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Music Review: What For?

Special to The Chronicle
Special to The Chronicle

by Eliza Strong

Toro y Moi’s most recent release, What For? is a sonic exploration of where the band has been and where its future lies. It recalls lead vocalist Chazwick Bradley Bundick’s roots as a lo-fi indie rock bedroom production, but approaches it through the lens of a band that has matured into itself, particularly with its previous record Anything In Return (2013). Where Anything In Return is a dreamlike continuum of liquid, ethereal electro-dance-pop, What For? takes that foundation and overlays it with classic alt-rock, an unusual but surprisingly effective move for Toro y Moi. That the band would move in this direction is refreshing and charming, indicating a comfort with and awareness of their roots that makes the album feel like a natural continuation of past work. It’s like revisiting an awkward phase after growing up and gaining confidence—it’s still there, but beneath layers of development and maturity.

“Spell It Out” is a perfect example of this confluence of musical genres—it has the up-tempo feel of an electronic dance beat, rhythmically like “Say That” off Anything In Return, but executed in funky power chords. Even after years of working together, Toro y Moi is still having fun, with little details like whispered spoken words and cheeky lyrics—“Do I need to spell it out?/I think we should get together”— that give the album an invigorating, springy levity. The opening track “What You Want” also experiments with effects, just enough for the band to show that they’re trying new things, but matching that adventuresome nature with tight talent and cohesion which can only come from hundreds of hours’ worth of practice, tours and shows together.

Lyrically, Toro y Moi rarely resorts to over-sentimentality. Like their sound, their emotions are subtle— “The Flight,” for example, has lines like “no one gets me more than you” and “don’t bother to wake me up/nothing’s worse than leaving a dream.” With a little digging, we might find love or heartbreak or [insert cliché musical subject matter here] but, for now, Toro y Moi holds the listener at an arm’s length. What we get are snapshots that suggest depth, but don’t hit us in the face with it. In an era suffused with heart-on-your-sleeve post-breakup pop ballads, this is a breath of fresh air.

“Buffalo” is satisfying, acrobatic and beautifully mixed and produced, setting a great tone for the rest of the record––a tone that is buoyant yet utterly relaxed and self-assured. In this vein, “Empty Nesters” feels bright-eyed and energetic, as Burdick cheerfully sings, “my baby wants me back before I even leave.” Pleasant yet complex, it’s almost unfortunate that Burdick didn’t dig a little deeper emotionally; lacking gravitas, the passive character of this record threatens to make it a forgettable blip on the indie rock radar. Still, the good vibes are undeniable, for which Toro y Moi has a signature and well practiced talent.

“Ratcliff” and “Run Baby Run” both stand out as some of the biggest breaks from the previous album’s style. “Ratcliff” has tinkling piano and twangy acoustic guitar that wax almost rustic, whereas “Run Baby Run” would have fit in with the early 2000s alternative rock era. Somehow, they both still fit in with the flow of What For?, probably because Toro y Moi is defined by a fluidly organic sensibility and is unafraid to incorporate effects and influence from wherever feels right. Smooth, substantial harmonies and muted dampness generated with earnest enthusiasm unify this and other work, so nothing feels out of place.

Above all else, Bundick makes it clear with What For? that he’s comfortable with change. This endearing flexibility has prevented his project from being easily and neatly fit into a musical genre. Malleability enables long-term success in the music industry, and Toro y Moi is a stellar example of a band that never does the same thing twice while maintaining its identity. And what is that identity? For Toro y Moi, it seems to at least be rooted in the early 2010’s chillwave movement, a sense of ease that sees the world through rose-tinted-sunglasses, attended by genuine likability and groove. So, put on this record, stretch out on the grass in golden afternoon sun, close your eyes and enjoy music whose answer is “just because.”

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