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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Toro Y Moi - Underneath the Pine: B+

Toro Y Moi’s debut album, Causers of This, came out on the tide of haze that was late-2009 chillwave, and made no bones about what sound it was going for. It was dance-obsessed, sample heavy, and, all in all, above average. What turned Causers of This into an album worth listening to, though, were main man Chaz Bundick’s production skills. His technique of phasing out the music on each downbeat of a song is exhilarating to me, now, as it was when I reviewed the album, last year. It was also excellent foresight on Bundick’s part for where electronic music was going in the ensuing year, as albums like Flying Lotus’s Cosmogramma and Baths’s Cerulean would utilize the technique to similarly great effect.

Cut to a year later, and Bundick has released his second album under the Toro Y Moi moniker. Whatever you may think of Underneath the Pine, it’s tough to deny that Bundick’s songwriting has matured significantly in the scant year he’s had to make new music. Where Causers of This had a more homogenous, just-for-kicks attitude towards its fluid interchange of electronics and live instruments, Underneath the Pine seems to be more comfortable in its own skin, relying much less on samples and more on Bundick’s voice. Bundick appears to have a better footing on what the Toro Y Moi sound is extricated from the chillwave movement that has long since passed. With Underneath the Pine, Toro Y Moi appears to be pressing all the right buttons in transitioning from a precocious beat-slider to an indie rock mellow machine.

That being said, Underneath the Pine, from a quality point of view, is not very different from Causers of This. In fact, despite a clearer focus in performance, I favor Causers of This slightly more. This is due to a few things, but what is most notable is that Underneath the Pine lacks that “pull the rug out from under you” style of production that, as I said before, improved Causers of This from decent to above average. The production of Underneath the Pine is straightforward, creating a live feel that treats Bundick’s voice as a focal point rather than just another instrument. The only time this is not the case is in “Good Hold”, when the song’s melody is smooshed into one of the speakers. It’s a surprising moment, and, consistent to form, the song's the most thrilling track on Underneath the Pine. The rest of the album lacks such surprises, and is less interesting as a result.

Also, as I mentioned before, Underneath the Pine concentrates more on Bundick’s voice. Despite adorning it with many interweaving harmonies, the album does little to distract from the fact that Bundick’s vocal presence just isn’t very strong. As he did on Causers of This, Bundick sounds squeamish and noncommittal, fitting the music decently well, but giving each track a blasé quality that I’m sorry to inform is present to some extent on all of Underneath the Pine’s tracks. While nothing on the album is especially damning, with no strong vocal hooks for the listener to latch onto, much of Underneath the Pine cannot help but sink into anonymity.

That isn’t to say, though, that Underneath the Pine is an especially bad album. In a way, its songs are better than those of Causers of This, because the Toro Y Moi of that album relied on those aforementioned production flourishes to buoy songs that otherwise would have been boring. The chorus of voices on “How I Know” and “Elise” and the bassline to “Still Sound” are inventive and indicative of a heightening in songwriting prowess for Bundick. There’s more to be valued in individual songs on Underneath the Pine than for Causers of This, and Bundick’s improvement in that regard indicates creativity to spare for future releases. However, I don’t see Underneath the Pine turning more heads than Toro Y Moi’s debut, and, to be honest, Toro Y Moi’s debut didn’t turn many heads to begin with. Underneath the Pine may lean too heavily on mood instead of hooks, but its rewards far outnumber its flaws, so, at its very base, it’s consistent.


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