A front room in a dull suburban house in southern England, probably about fourteen or fifteen years ago. My mother, long since removed from pop, is playing her records, for her a means of remembering her idyllic youth without having to recall all its repressions and its constraints. This is cultural Majorism, thankfully without buying into its worst political implications. I'm fairly happy but unmoved until one particular record comes on, and suddenly I hear Debbie Reynolds sing:
"When I hear the whippoowill call from above ... Tammy, Tammy, Tammy's in love."
And there it was. The place and time I instantly envisage is some kind of idyll, but it's left to my mind to define the details (probably: America at its post-war cosiest, but with the certainties of the era rendered reassuring rather than disturbing in their narrowness). It's not being coloured in by the oppressive forces who threaten to dictate all our memories for us.
I often think this was the moment when I first became a pop fan, for although several years had still to pass before I liked anything without being told to, it was the first time I'd responded instinctively to anything in a pop song, my reaction entirely what came first to my mind, rather than something previously decided for me by my elders and betters. At some point in my early teens, I heard the song again on the radio, my mum going about her housework as she has always done, and I had to walk out of the room, ashamed that I was on the verge of crying, amazed that such songs can retain their effect, not even wanting to believe that a dream of how pop and life could be - dreadfully conformist and conservative, no doubt, but free from contemporary cynicism and sneers and distrust - still resonated.
Then, desperately in search of a lift from my early-new-year depression, I heard The Avalanches' "A Different Feeling", a dream of pop music, a rollercoaster of fizzing string sections and twirling Italo-house pianos and cries of sheer rapture, and noticed that line being sung throughout. "Tammy ... Tammy ... Tammy's in love", reborn, devoid of its distancing imagery, its sublimity - pop before the very idea of complications came along to distort its purity - rendered clear once again, this time juxtaposed alongside the melody line from Kraftwerk's "The Model" as if to make it still clearer that pop magic transcends time and context. The interjection of "Tammy" is to 1950s American pop what Flying Saucer Attack's extraordinary version of "Sally Free And Easy" (http://www.netcomuk.co.uk/~tewing/98.html) was to folk-rock / hippy wistfulness, dissecting and distorting the original, but treating it with incredible respect, never falling into the trap of sneering contempt for its source.
In many ways, "A Different Feeling" strikes me as the first successful post-modern pop song in years, because it manages to construct itself entirely around "found" segments of other songs without seeming emptily metropolitan and "superior" to the rest of pop. To use a phrase that remains perfectly evocative of the late 80s Melody Maker, it's mountain top pop, sampladelia devoid of po-mo emptiness and suddenly turned into the joyous celebration of past, present and future that some of us always believed, through the grim years, that it had the potential to be. In common with a song like "Two Hearts In 3/4 Time" - "la-la-la" meaning more than I thought it could ever mean again in this era over a glorious Francophile blend of flute and orchestration - it is utopia. In a time of ever-greater cynicism and grim acceptance of reality-as-it-is seeping into pop, it's a reminder that people once believed pop music could burst with life simply by its very existence, could walk along the street stunning all those who passed by, instantly making the masses of "normal" people seem tedious and grey by its sound alone. In short, it's what all pop music would sound like if all pop music believed it had a moral duty to make the rest of the world seem repressed and mundane.
Reviewing Since I Left You painstakingly track-by-track would be destructive, not least because of the sheer perfection of the album as a sequence, to such an extent that the individual tracks after a while simply fuse into each other. "Since I Left You" itself - a celebration simply of being alive, and a glorious farewell both to the constraints of some past relationship and to the sonic limitations of The Avalanches' previous incarnation as a minimalist undie hip-hop band - segues immaculately into "Stay Another Season", a call for the perfection of this new relationship and new life to be continued (we've got so much, we can't let it go now) and this in turn leads into "Radio", a development of the same sound, but rendered into funk of truly boneshaking qualities. Soon after - I think it's "Flight Tonight", but it's a tribute to the album's greatness as a whole that I really can't remember - we're treated to funk so heavy and lacerating, but retaining such an infectious pop sense, that Herbie Hancock would have been stunned in 1983, that anyone could pick up on what he was doing back then, and make it sound so incredibly modern nearly 20 years later (perhaps The Avalanches learnt these skills in their undie hip-hop days, but thankfully dropped the purism and the nostalgia and the fear of pop). Next to it most recent grasps at this kind of heavy, deep funk sound as boringly laddish as anything that came out of the UK in 1997. "Close To You" does the same thing for disco / soul stylings; listening to it I'm stunned at its utter flawlessness, how The Avalanches could seemingly never put a foot wrong even if they deliberately tried.
There's a distinct change of mood on the second half of the album; it's the melancholia of the comedown from the party they've just taken us to, best expressed by the succulent swoon of "Tonight May Have To Last Me All My Life" and the tantalising neo-exotica of "Pablo's Cruise"; they seem to be taking the sounds and styles embraced in the mid-90s' loungecore boom, but stripping them of the irritating sense of being purely a novelty and a diverting joke that they seemed to have for most practitioners of New Easy (admittedly it also includes the album's only dud, the slightly overplayed novelty of "Frontier Psychiatrist"). But they could never depart that way; you can sense the euphoria in "Live at Dominoes", a cascade of sound which makes me wish I was the sort of person who just let go and partied sometimes, based around the incomparable bassline from Boney M's "Ma Baker". "Extra Kings" is the perfect way to go out, sounding as though it's prepared to leave us but cannot wait to return for more; the line "I tried but I just can't get you, ever since the day I left you", in this context, sounds not like a sad, yearning farewell, but like a proud, bold assertion; it won't be long until we surpass this.
That is all. I'm off to make the world seem better than it did yesterday. This record has made me feel as though I have to.
Robin Carmody, 25th February 2001
http://www.freakytrigger.co.uk/avalanches.html - Tim Finney's magnificent review.