Over the summer of 2010, the blog Hipster Runoff identified a new genre known as “chillwave” and “glo-fi,”—both of which sound like Williamsburg hip-hop alter-egos—introducing one of the first musical movements defined less by geographic birthplace than distinct characteristics. Characterized by a lo-fi approach to 80s nostalgia, the genre makes use of new-wave samples peppered amongst synthesized blips and sedated vocals to create a distinctly vintage quality. For a moment, chillwave sounds like the musical backdrop for an aged workout VHS, painted like an over-exposed photograph and crackling at the fringes with an intentionally cheap flair. Since its emergence, bands like Small Black, Memory Tapes, Washed Out, and Toro Y Moi emerged to help refine and polish the chillwave sound.
According to Alan Palomo of Neon Indian, arguably the genre’s flagship act, the movement may not have organic social-geographical roots. “It’s just a blogger or some journalist that can find three or four random bands around the country and tie together a few commonalities between them and call it a genre,” he explains. Despite this, its undeniable appeal has solidified its place in today’s music scene.
Toro Y Moi is the recording and performing moniker for Chazwick Bundick—yes, his real name—a South Carolina native whose brand of laptop synth-pop places him at the forefront of the summer 2010 chillwave phenomenon. His full-length debut, Causers Of This, introduced Buznick’s knack for blending glimmering keyboard lines, finely chopped rhythms, and elements of 70s R&B and disco into a type of retro futuristic sunshine-pop.
Bundick’s sophomore release, Underneath The Pine, improves on the formula established by his debut, imbuing more accessible hooks and live instrumentation into Toro Y Moi’s budding sound. The result distinguishes itself by virtue of Bundick’s undeniable talent for arranging many shades of computer-generated music into lush textures. At the same time, however, Underneath The Pine stands out more as a testament to a talent for cultivating chillwave aesthetics than as a collection of inspired compositions.
The album’s first single, “New Beat,” is one of its most successful. The song coasts between bubbly keyboards and dizzied bass licks with the type of drugged-out abandon that defines bohemian stoner anthems. Bundick’s voice, miles away and airy enough to coax even the most danceable numbers into lullabies, feels almost uncomfortably apathetic. While that numbed quality obviously enriches several of his compositions—especially complementing the demented piano lilt of “Good Hold” or soaring amidst the tumbling guitar lines of “Elise”—it also detracts from a listener’s connection to the music. Neon Indian’s metallic “Ephemeral Artery” cranked that same subdued vocal inflection through enough flange to feel manic, desperate. Bundick’s voice whispers between washes of looped ambience, never with quite enough twist or force to lend character to any of his melodies.
Nevertheless, songs like “Still Sound,” with its memorable skipping bass lines and keyboard crunch, prove that despite his deadpan delivery, Bundick knows a thing or two about layering vocals. His cries into the sepia-toned haze go unheeded until bizarre echoes of himself respond, each eventually drowning into a sea of shimmering synth.
My essential problem with Underneath The Pine remains: We know what chillwave is supposed to sound like, thanks to the likes of Toro Y Moi and his companions, but on a sophomore release a full year after the genre’s inception, what is Bundick doing to redefine it? The album succeeds as an impeccably arranged affirmation of chillwave’s signature sound; it lovingly breathes in all of the sunshiny delirium that makes the genre so compelling. But as an affirmation of what distinguishes Bundick from his contemporaries, Underneath The Pine makes only a few convincing arguments.