-minute set (one hour set plus a two-song encore). Wolfgramm’s presence was mostly relegated to bringing to life samples on Since I Left You and Wildflower, chiefly “Since I Left You” and “Subways”, and it felt more natural to have someone singing the hook from these songs rather than attempting to fill the shoes of the distinct performers who took part in the songs of Wildflower. However, these moments were woefully few and far between, and it was hard to believe that Chater and Di Blasi are wholly pleased with the tools they have to bring this music to life for their audiences. But hey, I’m not going to pretend getting to dance to “Frontier Psychiatrist” being performed by The Avalanches wasn’t a treat, no matter how lackluster the rest of the show felt.
There was a time when it was questionable whether or not The Avalanches would ever release their follow-up to Since I Left You, and I still truly feel like Wildflower was the best return we could have gotten from the band in 2016. Despite my biggest hopes and dreams, it would be somewhat impossible to do justice to the material on that album, or at least very difficult to do as a full tour, and that’s the biggest disappointment of them all. The Avalanches may not be Gorillaz or Daft Punk, but their music deserves to be brought to life with the same care that the band put into making the music itself. Bring out the turntables – leave the karaoke out of it.