Toro Y Moi’s album makes chillwave music cool again

Chaz Bundick, known by his stage name Toro Y Moi, is known more for his catchy singles than he is for producing comprehensive albums. Starting with 2010’s Causers of This and the college-radio hits “Talamak,” and “Low Shoulder” and then continuing with “Still Sound” off of 2011’s Underneath the Pine, Bundick has created some great staples of any introductory chillwave mix, but nothing in his past was indicative of his ability to craft an album such as the new Anything in Return. The genre-labeling confusion that obscures most of the conversation around Toro Y Moi will prove to be a deciding factor on the enjoyability of the album.

Music man · Bundick’s latest sound feels more accessible than anything he has produced to date; many of his songs have a lighter vibe. - Photo courtesy of Patrick Jeffords

Music man · Bundick’s latest sound feels more accessible than anything he has produced to date; many of his songs have a lighter vibe. – Photo courtesy of Patrick Jeffords

As a subgenre, chillwave has garnered a bad reputation over the years as the stereotypical soundtrack for today’s apathetic teens and for flaunting a signature formula for the sound: ’80s dance hooks with heavily filtered vocals. What tends to get overlooked are the almost mystical elements of the genre — how groups managed to find each other and create a new genre mainly through the connective power of the Internet. Regardless, chillwave has fallen from being the shining star of the electronic music world to functioning as the backing track for professionally maintained (yet somehow danceable) detachment.

In the past, Bundick courted this labeling yet somehow avoided it at the same time. Instead, he typically is categorized within the more general field of disco/house and does not seem to care about how his music gets labeled. That hasn’t stopped some of his buddies, such as Odd Future rapper Tyler, the Creator, coming out and saying definitively that “Toro is not chillwave.”

Thankfully, Anything In Return sounds less like well-crafted apathy and more like summer coming early. It isn’t a stretch to imagine the album forming soundtracks for the kind of crowd that doesn’t get much of a kick out of dubstep or similar-sounding party music — the crowd that wouldn’t mind living poolside for most of the year. Though there’s a certain amount of negative connotation  built into the idea, chillwave has never shied away from such an idea and neither has pop music in general.

From the very start, the album is more accessible than anything Bundick has done before. “Harm in Change,” the leadoff track, brings the heavy bass out quicker than anything he’s written and contains more of the traditional tropes of more popular remixes of Bundick’s songs than his old songs themselves: vocal samples trotted out alongside his own take, an EDM-friendly bass drum breakdown at the end and wailing synths spinning up and down.

Further transitioning into what sounds like pure remix bait, “Say That” uses more high-pitched diva samples to complement Bundick’s own singing, but switches from a likely dance track to something more at home among house lovers.

The third track, “So Many Details,” obscures Bundick’s normally weak vocals by alternating between a breakdown with his whispery vocals above a tinny synth and a danceable breakdown beat that grows even more frantic as the song comes to its conclusion.

“Cake” is the biggest highlight of all, immediately both the most radio-friendly track and the most clearly sung song on the album. It’s a shining example of how chillwave and pop are in no way mutually exclusive, and is also just a fun song. Sure, it’s a mostly vapid tune about love (“She knows / I’ma be her boy forever”), but it’s fun and you could take apart countless other pop songs for being similarly boring and none would be as close to as fun as “Cake.”

The penultimate cut, “Never Matter,” sounds more like a track from fellow Californian-group Poolside than it does Toro Y Moi: It strikes the perfect balance of pop and chillwave that Bundick seems to have been aiming for his entire career. It has the synths, the poppy hook and the distorted and warped vocals.

To be fair, the album’s middle section is where curious listeners might go to die (just about every track can sound like the same, light-synth, acid-washed fluff that lends chillwave its negative connotations). But if you can turn off the critical section of your brain and just enjoy the sound of summer and a good pop album, Anything in Return succeeds admirably at providing sound, enjoyable entertainment.

If you can’t manage to stop trying to pick apart the group, however, you’re better off listening to the first half and “Cake” and forgetting the rest of the tracks even exist. Still, on its whole, the album shows a marked improvement in Bundick’s musicianship and its lighter, more crowd-pleasing tracks might make more people decide to take the plunge and listen to the album all the way through.