Wednesday, February 9, 2011

"We're Not Above Reviewing Leaks": Toro y Moi - Underneath the Pines

I want to try to think about this new Toro y Moi album divorced from its context. After all, while I kind of enjoyed 2010's Causers of This, and had heard plenty about Toro y Moi mastermind Chaz Bundick's contributions to that whole hypnagogic pop thing, neither of those things are going to help us make sense of his latest album, Underneath the Pine. That's not to say the album needs to be made sense of--it doesn't really. It's not obtuse, lo-fi, difficult, obscure, or any of those others terms that are often attached to the hazy brand of pop that Bundick has been rightfully associated with until now. Instead, Underneath the Pine is a lush and finely wrought pop album that combines 70's dancefloor glitz with the warmth of that decade's MOR, singer-songwriter fair with results that take a bit to sink in, but are ultimately both fun and haunting.

The fun comes largely from the song's beats and arrangements--"New Beat" bounces with a faux-funk disco groove, while "Still Sound" lands a bit more in the early 80's post new-wave camp. But one of the things that sets Toro y Moi's latest apart from some of its other retro grab bag contemporaries is that Bundick goes beyond the dance floor in seeking out his points of reference. Take "Before I'm Done," for instance, a gentle psych-lite, pop-folk ballad that works primarily as a mood piece, a brief detour from the glitzy, slick dance pop arrangements that anchor the album, but not the only detour scattered throughout the album. In fact, I might go so far as to argue that, while the detours don't tend to be the album's highlights, they are perhaps the biggest reason that Underneath the Pine holds together so well. "How I Know" is a bit more of a pop tune than "Before I'm Done," but reaches back to less dancey, almost naive brand of sixties pop for its rhythms and harmonies. The arrangements are still characteristically out-of-time, but the song's melody and accompanying harmonies paradoxically manage a rare marriage of sunny pop and haunted nostalgia.

And that is perhaps, regardless of what Toro y Moi does with his production and arrangements, the one reason why Underneath the Pine is an unqualified success, and we have every reason to think that Bundick will remain a relevant force in off-kilter pop music for some time. What Bundick does with melody here, with the subtle textures of his arrangements all while decade-hopping, and with pristine production, is no small feat. In a year that is already starting to characterize itself as the year of the well-executed studio sheen (James Blake? Destroyer? Cut Copy?), Toro y Moi can hang at the top of the heap.

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