Welcome to the latest edition of ‘Golden Vault’, where we delve into the annals of music to bring you a classic album. You’ll know some like the back of your hand and nothing of others. We hope to get you reacquainted with old friends and create new favourites. The album to be taken out of the Golden Vault for reappraisal this week is ‘Since I Left You’ by Australian sample-maniacs The Avalanches.
The art of sampling is an oft-misunderstood production technique that rose to prominence alongside hip-hop in the ‘80s. It was once stigmatized by certain musical purists who saw it as a lazy way to get around actually creating new music. To be fair, when it is done poorly it is truly uninspiring; see any number of Pitbull or Flo Rida songs for evidence. Fortunately a few truly creative geniuses managed to eventually prove that the technique could be used just as artfully as any other and nowadays you are as likely to hear sampling in an Animal Collective song as a Snoop Dogg one.
Most of the shining examples of sampling exist in hip-hop; De La Soul, DJ Premier, Beastie Boys, Wu-Tang Clan, Kanye West… pretty much any other rapper you can think of, they all use it. There are a few however who abandon the whole rap aspect and make instrumental work solely based around pre-existing pieces of music.
There are probably two albums that tower above the rest in this category; DJ Shadow’s ‘Endtroducing…’ and The Avalanches’ first and thus far only record, 2001’s ‘Since I Left You’. While roughly equal in terms of quality, ‘Since I Left You’ is a much more fun and joyous record that takes the idea of sampling about as far as it can possibly go.
The Avalanches were formed in Melbourne in the mid-‘90s. Although originally a rock band, the main production duo of Robbie Chater and Darren Seltmann soon began experimenting with mixing portions of their vast record collections into new songs. Thankfully they quickly discarded some truly horrible early band names, e.g. Swinging Monkey Cocks and Whoops Down Syndrome. Some early live appearances gained the band a lot of attention and they began working on their debut album in 1998.
The group were adherents of the crate-digging tradition, something that has pretty much disappeared with the rise of the internet. It’s not such a big deal to have lots of obscure music on your Spotify playlists but back before downloading and streaming became the norm, hardcore music fans had to spend a huge amount of time and money sorting through dusty old boxes at the backs of record shops in order to find something new and distinct, which might turn out to be rubbish once they brought it home and listened to it anyway.
As such, this album, which consists of approximately 3,500 samples, is arguably far more labour-intensive than anything a traditional band could record. The fact that the album wasn’t released internationally until 2001 (3 years after recording began) tells you a lot about what a massive undertaking it was. That they produced something listenable out of that humongous pile of disparate sounds is remarkable.
What could have been a mess of clashing styles and genres forced together actually turned out to be the exact opposite. The album is a sublime example of throwing everything at a wall and seeing everything stick. The sheer amount of ground covered is incredible. Everything from jazz guitar to French hip-hop to funk to doo wop to disco to movie soundtracks to Madonna comes up at some point to create a consistently danceable sonic smorgasbord. It is a serious feat of engineering that it all sounds right together.
Once the album begins, there isn’t a lot of room to catch your breath until the end. Every track bleeds into the next in a way that makes it hard to discern where the exact boundary is between them. The amount of samples used also means that there is a rollercoaster of different atmospheres and feelings that are brought up in the course of listening, often within the same track.
On the song Frontier Psychiatrist, for example, lots of absurd snippets of dialogue are strung throughout that almost make it seem like a novelty song. Then a string section bursts in midway through, backed by a ghostly choir in what is genuinely a beautiful stretch of music. This juxtaposition of moods is where the genius of the album lies.
As you progress, it almost feels like you’re walking through a museum (a fun version of a museum) showcasing examples of every type of world music. From the tropical paradise of the title track to the Daft Punk-disco of Live at Dominoes, the shifts in style and sound do not let up. There is something new behind every corner and at times there are things staring you right in the face that you may not notice until the tenth listen.
While a lot of the fun of the album lies in the constantly changing tone, there are some individual songs that peek out of the patchwork. Electricity creates a warped disco track from a haunting operatic vocal and some retro synth samples. Two Hearts in ¾ Time is based around another beautiful and unusual vocal and some strange, twinkling piano keys.
The title track deserves an article all to itself. It is probably among the best songs released in this young century. Latin keyboards, soul vocals, a jazz flute worthy of Ron Burgundy… listening to the samples on their own, they sound cheesy and inconsequential. Together, they sound like the most delightful and natural thing imaginable and create the ultimate good-mood song. The only vocal line “Since I left you/ I found the world so new” is vague enough that it can represent any number of emotions you decide to attach on to it. Describing these songs individually does do the album a slight disservice though; to get the full experience, it should ideally be listened to from beginning to end in one sitting.
‘Since I Left You’ is simply one of the best love letters to music ever written. In much the same way as Quentin Tarantino fills all his films with references to the obscure B-movies and little seen Westerns that inspired him, The Avalanches used this record to celebrate the unheard and unsung musicians whose songs allowed this album to breathe.
There are a few recognizable names on the list of samples, the odd Boney M or A Tribe Called Quest, but most of the music here would never have reached the ears of a mass audience otherwise. There is nevertheless a nostalgic feeling throughout. Some of the sounds seem uncannily familiar, even though most are not; this sense of déjà vu is apparent even on first listen. This only adds to the surprising emotional complexity of what could have easily been a simple dance record in the wrong hands.
Instead what we get is a joyful and soulful example of what sampling music can achieve and a truly postmodern approach to putting an album together. While sampling is often a lazy way to steal a hook and create a catchy chorus for no-talent rappers, at its best it can be a truly unique way to create music. While there have been similar efforts to ‘Since I Left You’ in the years since, from artists like Girl Talk and 2 Many DJs, it remains perhaps the perfect encapsulation of what sampling can achieve.
Naturally there were massive legal troubles clearing the rights for all the recordings used on this album, something which might explain why there haven’t been a great number of copycats in the years since. These problems only increased for The Avalanches in the aftermath and they have not really released anything apart from remixes of other artists’ songs since, which is a massive shame. Every couple of years we are treated to various rumours and fake leaks, and fingers are crossed in hope that the news is genuine. Even if they never do release anything else though, ‘Since I Left You’ is more than enough to cement the group’s legacy.