Toro Y Moi was once associated with the electronic pop subgenre and short cultural moment known as chillwave. There. That’s done. As far as I’m concerned — and I seem to be the only critic who thinks this — Chaz Bundick’s name and the c-word never need to appear in the same sentence again. Everyone who started to build a career from that initial moment has grown and evolved and moved on, but none have put more distance between them and their press-anointed inception than Bundick. On Underneath The Pines a couple of years ago, he was already pushing toward a squelchy, psychedelic sort of soul-pop, a one-man genre built from stray moments on old Stevie Wonder albums. And even at first, he had more Dilla than Ariel Pink in him. But Anything In Return is the moment where Bundick has broken away completely and built something resembling a concrete persona, developing a matter-of-fact disco-pop slickness that sounds way sharper and more defined than anything he’s done before. His music doesn’t sound like he recorded it in an amniotic gloop-chamber, and it doesn’t evoke lost memories of watching Superhuman Samurai Cyber Squad. Instead, it’s exceedingly well-realized studio-pop music, music with all its moving parts in place. And in the exceedingly small category of “dorked-out but somehow effortlessly smooth half-black/half-Filipino soul-pop singer/producers beloved of Tyler, The Creator” the Bundick of Anything In Return has come to rival circa-2002 Pharrell. That’s a pretty staggering achievement, all told.
That’s not to say Bundick has broken completely from the music he made before; he hasn’t. As you delve deep into Anything In Return, the queasy textures and searching sincerity and Dilla-fried bass-wobbles start to reappear. But now, those things are working to serve simple and elegant pop songs — love songs, usually, or songs about losing yourself in another person. Bundick’s not the type to slather reverb on his voice, and his thin and unshowy tenor has become more confident; he’s pushing it further to the front of the mix. I promise not to keep bringing up Pharrell, but the way Bundick’s built these elaborate tracks around his own decidedly unspectacular voice reminds me of the way Skateboard P interrupted Jay-Z’s godly party-flow on “I Just Wanna Love U” so that he could bust out his terrible Curtis Mayfield impression and somehow sound badass doing it. (Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor is also a good comparison point here; there’s a level of suave/dweeby intersection at work that we mere mortals will probably never figure out.) Bundick’s voice shouldn’t work for these expertly-assembled pleasure-machine tracks, but it does, and the ballsiness of putting that voice front and center only makes the entire thing cooler.
About those tracks: God knows how many studio-hours Bundick put into this thing, but unlike Causers Of This, Anything In Return absolutely does not sound like something you could make at home on a laptop. The individual sounds are hard and bell-clear, and they’re woven through the songs with definite purpose. Bundick knows when to let the piano float in, when to take away the vintage-synth gasp-loop, how long to let the beat ride. The title of first single “So Many Details” doesn’t refer to all the pings and tingles he throws into the track, but it could. And when a chorus of thunderous taiko-style drums shows up for the last minute of the song, it’s just thrillingly out-of-place enough to drive the song further home. And I haven’t even talked about the opening one-two punch of “Harm In Change” and “Say That,” which feel something like a thrown gauntlet at the entire idea of that c-word. These songs keep Bundick’s breezy romanticism intact, but they’re hard and chilly dance tracks, with house-diva moans and lonely horn-bursts and BPMs that just pound. Near the end of “Say That,” a sample of a rapper saying “yeah” become a part of the beat, and it somehow adds to the propulsion rather than distracting. “Harm In Change” hasn’t even become a single yet, but the two songs already number among my favorite singles of the year.
The HARRYS-directed videos for “So Many Details” and “Say That” give visual accompaniment to the sonic makeover that Bundick has given himself with this album. Suddenly, he’s chilling in forests, on mountaintop chalets, wearing mock-turtlenecks and somehow making them work. He’s boarding a Cessna and splaying out on mossy ground and making time with a ridiculously beautiful girl. The whole ’70s-playboy act doesn’t hide Bundick’s innate gawkiness, but that gawkiness becomes contained and comfortable, just as it does within the songs themselves. This whole thing is, of course, an act, on some level at least. In this interview, Bundick talks about how he was trying to make straight-up pop on this album, and how he doesn’t think he’ll make an album like this again. I don’t want to argue with Bundick’s thinking there; lord knows he’s talented enough to pull off whatever style he picks next. But good lord, he’s good at this stuff.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Foxygen’s flowery and idiosyncratic psych-pop debut We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors Of Peace And Magic.
• FIDLAR’s charged-up, hedonistic, proudly punk self-titled debut.
• Widowspeak’s spindly reverb-folk follow-up Almanac.
• Ra Ra Riot’s slicker and synthier indie-pop LP Beta Love.
• The Joy Formidable’s crashing, larger-than-life alt-rock sophomore effort Wolf’s Law.
• Bad Religion’s reliably anthemic True North.
• Mountains’ blissed-out, reassuring half-acoustic drone LP Centralia.
• Hilly Eye’s stark and pretty debut Reasons To Live.
• Nosaj Thing’s beat-dazed and collab-heavy return Home.
• Esben & The Witch’s dark, evocative, postpunky Wash The Sins Not Only The Face.
• Young Fathers’ fractured, globalist rap-expressionist Tape One.
• Shugo Tokumaru’s orchestral psychedelic album In Focus?
• FaltyDL’s atmospheric beat-music long-player Hardcourage.
• Camper Van Beethoven’s reunion effort La Costa Perdida.
• Guided By Voices billionth self-released EP Down By The Racetrack.
• Birdy Nam Nam’s crunchy EDM EP Defiant Order.