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The Avalanches Waited Too Long to Cash In

The Avalanches
The Avalanches

Like fossil fuels or basic civility, reclusive indie-rock cult heroes are a dwindling international resource. But this week, we’re finally tapping one of the deepest and weirdest individual veins still out there: the Avalanches, the sample-crazed Australian crew who put out one record in the early 2000s to rapturous acclaim and then promptly disappeared to even more rapturous acclaim, have returned, triumphantly, with a lousy new song. Oh, well.

Let us accentuate the positive, which is to say, the past. Since I Left You is a marvelously odd record, a dusty crate-digger throwback that sounded like the 21st century just as the 21st century was dawning. Built out of several thousand oft-tiny samples — from the audaciously ubiquitous (Madonna’s “Holiday” shows up early) to the tragically hip (“Electricity” is a huge highlight, thanks to Blowfly’s XXX-rated block-rocker “Rapp Dirty”) to the whimsically random (the parrot has a legit case for MVP) — it’s a nervous shut-in’s melancholy fantasy of a sunny, utopian beach vacation. (Given the album’s fizziness, the cover is legitimately fascinating.) It was a small joy to hear a song as gloriously weird as “Frontier Psychiatrist” on even college radio; these guys neither invented nor perfected anything, but few records better illustrate how to turn the maniacal plural into something so singular.

The right people were on board immediately, but it’s the aging process — the deafening silence thereafter, the interminable fan vigil for a follow-up that might never come, the bulletproof critical rep burnished one Best Albums of the 2000s list at a time — that turned the Avalanches into such a totem. We’re talking Neutral Milk Hotel levels of mystique here, and those guys eventually cashed in with a multiyear reunion tour. There is an art to the dramatic comeback, or at least a rhythm, and you can theoretically screw up the timing from either end. LCD Soundsystem were relentlessly sassed for roaring back to the festival circuit less than five years after swearing they’d be dead forever, but money talks, and most of their fans have since shut up and luxuriated anew in the hits. This is the opposite problem.

The Avalanches took way too long. This week’s triumphant unveiling of an imminent new record, Wildflower, with a modest tour to follow, arrived with the stale woosh of the air leaking out of a 15-year-old balloon. Here is the group’s new promo photo, in which, in the opinion of one esteemed Ringer colleague of mine, they look like 311; here is their new song, “Frankie Sinatra,” which is, in my opinion, bad.

You can sum up the problem here in one word: Gorillaz. The brass-knuckle polka beat … the uneasy visuals … the neurotic worldliness … the guest verses from a very specific genus of underground rapper (MF Doom and Danny Brown in this case, though De La Soul are still the standard-bearers) … “Frankie Sinatra” can’t help but evoke a rival group that debuted right around the same time, but carved out a full career, rise and fall and furtive rebirth, in the decade and a half since. This song sounds bizarrely dated, which is both unfair and unavoidable. It wouldn’t have sounded any better had we gotten to hear it in, say, 2008, but it would somehow sound several decades younger.

This doesn’t “ruin” anything; Since I Left You’s spell is intact. But it’s hard not to say they missed their window. (The other option was to wait another 15 years or so, and reemerge like Encino Man into an entirely foreign environment, with all your contemporaries long retired, if they’re still upright at all.) The trick here is to burn your mystique only if it fuels your momentum. The parts here don’t line up right. Which is ironic, and not in a fun, beachy way.