Listen to this track by Australian thrift shop denizens and razor-sharp sampling jesters The Avalanches. It’s their 2000 hit “Frontier Psychiatrist”, as taken from their (to date) sole full length record Since I Left You. The song would place on UK and US charts by 2001, providing critical and commercial success.
It’s difficult to broadly apply the term “songwriting” to this track in the traditional sense, just because it is made up entirely of found recordings from across a variety of recorded music streams. This includes comedy recordings, with the central one being Canadian comedy team Wayne & Shuster’s titular sketch which is heavily quoted, along with sound effects records, instructional recordings, Mariachi music, film scores, movie dialogue (John Waters’ Polyester to be exact), and sixties Enoch Light Orchestra flourishes all mixed in to make a glorious whole. How this was not a complete mess is a tribute to how deftly arranged the samples actually are. Sampling nay-sayers take note: not everyone can do this well.
I think another aspect of this song that is worth noting is that it helpfully undercuts what electronica and dance music had come to mean by the beginning of the century. A big part of that has to do with its varied and often unexpected source material, of course. But, another aspect of what makes this tune stand out is simply this: it’s hilarious!
This is not to say that it’s a comedy record, strictly. You can still dance to this, and it fit in very well in a club setting in 2000-01. But apart from having the edge of a sample-driven dance track, it still manages to utilize the comedy aspects of its source material to retain the core intent of some of the original recordings, which was to make people laugh. All of the tricksy editing aside, this is why it hangs together so well as a seamless piece of music that still manages to deliver multiple payoffs each time you hear it. There were so many samples packed in there, you can take it differently depending on your mood, or your setting as you listen. You can even “sing” along; this is one of the most quotable sample-driven tracks by anyone! Even today, it’s an extraordinary piece of work.
I think this song is among some of the best examples of early 21st century recordings built on samples, and perhaps otherwise too. For many years previous to the era out of which this song was created, and continuing today too, samples were used strictly as a means to build a sonic background and/or a groove for something new in the forefront. But by the mid-nineties to the early two-thousands, samples were also beginning to be expressed as a sort of curation of culture from eras gone by, capturing the sounds, the voices, and the aesthetics of the aging twentieth century, and placing them into new contexts not as backgrounds, but as features. Big Beat and downtempo scenes are practically defined by this practice when it comes to samples. Lemon Jelly, Groove Armada, DJ Shadow, Orbital, and Fatboy Slim are other sterling examples of the curation approach to sampling, using sounds from our childhoods that were then out of date, yet were still beloved.
To me, this curation model felt like a way for DJs to express a wistful goodbye to a century and the world associated with it that would soon be over. But, it was never sombre, and nearly always celebratory, with the best examples always bringing smiles to our faces as we drifted into a new and mysterious era together.
The Avalanches are a going concern today, if not as a prolific outfit when it comes to studio recordings. They started work on their follow-up record to Since I Left You in 2005. To date, no firm release announcements have been made.
For more on the Avalanches and how they approached the recording of the album, take a read of this interview on Pitchfork from 2001.