‘Since I Left You’: The Avalanches’ Lounge-Inspired Odyssey

Few albums work as an entity quite the way the Avalanches’ debut ‘Since I Left You’ does, and few make full immersion seem so effortless.

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Few albums work as an entity quite the way the Avalanches’ Since I Left You does, and few make full immersion seem so effortless. It flows – the parts surrender themselves to the whole in a way that feels inevitable, but moreover, the album evokes an unceasing onrush even as it is studded with pauses and stops and sudden turnarounds. It’s not unstoppable the way that techno or rock can feel – it just never stops exploring new terrain or turning up gems as it inspects the cracks. It’s a comfortable classic, and the reason seems obvious now: Since I Left You is, at bottom, a lounge album.

“Lounge” applies to Since I Left You both in terms of the album’s soft edges and pliant grooves and of the abundant array of source material used to craft them. These building blocks came from everywhere, most obviously on records by Madonna (her “Holiday” groove anchors the Avalanches’ “Stay Another Season”) and Kid Creole and the Coconuts (a snatch of “Stool Pigeon” pops up in and jolts “Close to You”). But the bulk of the samples – some 900 in all, by most accounts – came from Australian dollar-store MOR LPs, the kind that was plentiful during the late 90s, when the vinyl market was in the abyss. The sweet, sawing strings and supper-club murmurings that flavored much of Since I Left You have a distinct discard-bin flavor about them, but they also intersected with a much more recent development.

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Especially in retrospect, it’s been easier to hear Since I Left You as an out-the-other-end version of the global-sophisticate chic that emerged in rock circles during the late 90s – think of Stereolab, Pizzicato Five, Serge Gainsbourg, and Tropicalia reissues. This also included the same kind of discarded lounge LPs the Avalanches utilized in bulk, which in the mid-90s, were given a new subcultural sheen thanks to two volumes of RE/Search Books’ Incredibly Strange Music, which featured interviews with record collectors about their prized finds, including a lot of kitschy “exotica” that was later repackaged by Capitol Records for a successful, long-running series titled Ultra-Lounge.

Yet Since I Left You bustled too much to fit too neatly into that niche – especially following the drowsy beanbag fantasias of Air, Alpha, or Kruder & Dorfmeister. The Avalanches weren’t making mere space-age bachelor-pad music – the moods they were after were both more straightforwardly euphoric and complicatedly tender. At least, that’s what they achieved. Since I Left You holds those strings and supper-club murmurs as objects of fascination, mirrors of long-gone light entertainment styles; think of them as the traditional hip-hop sampling library’s soft underside.

If James Brown and P-Funk grooves evoked the urban experience, the Avalanches’ bargain bin repurposing evoked a peculiarly suburban one. The way the Avalanches cross-cut spoken statements and snippets into pleasant un-logic adds to the album’s jumbled dream state. Details hurtle past like billboards and road signs. Put your head down, let it irradiate the room, go about your business, then look up, and chances are that a lot more time has flown by than you realized. Easy listening, indeed.

On “Frontier Psychiatrist,” the opening radio-drama dialogue opens out to a series of effects, orchestrations, and found talk that works as a zingy update on the oldest vaudeville. The burbling low-end bloops that drive along “Radio” and the gee-whillikers shouts that bridge it and “Two Hearts in 3/4 Time” evoke doctored footage of 1950s Disneyland.

Early on, the US scuttlebutt on the Avalanches included talk of a band-focused live show – though, in the fall of 2001, the group’s American appearances were limited to DJ sets that ranged as kaleidoscopically as their album. This, too, was in keeping with a club scene where DJs were beginning to favor quick-and-dirty songs over the endless vistas of trance and progressive house.

But there’s something far vaster about Since I Left You than the oceanic uplift owning the era’s main room DJ floors. It plays like a night out, beginning with the promise, “Welcome to paradise,” and ending in melancholy (“I just can’t get you/Ever since the day I left you”). But live with it long enough and that arc can feel like life itself.

Buy or stream Since I Left You (20th Anniversary Edition).

Michaelangelo Matos is the author of Can’t Slow Down: How 1984 Became Pop’s Blockbuster Year (Hachette). He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.

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