In 2009, Muzak Holdings LLC filed for Chapter 11. They’re the people responsible for the elevator music that played in our malls, in our drug stores, during our infomercials and in our doctors’ waiting rooms. Light keyboard tones, smooth saxophone riffs, inoffensive guitar work and steady, midtempo percussion are the hallmarks of a genre that, strangely, has come to be both much-maligned and strangely influential.
In early 2010, Muzak Holdings’ debt was reduced by more than half, allowing them to resume operations. But the Muzak revival in the indie music world had long since been under way, spearheaded by guys like Ariel Pink and James Ferraro. And as evidenced by the success of Destroyer’s new album Kaputt, the movement seems as strong as ever in 2011.
Enter South Carolina’s Toro Y Moi, one of 2010′s chillest of chillwave stars, whose debut LP Causers Of This launched him to the top of the chillwave power rankings, right up there with Washed Out and Neon Indian. Of course, 2010 was also the year in which the genre arguably peaked, and it’s now seen as rather passe or just plain boring to release what we might call a “traditional chillwave” album.
So to which genre did Toro Y Moi (real name Chazwick Bundick) turn for his latest release? You guessed it: this is Muzak—funky, beat-driven Muzak.
Album opener “Intro Chi Chi” is perhaps a bit more noise and drone-indebted than the rest of the album—that is, of course, until the bongos kick in and the harmonies grow audible. The next few tracks, however, really cement Chaz’s predilection for early-’70s synth exploration, culminating in “Divina,” a song that could easily provide the backing music for a Weather Channel local five-day forecast. That’s not to say it’s cheesy; crisp piano chords and what sounds like a saxophone track put through a punishing Bitcrusher keep the brief song interesting and, yes, pretty cool.
“Before I’m Done” opens with a refreshing sun-bleached acoustic guitar and carries itself like a stripped-down Tame Impala track with its thoughtful chord changes and “Pass the bong, dude” vibe. The song itself provides a welcome change of sound, but it’s more significant as an indicator of overall tonal shift; the rest of the album resumes its retro-synth infatuation but with a decided psychedelic twist.
“Got Blinded” and “How I Know” work more like a two-part suite than two separate tracks of music, the latter offering a wicked drum track ripped from classic-rock radio, providing an energetic counterpoint to the hazy Odessey and Oracle-esque mod-friendly psychedelia that’s come to dominate the album.
On lead single “Still Sound,” Bundick sings, “I’m thinking of a moment/And know it’s still sound.” I haven’t decided whether I think he means “still” as in “tranquil” or as a synonym for “continues to be,” but really, both apply. The sense of something lingering—decades-old funk, electric organs, Bundick’s echoing wordless vocals—is palpable on Underneath The Pine. And even in its most clattering moments, the album maintains an even keel and inner zen, assuring the listener that the artist won’t let his more experimental leanings get in the way of a classic pop structure. I’d call it “foggy,” but it’s not nearly so gothic; I might then call it “chillwave,” but that genre’s love affair with the 80s is conspicuously absent here.
It’s all very pleasant, like sitcom marathons and casino buffets. True, the album’s sound grows repetitive at times, such that you might not recall the difference between certain consecutive tracks. But much like watching the Weather Channel, even if your attention drifts while listening to Underneath The Pine, you’re still glad it’s there.
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