Album Review: Toro Y Moi, ‘What For?’
If you're familiar with Chaz Bundick, a.k.a. Toro Y Moi, as one of the major players in the electronic movement known as "chillwave," the first thing you should know is that you're in for a surprise with his fifth album, What For?
In a dramatic departure from his electronic-based work, Bundick shifts from a software-oriented, sample-based palette to organic arrangements built on traditional singer-songwriter methods and live instrumentation. Once the introductory sound of racecar engines gives way to the meat of opening track "What You Want," acoustic guitar immediately takes center stage followed in succession by drums, electric guitars and Bundick's own distinctly high-pitched singing.
Bundick was always vocal about not identifying with chillwave, and as it turns out, he never intended to rely exclusively on synths. It wouldn't be fair to call Bundick's turn as an electronic producer a temporary dalliance -- his previous four albums prove otherwise -- but his compilation of early-career recordings, titled June 2009, shows that Bundick had a guitar in his hand from the start. Which means that by the time he released his landmark 2010 debut, Causers of This, Bundick had already re-invented himself. With What For?, he re-opens the door on that side of his inspiration and demonstrates an ambition to match his sound-sculpting with songwriting.
In doing so, Bundick wears the 1970s on his sleeve. The references he makes to well-known '70s songs are too numerous to list here, but he borrows liberally from funk, soft rock and various other touchstones of the time. Still, even as he brings Kool and the Gang's "Summer Madness," the Doobie Brothers' "Wheels of Fortune" and dozens more to mind, Bundick also manages to put his own twist on things.
He gives What For? a rough-hewn, demo-like quality that sounds endearingly unvarnished but also awash in a gentle seabreeze vibe of '70s AM radio that Bundick captures with convincing grace. In that regard, the album recalls Shuggie Otis' rediscovered soul classic Inspiration Information -- an early example of self-recording from an era where big budget studio production was the norm.
Bundick nails the charm of subsequent time periods, too. On "Half Dome," he strains vintage 1990s indie rock through a contemporary home-recorded lens, landing somewhere close to modern-day version of Bob Mould's short-lived Sugar project, only with all the guitar distortion removed. On "Empty Nesters," he welds the hyper-catchy hooks of Eels with Manfred Mann's "Blinded by the Light." Every song, in fact, contains similarly well-placed production combinations. Still, these surface differences from older Tory y Moi ultimately point to the same creative mind at work. If Toro Y Moi has won you over in the past, the sumptuously mellow character of What For? isn't nearly as much of a stretch as it might initially feel on pressing play.
In fact, with What For?, we think it's safe to say Toro Y Moi makes a seamless transition from "chillwave" to "chill rock."