Where can you find Mick Jones of the Clash singing alongside the late Karen Carpenter? Or little Jimmy Osmond serenading a hippo called Hugo while Neneh Cherry raps about the end of the world?
Such unlikely musical pairings are bread and butter (or maybe that should be meat and bananas) for Australian outfit The Avalanches. Robbie Chater and Tony Di Blasi (below) are a duo of DJs who create music by stitching together myriad samples, until the source material is not so much unrecognisable as utterly transformed. Back in 2000, their acclaimed debut Since I Left You offered up a giddy dance tapestry woven from over 3,500 individual threads of vinyl.
It is a breathtakingly complex business, and I am not just talking about clearing samples with copyright holders. On the artistic side, what The Avalanches do requires an extraordinarily subtle and nuanced feel for the material, blending and reshaping diverse elements into abstract surrealist montages with a character of their own, rather than simply reheating someone else’s hooks. Their music is full of emotion, retaining the inherent depths of archived sounds even as they twist them into new shapes.
For their third album, We Will Always Love You, The Avalanches have almost come full circle, collaborating with famous musicians to create what are effectively original songs from stitched together parts. Alongside Jones and Cherry, the starry cast includes Johnny Marr of The Smiths, soul singer Leon Bridges, trip-hop maverick Tricky, Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and members of Weezer, Jane’s Addiction, MGMT, The Flaming Lips and The xx. That’s quite an indie rocking line-up and while there is nothing rocky about the results, it does drift far from the dance floor. This is more of an after‑hours set, pushing into wonkily psychedelic territory.
There is a lot of sonic information to grapple with, and certainly some crate- digging fun to be had identifying sources – like the sound of Smokey Robinson creating Motown magic on the title track. But most samples are used too subliminally to intrude on the listener’s consciousness: gospel choirs, phone messages and ripples of instrumentation layered so delicately they are almost translucent.
The cover shows an image of Ann Druyan, wife of the late cosmologist Carl Sagan, which has been converted into soundwaves then processed back into a photograph. The love between these two space scientists provides something of a guiding theme. Sagan and Druyan worked on the Voyager project together, compiling records to be sent into space to potentially communicate with extraterrestrials.
With songs filled with lost voices, and lyrics hinting at interstellar distances, The Avalanches’ core idea is that these are ghost sounds, broadcast from Earth and travelling to infinity. Yet on such a dizzyingly mixed set of sonic non-sequiturs, meaning seems arbitrary, casting listeners adrift from one lovely moment to the next. It is a dream of an album. I’m just not sure it will make any sense when you wake up.
We Will Always Love You is out on Astralwerks on Friday