“We were kids acting way too old
Hidden somewhere in the back room
Now we got it and it’s just us
Now I, wanna, keep it, forever”
– “Day One” from Toro y Moi’s Anything in Return
Aaaahhhhhhh the twenties. Looking back, the corresponding victories of your first taste of adulthood can be the sweetest but the failures can also be the most disappointing. Dropping the ball while fumbling through the process of “finding oneself” stings that much more because, well, you haven’t figured it out; to paraphrase Fugazi, you spend your time hoping that every slip’s not a slide. This tension makes Lena Dunham’s Girls exciting. “There’s something thrilling and familiar about watching people so trapped between ages —,” noted Andy Greenwald when the show premiered, “it’s called Girls and not Women for a reason — utterly absorbed in building themselves, scrap by scrap, from visions of adulthood pilfered from aspirational magazines, Elaine Dundy books, and other, glossier TV shows.” Whatever one thinks of its head-scratching lack of diversity, the show captures the angst, hope, desperation, soul searching, and fecklessness of one’s twenties in ways we really haven’t seen before or, at least, adds a new iteration to an old topic.
At first glance, Toro y Moi (aka Chaz Bundick) is nothing like Girls. Granted, “I found a job I do it fine/Not what I want but I still try” may sound like some kind of coda for Girls’ stalwarts Hannah and Marnie, but the lyrics from “Blessa” off of 2009’s Causers of This also reflect Bundick’s comfort with resignation. Moreover, Toro y Moi albums are anything if not diverse. The numerous layers of music used to create Bundick’s sound, even if a bit dependent on J Dilla and Flying Lotus influences on his first album, traverse so many categories it would be hard to name them all. Causers of This, observed one reviewer, came on the heels of a burgeoning movement that some people have labeled “chillwave.” Depending on one’s sensibilities the term functions as a neat way to put Toro y Moi, Washed Out, Memory Tapes and Neon Indian among others into some sort of intelligible category or dialogue. Others might argue the terms exists as a backhanded compliment, reducing chillwave to little more than music to buy tote bags to i.e. “more vibes than songs.” Just to further the overbearing analogy, critics would argue that Toro y Moi albums would be the perfect background music at Hannah’s next dinner party or during her next naked ping pong engagement with a dreamy brownstone owner in his early 40s. Kind of like hip elevator music for disaffected young people in their mid-twenties.
All this is terribly unfair . At 27, Bundick has already released three albums: the aforementioned Causers of This (2009), Underneath the Pine (2011), and most recently Anything in Return (2013). This doesn’t even include two well regarded EP’s – June 2009 (2012) and Freaking Out (2011) – or his Les Sins side project. The general theme of his work seems to be ethereal self-observer – at least judging from the lyrics, he’s not sweating it (“I don’t know/Why I think/I gave myself a break” from “Never Matter”), but he’s aware of pitfalls (“And if I fall/into the sea/Don’t let me go/Because I feel weak” from “Rose Quartz” off the new album) and not always thrilled. On Underneath the Pine’s “Go with You” he sings, “I don’t know how/ How we’re gonna get out/but I’m not scared of getting point to point.” Process makes us, imperfect as it is: “You know I can’t do everything that is best for us/Leaving our home, makes us grow, then I’ll go with you.” Still, a sense of loss pervades an album defined by what one critic described as “lush ambiance.” On “Still Sound,” the singer remembers a “finer life when you were with us here/And we knew there was a next time,” while on “How I Know” he tells the listener of his resting place and apologizes for his ghostlike haste: “Sorry if I pass you by I never saw into your eyes/ I was only thinking of my home and how it’s so far.”
“Causers of This was an immersive experience, aqueous and aquamarine, while the ornate and warm Underneath the Pine painted with pastels,” Pitchfork’s Ian Cohen noted in his review of Bundick’s newest effort. “Anything In Return is better described by its shape and body rather than its color.” True, the album retains the diversity and layered nature, but asserts a more formal sound and vision. On “Studies,” he tells a friend, perhaps former girlfriend, “Hope you’re not awake/biting at your nose/worrying about the class you think you failed,” to a tune that begins with an edgy high pitched dissonant intro only to settle into a steady 1970s twenty first century soul groove. The low bass introduction on “Cola” rumbles gently beneath the song as Bundick sings, “do you think we did it right/You weren’t lying when you said just wait till you live with someone someday/Some days slip by me/ And I think I know why I make it through.“ Obviously, if Girls documents one slice of NYC life for young people, on Anything in Return, Bundick engages pretty similar territory. From “Day One” – quoted earlier – to the opening lines from “Grown Up Calls” – “I’m alright, out here with you/It doesn’t bother me, I know you think it does/It’s us making grown up calls/you got more than my love.” Bundick wrestles with impending adulthood and the various relationships that develop along the way.
If it sounds like a downer, Toro Y Moi is not. In fact, though not in any way like Passion Pit (essentially Michael Angelakos) tonally, the two musical entities bury troubling lyrics under a veneer of music that screams groove. As unlikely as it may sound and highlighted by Angelakos’s own struggles with depression, Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot of Sound Opinions recently described Passion Pit as essentially 21st century soul music. Certainly, Passion Pit’s execution of this technique remains the more extreme, bordering on near cognitive dissonance when one contrasts the lyrics with the bounce of the music, but Bundick’s lyrics also lack sunny optimism.
With all this said, ToM recently took in Mr. Bundick at D.C.’s famous 9:30 Club. Filled to the gills with Girls extras, for the gentlemen the sartorial splendor on display included tight jeans (par for the course old people), plaid flannels, and ugly Christmas sweaters (apparently these are big with the kids – see below) being worn in mid-February. The ladies displayed a bit more ambition in these departments, but no one look really dominated, so they seemed less uniform. Granted, the concert demonstrated a certain diversity but it remained slight: plenty of white kids, with a smattering Black and Asian hipsters rounding out things. In other words, when compared to the usual Wilco or episode of Girls, diverse as hell, but when contrasted with the 7 train on a Thursday at 5 pm, not really.
Admittedly, this writer arrived at the show apprehensive. After all, studio geniuses don’t always translate well to live performances. Sometimes the chances they take, just don’t quite work, for example: Frank Ocean’s much maligned but courageous Forrest Gump performance at the Grammys. No worries necessary, Bundick took the stage promptly at 9:30 and whatever the lyrics of his music, his band turned Anything in Return’s songs into anthems that inspired self-contained head-bobbing and the occasional booty shake. The stage show, a simple set of colored lights reminiscent of late 1980s music videos, gave the performance a retro feel without feeling dated. To be fair, the newer songs sounded better, as Anything in Return seems much more adaptable to live performance than either of his previous albums. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of his set drew from the new album. At any rate, to describe Toro y Moi, chillwave, or even Girls as simple “lifestyle entertainment” misses the point.
Both Girls and Toro y Moi reflect trends – along with the blindspots that come with them. For Dunham, her show has taken lumps for its focus on four white female characters – a sort of hipster Sex in the City, while Bundick and chillwave endure accusations that the music simply channels a feel rather than making a true statement or producing real songs. As with any stereotype or preconceived notion, these criticisms build on grains of truth. Dunham’s characters don’t interact with non-white characters very often (outside of the new season’s first two episodes of course), but unfortunately, much of American society segregates itself or has been segregated via social, economic, and political forces. Should Dunham do more in this area? Definitely, but it fails to detract from the show’s strengths: namely a fairly spot-on take on what white dominant subcultures like their own say and do. Likewise, Bundick eschews hooks and cares little for producing earworm music, but to say that his music lacks insight or depth requires a certain forced ignorance. In fact, I am not sure why a band like the Japandroids – as great as they are – don’t take more criticism for the narrowness of their sound and lyrics. Their version of three chord rock inspires, but to argue that the band is creating anything new seems specious. Bundick and Dunham are the present; better to engage and understand them than dismiss them for not adhering to preconceived notions of what their mediums need be.