Since They Left Us: Why the Avalanches Still Rule

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Note: this was written over two years ago for a “Desert Island Album” series that never actually came to fruition. Since pretty much everything in this still applies and we might see an Avalanches album in 2013, I might as well let everyone know a little more about my favorite album of the last decade.

Just looking at the stats behind Since I Left You should give you a good idea of how special the Avlanches’ first and only album is. By comparison, even something as massive and messy as Girl Talk’s Feed the Animals only contains 322 samples, small potatoes compared to this Aussie dance act. Since I Left You is a far cry from the chaos one might expect from so many samples, instead an organic collection of songs that merge seamlessly into one another.

 

This fact alone makes the album appealing to music geeks like myself, but it’s much more than just a great album. When someone asks me about desert albums, this is what immediately shoots to mind: knowing that I can blast Since I Left You and never, ever get sick of it.

I first heard it in high school, about a year after its initial 2000 release in Austrailia. A friend and I were awake getting our fix of “alternative” music videos on MTV2 when something otherworldly started coming out of the TV speakers, a track called “Frontier Psychiatrist.” The video itself isn’t all that groundbreaking, but the song was unlike anything I’d ever heard, a disjointed dance beat, horns, and a spooky choir competing for attention with bits of differing dialogue. As soon as I got near a computer the next morning, I set about downloading what was apparently this band’s debut album.

Needless to say, I was blown away from the get-go. As soon as the title track kicked off, I felt a sense of wonder, like I was entering a dream state despite feeling the slight urge to dance. I’d feel this sensation multiple times throughout the album as it shifted between electropop and full-blown rave, my moods changing with each song. By the end I was both drained and begging for more as the title track gets its lyrics flipped on the closing track, reminding you that this musical journey started and ended in the same place, but not quite (something I’d later appreciate Donuts, another landmark).

What’s astounding to me is that I still have the same feelings listening to this album today that I did back then. After listening to it for a few months straight initially, I stayed away from it for years before revisiting once again, going through a similar listening pattern. This tradition happens every once in a while, and its staying power never deteriorates. Good thing, too, since their long-awaited follow-up is a decade in the making, more of less a Chinese Democracy for the indie set.

Given the staggering amount of record snippets assembled for this cratedigging masterpiece, the layers are bound to be endless. Even the most trained ears won’t be able to spot everything on the first, second, or thousandth listen. There are bits and pieces of obscure radio plays, techno legend Carl Craig, and even Madonna’s “Holiday.” It’s an album whose choices are as bold as its overall vision. Somehow, these songs take on a second life where they’re (mostly) rendered unrecognizable. Each tune is like a piece of matter with a million moving molecules, never staying in place but still recognizable.

Since I Left You is special for another reason: the album-as-experience is quickly becoming a near-extinct genre. Hearing a single song on Since I Left You is to not do it justice at all. It’s impossible to truly separate even “Frontier Psychiatrist” from what comes before and after it, demanding that you not skip over a single track lest you miss its complete genius. MP3 blogs weren’t even a blip on the radar when this album first came about, but it’s almost hard to imagine Since I Left You getting the same attention it did today as it did back then as a result. It’s ironic, then, that you can see that the Avalanches laid the blueprint for current MP3 blog powerhouses like Washed Out and Air France.

Reports have been coming in that the Avlanches’ second album is just about complete and ready to see release this year, but I’m skeptical after hearing that year after year. At this point, though, it doesn’t matter to me. Sure, it would be nice if they exceeded my (unbelievably, bafflingly) high expectations, but they’ve done enough to cement their legacy. At the risk of babbling, I’m not sure what else I can tell say about Since I Left You except this: set aside an hour of your life, slap on a pair of headphones, and imagine yourself on a desert island. You just might see what I mean.

You can stream Since I Left You over on MOG.

DOWNLOAD: The Avalanches – “Ray of Zdarlight”

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