When we last left Toro Y Moi, aka Chaz Bundick, he was riding high on his 2010 debut record “Causers of This”. It was one of a multitude of entries last year underneath the much-hearalded banner of glo-fi/chillwave. In case you’ve been living underneath a rock for the last year or two, what has earned glo-fi/chillwave a strong reputation has been the smart way in which artists have taken electronica-based sounds and repurposed them with a more lo-fi edge. Crappy, home-recorded tracks aren’t exactly the genre’s defining qualities, but they’re certainly one of the ways you can recognize chillwave when you hear it. You need to have a better head on your shoulders than a lot of more mainstream, studio-recorded electronica artists as well. Toro Y Moi certainly falls into that category, as do notables such as Twin Shadow, Neon Indian, Washed Out, Small Black and Memory Tapes among others. While many of them have put out debut records in the last year or two, Toro Y Moi is first out of the gate with a sophmore album, and at a time when chillwave is naturally burning out of its hype cycle. Chaz Bundick seems to know this, which is probably why his new album “Underneath the Pine” makes some necessary sonic leaps forward to keep a fickle collection of music fans interested and in his corner.
Like the “demise” (i.e. decrease in popularity) of lo-fi a couple years back, the smartest and easiest route off the glo-fi/chillwave path is to clean it up and add more hooks. “Underneath the Pine” does pretty much exactly that, with Bundick putting something of an actual studio budget to use and throwing a bit of polish on what are now more energetic, pop-driven arrangements. That was pretty well evident from the first two tracks released in advance of the album, “New Beat” and “Still Sound”. Both are excellent dance floor singles on their own, exploring a number of old school influences that includes soul and funk to create a more fractured and innovative take on what might otherwise be considered traditional. Both these songs are also notably more concise and fun than much of what was on the “Causers of This” debut. The whole “chill” part of chillwave was to place a bit of emphasis on more laid back and relaxed song structures. Electronica for the calmer set, something that wasn’t concerned with hitting those big beats that send the clubs into overdrive. “Underneath the Pine” still isn’t that modern, club-banging huge electronica album, but is rather an intricate, smartly composed set of songs that just so happen to at the very least get your toe tapping.
As the singular entity behind Toro Y Moi, Bundick really shows off how creative and instrumentally dense he can be with the strong variety of instruments across each track. Given how he implements things like keyboards and looped vocal harmonies, there are sections that do seem sharply inspired by a Stereolab or Broadcast or even Teenage Fanclub given the right circumstances. It’s slightly off from widesceen appeal, but unique and engaging enough to satisfy those with more open minds and penchants for a number of classic tropes. Xylophones and harpsichords (both likely “artificially created”) permeate the main melody of “Go With You” to throw it just a touch off-kilter and keep you guessing as to where it will go next. The way the acoustic guitar blends almost effortlessly with the woozy synths in “Before I’m Done” is simply wonderful, before the trippy psychedelic breakdown comes in the last minute. The collision of traditional piano and synth on “How I Know” gives the upbeat cut more depth than what might otherwise be recognized a 60s-tinged dance number. Bongos are just a small part of what makes “Light Black” one of the record’s most exciting and odd adventures,circumventing a standard song structure for something more playful and “out there”. And the heavy-handed, messed up piano combining with the psych-pop tropes on “Good Hold” makes for an effective Brian Eno-esque underwater adventure that sails seamlessly into closer “”Elise”.
While there was at least one bonified indie hit on the first Toro Y Moi album “Causers of This” courtesy of the track “Blessa”, what that entire record primarily lacked was a real reason to stick with Chaz Bundick’s project. He had the zeitgeist of being a chillwave artist but less actual buzz than his peers. To be fair, there was an overflow of the genre and not everyone can get the coverage they want or deserve. So Bundick was smart to not only keep working over the last year by consistently contributing remixes of other artists’ work, but also handling a very club-riddled “history of electronica” sort of side project known as Les Sins. Then to come running out of the gate this year with “Underneath the Pine” provides more justification as to why he not only needs more of our attention, courtesy of some stronger-than-ever songs that move beyond the overhyped subgenre that plucked him from obscurity and into something that’s more instrumentally conscious and pop-ready. In other words, Toro Y Moi has moved up the ladder and you need to be paying close attention. Here’s a really fun and moderately experimental electronica record that has more in common with most bands today than the actual dance music scene. It’s about time somebody did this the right way, and the cliffhanger we’re all left with is how Bundick is going to change it up on us again next time.