Album Review: Toro y Moi - Underneath the Pine

by

Toro y Moi - Underneath the Pine
Toro y Moi - Underneath the Pine (Image courtesy of Carpark Records)

Toro y Moi (a.k.a. 22-year-old South Carolinian Chaz Bundick) has a tough act to follow on his new album, Underneath the Pine. His debut, Causers of This, was one of last year's greatest albums, a bright-eyed, heart-in-throat paean to the ongoing collision between the American indie-rock scene and once-belittled genres like synth-pop, disco, house and rave music. That album exploded with the fervent emotions one would expect from the cross-pollination of those many sounds—euphoria, awe, nostalgia, yearning. Causers of This became an ideal soundtrack for 2010, at once looking back on the transformations of the indie-music landscape in the 2000s and offering an optimistic gaze forward, toward the potential future that those changes cultivated.

Underneath the Pine is a different affair. It finds Bundick eschewing the sample-fueled electro-psychedelia of Causers in favor of live instrumentation. The sonic touchstones this time around drift closer to '70s soft-rock, cheesy pop and lounge music (effectively treading on similar retro-schmaltz territory to the Twin Cities trio Gayngs). Still, the tape-recorded haze of Bundick's previous work remains, so the live playing still feels detached, somehow unreal. Bundick's voice, too, helps retain the emotional signature of his earlier songs. Together, these familiar Toro tropes lend enough pathos to these '70s-FM-radio-quoting songs to rescue them from becoming ironic, tongue-in-cheek pastiche.

"New Beat" sets the tone, with lush synth washes, jazzy keyboard noodling and a recurring wah-wah riff. "Go With You," meanwhile, could pass for one of the more low-key tracks from Causers of This, if it weren't for the soft-rock riffs bubbling quietly in the background.

As the album progresses, however, the retro touches become less awkward and less egregious. Single "Still Sound" is the clear highlight, sporting a gentle synth-funk keyboard groove with Bundick, reverb-drenched, offering a motormouth hook that's one of the album's catchiest moments: "That's what I still want now/ even if I'm here and I think that you won't be waiting/ 'cause I don't want to be alone," he sings, as the music swells and sighs behind him.

On the gorgeous "Got Blinded," Bundick's falsetto and the many instrumental tracks blur into a warm, easygoing smear of sound. The multi-layered crooning on the tune "How I Know" is also particularly lovely and effecting. "Light Black" even finds room under its beautiful harmonies for some more experimental touches, its dissonant organ drone and cluttered, shape-shifting percussion eventually erupting into a skewed lo-fi funk jam.

For those fans hoping for a reprise of the effervescent brilliance Bundick evinced on Causers of This, this album might feel like something of a disappointment at first. The sheer euphoric connectivity of Toro y Moi's debut is scarcely replicated here. Still, repeat listens reveal a nuanced and intriguing continuation of some of the ideas of Bundick's debut. More importantly, Underneath the Pine showcases his willingness to take risks with Toro y Moi's sound, incorporating new influences with care and aplomb.