Sunday, January 20, 2013

Toro y Moi shows flashes of brilliance on poppier Anything in Return

Love him or hate him, there's one thing you can't take away from Chaz Bundick: he's never made the same record twice. Bundick, better known under his stage moniker Toro y Moi, got his big break during the height of chillwave, a short lived movement from 2009-2010 championed by a cluster of bands dedicated to making mellow, relaxing electronic music.

Unfortunately, the scene vanished almost as quickly as it arose, leaving its adherents scrambling for a new creative direction. Bundick's debut, 2010's Causers of This, could be placed firmly within the chillwave network, yet Bundick never felt like the type of guy to get pigeonholed within it.

Appropriately, his 2011 followup Underneath the Pine took a different approach entirely, presenting itself as a pseudo Saturday Night Fever electronic funk album. By contrast, his third album Anything in Return is much more energetic than his debut, but by no means as funky or bass driven as his last album. Instead, as Bundick declares, Anything in Return represents his attempt at a pop album.

He does a fantastic job at creating intricately illustrated mental images as evidenced on "So Many Details," which takes place on a Friday night with a special lady. He masterfully portrays his tingling sensation of anticipation as his mind wanders toward undoing the locks on her door and disappearing inside with her. Yet at the same time he is still trying to be a gentleman and respect his lady. His nobler instincts win out in the end, as he declares, "save yourself tonight, tomorrow I'll get you back."

One constant on all of Toro albums is its modern vibe; as expected, Anything in Return is sleek and sophisticated. This is music for the cool kids, providing the perfect soundtrack for cruising around with your friends on the way to some hip club. Standouts "Harm in Change" and "Say That" present a playground of smoky nighttime electronica; neon shapes and textures come whooshing out of the darkness, while a dazzling progression of piano chords ignite your brain's pleasure centers. "Say That" is boosted by a mesmerizing gaggle of wordless voices. If last year's Kindred EP from Burial had been warmer and more inviting,  it might have sounded something like this.

Most of the lyrics are pretty simple, focusing on boy girl relations or just relationships/friendships in general. "Never Matter" speaks most eloquently, touching on failed relationships and isolation: "I think I let my mind go wild/ and I think I'm on the verge of crying/ It's the fact I'm not closer/ to letting anyone inside my life. Bundick's voice is plaintive, but very mellow and listenable. He comes across as likable everyman who is easily relatable.

But he begins to lose steam as the album progresses. After a while, the heavy emphasis on production begins to take away from Bundick's intention of crafting compelling pop. Despite all the elaborately structured loops and layers, it's the chords more than anything else that drive the most successful cuts. Unfortunately, that only comes to full fruition on about half the songs.

"High Living," with Bundick's stunning octave switching, is the strongest cut after the opening  one-two-three punch. "Never Matter" and "How's It Wrong" are charming and engaging, while "Cake," with its strong 80s vibe, is one of the album's most danceable cuts.

That's not to say any of the songs are necessarily bad. The weakest moment comes on Cola, a repetitive  meandering track that suffers from an overload of low end frequencies  Yet Bundick misses a great deal of potential because he forgets the first lesson of pop music: it's done best when it's kept simple.

And so it was that Chaz Bundick created another listenable album, propped up by a few fantastic singles here and there. And yet, despite his well documented penchant for genre hopping, there is one other constant connecting all of Bundick's albums: he has yet to release an album that consistently holds up from start to finish.

Score: 77/100

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