By Daniel Garrett
Toro Y Moi, Underneath the Pine
Songs written, produced, and recorded
by Chaz Bundick
Carpark Records, 2011
Toro Y Moi, Causers of This
Songs written, produced, and recorded
by Chaz Bundick
Carpark Records, 2010
Today’s music, at its best, is less about musical or social categories than about consciousness, experience, and the ambient diversity of sound; and Toro Y Moi is an exemplar of that, with music that presents the discovery of delight and despair and seems to traverse the province of music school, the dance club, the computer lab, and daily life. The loud throb and galloping beat in “Intro/Oh-oh” is followed by the voice in “New Beat,” which begins “Don’t keep it all in your head, what we had was off,” an admonition to forget a relationship, though the singer cannot forget; and the song “New Beat” has a rhythm that seems a quote from a popular dance song, but its narrator the South Carolina singer-songwriter Chaz Bundick—“Tried to make ends meet but picked up a new beat and so I laid out”—does not confine himself to masculine stereotypes (he is casually but innately sensitive), and the song ends with the repeated words “Don’t forget,” a reversal of the song’s opening. The composition “New Beat” is on the quirkiest of albums: on Toro Y Moi’s Underneath the Pine, the songs are “Intro/Oh-oh,” “New Beat,” “Go with You,” “Divina,” “Before I’m Done,” “Got Blinded,” “How I Know,” “Light Black,” “Still Sound,” Good Hold,” and “Elise.” The album, which takes popular music and reinvents it, is a successor to Toro Y Moi’s Causers of This.
On Underneath the Pine, “Go With You” is another leaving song, this one featuring the sustained notes of an uptempo rhythm of what sounds like keyboards, and great sustained percussion, though the tune does not seem to belong to an established genre; and in it, a composition that could be about lovers, or about a mother and son or two siblings in a larger family, the singer—whose voice is heard in both plain statement and dramatic echoes—declares, “And I won’t care, leaving everyone behind, cause I’ve got them all leaving with me in my mind.” Memory is the unifier, the bridge beyond the break. Following “Go with You,” the instrumental “Divina” has a composed, reverent quality, with what sounds like brass and strings beneath the piano’s notes, though its beat is of a contemporary popular rock ballad. The great thing about the work of Toro Y Moi, featuring Chaz Bundick, is that as one listens to the songs again one notices very different elements than one noticed before.
The singer-songwriter Chaz Bundick has heard marginal and popular music, including that of Ennio Morricone and Steve Reich, but made something of his own. Original, imaginative, unusual, the work of Toro Y Moi is like cool water in a bleak and scorching desert. Why? Toro Y Moi is not music for idiots. I can think of too many small-brained people I have met in my life who want to try to force brilliant, complex, difficult people and facts into the dull, simple categories that possess their own ignorant minds: they are people in whom the best qualities—hope, intelligence, tenderness—have been killed, and they intend to pass on the dubious favor. The music of Toro Y Moi is what you find when you move away from cages and categories and open the unusual door. Yet, there are experimental, intelligent, and obscure recordings that come into light for a time, but return into the darkness. That is the worry. Time and its witnesses, not a single impassioned listener, will be the final judge. In the slow, soft “Before I’m Done,” with a pace so slow one thinks of old-fashion country music though the tone is quite dissimilar, and with lyrics that embolden but acknowledge the possibility of defeat, Chaz sings, “I’m getting behind. I think I’ll die before I’m done.”
There are two parallel rhythms in the ethereal “Got Blind,” and a beat that does not connote aggression, and the rhythms may be easier to track than the lyrics, which could be about starting a new relationship while still haunted by one that has ended, or about the relationships among three or four persons. The voice and music in “How I Know” complement each other while doing different things; the vocal lines are long, and they swell and yearn, while the rhythms are confident and concise, short and snappy. The harmonic “How I Know”—think of the Beach Boys—is a composition that contains a dialogue of friction, of isolation and sympathy, of attraction and repulsion; and in it are the lines, “This is where I want you to take me when I die and I’m full of sleep, underneath the pine, on a bed of leaves.” With a propulsive, bubbling rhythm that Sly Stone might have recognized, though the other atmospherics are more recent than Stone’s principal contributions, the song “Light Black” conjures cruelty, intimate and social (“Don’t take what she says into you” and “Weird kid, color it white”). It has instrumental movement and little yelps, but texture rather than momentum seems important; in fact, it is texture more than anything that seems important in the music of Toro Y Moi. The texture might be strange—likely to discomfort those who prefer the familiar; those who think only one kind of person or art can be liked or admired, and that what is liked or admired must be imitated, as if individuality were an avoidable disease or a nasty rumor—but it is a texture that a fair and liberal listener can become comfortable with, especially when one considers that it contains aspects of places—musical, if not geographical or spiritual places; places sometimes thought of as being in opposition—that the listener has visited.
The sound is celebratory, with a riff that hooks the listener, though the reflective lyrics are somber, in “Still Sound,” and Chaz’s singing has suave energy. “It was a finer life when I was with my friends and I could always see my family,” and “I don’t want to be alone,” he sings about a situation in which past family separation may augur a current separation, a song that is about but repudiates solitude. Hazy, with little dabs of sound, the downbeat “Good Hold” actually has short, encouraging lyrics, and the composition begins to seem lilting and soaring. Of course, nowhere on the album do the lyrics have the coherence of poetry or philosophy, and yet their strength is the avoidance of the clichés of money, sex, and violence that is in much popular music. The song “Elise,” the last song on Underneath the Pine, is like a parade through the fog; and in the song Chaz seems in love and frightened and sings “Can you take me some other way?” and “Now I can’t be fine, looking at your smile.” However, it is the music that contains the deepest charm.
The dreamy atmosphere of the electronic sound manipulation and harmony of “Blessa,” featuring Chaz Bundick’s boyishly articulate voice, and a light ballad with a percolating rhythm, “Minors,” are the two short songs that commence Causers of This, the Toro Y Moi collection that came before Underneath the Pine. There is something of an African rhythm toward the end of “Blessa,” and “Minors” has an irregular beauty that can be lived with. It is hard to make out some of the words of “Imprint After,” which has a dance beat and a soulful romantic aspect that reminds me of Lil Louis, Prince, and the Temptations, until the beat splinters and the rhythm zig-zags. The song has sensuality, evidence that no matter how introspective a young man is, he is likely to be attracted to what feels or sounds good. That precedes an instrumental (is it called “Lissons”—an alternate spelling of “listens”?—or “Lissoms”?) with its tiny chopped beats and slashes of sound (a distant memory of A.R. Kane returns). I hear it and think of the musical experiences, both seductive and impersonal, that might be found in a night club or through a computer. Like the snatches of song heard in a crowded club, “Fax Shadow” is a kind of coda to what came before. Chaz’s voice is full of force in “Thanks Vision,” in which the instrumental sound, delicacy under pressure, is carved, stretched, and twisted, with floating voices, a big beat, and a clatter of voices near the end. It is rare—I thought while listening to “Freak Love—that a performer makes you think of the legacies of A.R. Kane, My Bloody Valentine, Prince, the Temptations, and This Mortal Coil.
The melody in “Talamak” is divided by beats and vocal samples, conveying the lack of simple unities. The abruptness and swift changes are like that in a frenzied or an inattentive mind, or a complicated world. The rhythm in “You Hid” has a smoky, sensual attraction, while “Low Shoulder” is busily playful, and the concluding piece—“Causers of This”—with its fast dance beat, is like a barely heard conversation, both compelling and ephemeral.
DanielGarrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Garrett has said, “Being an artist is not a pursuit of success or an acceptance of failure; rather, it is an openness to life and its deepest possibilities, an openness to imagination, intellect, and spirit, and a correspondent commitment to craft experience and objects influenced by that openness.” Contact: dgarrett31@hotmail or D.Garrett.Writer@gmail.com