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White Noise: Toro Y Moi – Underneath The Pine

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Toro Y Moi – Underneath The Pine

As I've mentioned elsewhere, I'm not the biggest fan of chillwave as a genre. Although it is sometimes done well, as a genre it too often feels a case of retro-style over substance, and ends up feeling disposable in musical terms. It's interesting then, that one of the kings of chillwave, Toro Y Moi's Chaz Bundick, has taken a significant move towards a different style in his sophomore album, substituting the hazy samples and chopped beats of his debut album Causers Of This and replacing it with lush organic instrumentation at every turn in an album which is frequently delightful but rarely surprising.

This move is evident on opener Intro/Chi-Chi, where dense ambient layers give way through cascading synths to a hazy beat. What follows is New Beat, a potential breakout single with a fantastic funky riff that propels the song along nicely. Bundick knows how to suit music to his reverb-laden vocal hooks, and considering how different this album is to his previous release, it's admirable that the rich analogue sounds on the album generally work so well; he's moved from laptop synths to guitars, organs, chimes, piano, and much more with a deft hand and clear vision. The other funky highlight is Still Sound on the other side of the album, with gorgeous throwback tomtoms and a rushing vocal line that is pure sugar in its addictiveness.

What's most laudable about this album though, is that the less poppy breakaway hits are often actually better than their more immediate counterparts. Go With You is relaxed and has a chorus which intelligently almost comments on itself in terms of vocal structure, while the musical hooks are cut up skilfully without losing the summery, organic feel this album so prominently displays. Following this is instrumental Divina, an achingly gorgeous short piece where synths and drums are layered in perfect synchronicity, to be built on by a supersimple piano melody that might just be the best thing on the entire album. This is over too quick but thankfully followed by another highlight, Before I'm Done, which has a great background emotive drive that stays in the background rather than forcing itself upon you in another intelligent move. Tracks like these absolutely nail the atmosphere of summer haze and lethargy, without sacrificing energy and excitement as so many chillwave artists seem to.

So there are quite a few good tracks on here, and Bundick is clearly a skilled songwriter. The problem is, the tracks can tend to sound rather formulaic, there are few points when the music really surprises you, and besides the movement between chilled-out and funky there is little variation across the album. The second half of the album doesn't quite live up to the promise of the first, little gems like Still Sound and the lovely Got Blinded are set in the midst of tracks like How I Know and Light Black which showcase a surprisingly negligible amount of sonic development, they just don't go anywhere. Elsewhere, when something new is tried on this latter half it never quite works. The soundscape of slight penultimate track Good Hold is electronically pulled underwater and resurfaces across the second half of the track; it's a lovely effect but doesn't quite further the composition of a track which was already fairly thin. Similarly closer Elise feels as if its lacking in strength, gliding nonchalantly out of existence rather than making any sort of impact or last impression. But maybe that's the goal of the chillwave aesthetic. And maybe that's why I've never been so keen on it.

This album is beautifully textured and richly organic, and there is a great deal of intelligent, thoughtful songwriting here. But it really could have done with something to mix up the formula, and some slightly more successful variations on the theme. Yet all the same, Bundick has shown an extraordinary musical capability to move to an album this accomplished and lush from his synth-pop starts, and although this isn't a great album I'll definitely be tuning in to hear what he comes up with next.


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