It’s easy not to expect much from acts like Toro Y Moi. In fact, it’s appropriate. The much-maligned chillwave subgenre has as part of its essence a complacency with not moving forward. Indeed, the nature of its fixation on the past kind of ensures that about it. To dismiss it as nothing more than the filtering of decades-old pop sounds through a postmodern gauze is too reductive, but its undeniable program of nostalgia-inspiring means that it can’t stray too far from certain techniques without losing what makes it so immediately arresting. It has to be the case that an album’s worth of this stuff is largely monochromatic from beginning to end.
Historically, chillwave wasn’t without precedent. It could fairly be described as the distillation of a small number of qualities common to several disparate musical trends over the last decade, the bright orange center of a Venn diagram whose contours only became obvious very recently — a keyhole through which we found ourselves being squeezed, to the tremendous discomfort of many. Circumstances conspired to create the backlash it is now receiving from corners of the internet that are vocal, but not representative — people are still listening, and in large numbers. But whatever your feelings toward it, you can’t pretend that it wasn’t inevitable or that its effects won’t ripple through independent pop well into 2012, whether through attraction or repulsion.
That Toro Y Moi’s new record Underneath the Pine is distinctly a product of his songwriting, without sounding exactly like his 2010 debut, suggests that chillwave may still have some legs to it after all. It’s more mature, more polychromatic, and less reliant on the tropes of the genre than most of its vanguards. These songs may be firmly rooted in something whose brief and lamented time has passed, but they represent the potential for the refinement of that thing into new and less cloying territory.
Originally conceived as a “folkier” counterpart to Causers of This, Underneath the Pine instead offers an enrichment of Toro Y Moi’s existing sound. Superficially, its more careful and less gimmicky production means that it doesn’t induce the motion sickness that Causers’ high-compression ‘digital lo-fi’ did, but more importantly, the songwriting is just plain better. These aren’t universally sunny Hall & Oates melodies that garner so much ire for his contemporaries; on the contrary there’s a strong undertone of distress throughout the record, particularly on tracks like “Light Black,” whose loping, alarm-like bassline relentlessly urges the song onward to its cacophonous conclusion. Also see “Good Hold,” whose chilling opening piano lines are followed by an alternatingly eerie and lilting dirge.
Even its numerous upbeat moments are less dancefloor-ready than Causers of This. “Go With You” strongly recalls Stereolab with its blend of lounge jazz and unpredictable, abrupt tonal divergences; “Divina” is a blissful, instrumental adagio reminiscent of Air; and the breezy, dusty classical guitar and flutes of “Before I’m Done” bring Bibio to mind. Elsewhere, however, as in the back-to-back “Got Blinded” and “How I Know,” the Ariel Pink influence is just as pronounced as in every corner of this subgenre, with their frantic rhythms and affected falsettos, burdening the record and serving as a sobering reminder of chillwave’s limitations.
That Chaz Bundick, the man behind Toro Y Moi, is doing all of this on his own means that Underneath the Pine is nothing short of impressive. That he’s elevating such a bullied subgenre into something so worthy of your attention is a small triumph.