Toro Y Moi
Anything In Return
Matt Nedwicki, January 19, 2013
When I set out to write this review of Anything in Return, my goal was to keep the words ‘chill’ and ‘wave’ separated by a minimum of three sentences. I intended to judge this release by Toro y Moi, a project by multi-talented producer and instrumentalist Chaz Bundick, as an entirely separate entity from any of his previous releases that fall under the umbrella that is “chillwave”, the genre known for its characteristically lo-fi, synth-heavy electronic sound. However, after a good bit of thought, I decided it would be gross negligence to completely ignore that which led to Bundick’s meteoric rise from bedroom producer to Pitchfork darling. And although Bundick has tried to remove himself from the washed out (eh? eh?), dreamy style of his earlier recordings, a skim of any recent interview with him reveals that the independent music media are not so quick to forget the sound they loved so much in 2009 and ‘10, with interviewers often leading off with questions regarding his departure from the chillwave aesthetic. Maybe this was the reason why Chaz decided (in his own words) “to make a pop album…that’s not all processed and bubblegum.” No one could blame the guy for trying to escape the genre which others seem so desperate to pigeonhole him in constantly.
To be honest, anyone that listened to Toro y Moi’s 2011 release, Underneath the Pine, should not be too shocked that Chaz would be leaving the chillwave sound behind. The more danceable beats and warm, ’70s-disco-and-funk-influenced production found on that album were a clear departure from the shoe-gazy, dreamy style that was so prominent on his prior releases. His vocals took a more prominent role in the mix, and the synths used were infinitely less fuzzy. What resulted was an album with a unique sound that stands out from any of Toro y Moi’s prior releases. If Underneath the Pine was to be an indicator of the trajectory of Toro y Moi’s future, I was eagerly awaiting anything he touched. However, as noted above, Bundick aimed for Anything in Return to veer, yet again, from past recordings. In a November interview with Pitchfork, he went as far as to state, “I just wanted to make a pop album and see what happens, see if it gets big.” I was a bit disheartened to hear this- not because I dislike pop music(Jessie Ware= drool)-but because I was such a fan of Underneath the Pine. Nonetheless, I trusted that Chaz would be able to craft something of comparable quality.
First listens of Anything In Return revealed a much cleaner, crisper production quality that seamlessly transitions from one influence to another; from European House to ’80s R&B to ’60s psychadelia and back. The diversity in the synthesizers and instruments utilized from song to song is overwhelming, with Bundick conjuring densely layered backing tracks from an assortment of different means. Nothing exemplifies this better than “Studies”, the bedrock of which consists of a“Riders on the Storm” sounding organ that gives way to a bridge comprised of George Harrison-esque sitar. Bundick’s talents as an arranger of multi-instrumental productions are definitely on display for the majority of the album . The tracks range from dance-worthy singles to seductive, R&B-influenced ballads, such as “Grown-up Calls”, that really are only suitable for a night in.
That being said, there are several glaring missteps on the album that left me puzzled. For one, nearly every track on the album is littered with vocal samples, ranging from loops of Chaz’s own voice to anonymous snippets of others. While this is successful on the opening track, “Harm in Change”, with the samples chosen seamlessly integrating into the mix, it absolutely detracts from several other songs on the album, namely “Say That”–where a particularly flat female vocal loop is annoyingly utilized for the duration of the song–and “Touch”–in which Chaz samples a breathy, toneless bit of his own vocals in between verses to poor effect. While on the topic, Bundick’s vocals are nothing groundbreaking either. Although a potent set of pipes has never been a selling point for Toro y Moi, Chaz does nothing on Anything in Return to dispel criticisms that his voice is better-suited for the lo-fi sound of his chillwave past.
While his curious penchant for vocal samples and middle-of-the-road vocal delivery were slightly off-putting, nothing lessened my opinion of the album more than the lyrics penned by Bundick. Besides lacking any sort of compelling theme, there was a universal, nonsensical shallowness found throughout. Apparently Chaz is of the impression that pop music cannot contain any sort of riveting emotion or reveal any depth of character. I’m torn on which track is the worst offender, but two particularly cringe-worthy moments on the album are the choruses of “Say That” (She’s alright / I’m alright / We’re alright / We can’t go back) and “Cake” (She’s got my back and I know it / She only does it ‘cuz she loves it). This plebian view on relationships and love is so very simplistic and static. There’s no indication that Bundick could get lost in the passion of a moment or suffer from the angst of spurned love. Rather, he just seems to float apathetically through a bland reality shared by no one else but him and his girl.
As interesting and nuanced as the production is on the album, it suffers greatly from the shallow bits of observation that Chaz imparts on us. There are some undoubtedly catchy tracks that can get stuck in your subconscious for days, and moments that are irresistibly danceable, but ultimately this is a step backward from Underneath the Pine. Chaz’s vocals remained less than solid, and spotty production decisions plague the record throughout. However, Chaz has shown that he is ambitious enough to experiment with different sounds to create unique aesthetics. Hopefully Chaz more effectively pursues different avenues of musical expression in the future, as he makes transitions from one genre to another appear so effortless. But even if everything else comes this easily to him, does he really find love so simple?
Official music video for “So Many Details”