It has only been a year since Chazwick Bundick, the man behind Toro y Moi, last released anything, but his new album “Underneath the Pine” represents such a huge growth in maturity that it may as well have been a decade. “Underneath the Pine” may only seem like Bundick’s jump from one short-sighted musical trend to the next—chillwave to the electro-throwback that defined last year’s indie rock—but the music that results is often so compelling and well-crafted that it transcends trend-surfing to a new level of musicianship that is nuanced, organic, and just plain funky.
Toro Y Moi’s move away from chillwave is evident on the album’s first single, “Still Sound.” The track is a static, mid-tempo tune riding the momentum of a repeated bass lick backed by minimal drums and some late-’60s electric piano. The mere presence of instrumentation is indicative of how much this album differs from its sample-heavy predecessor, “Causers of This.” One of the best characteristics of the single is its immediately apparent sense of being played by a full band, of a live and improvisatory quality absent from the last album and from chillwave in general. It even features a short but savory electric piano solo before the bridge, and employs some jazz fusion sounds that are refreshing even in an age of throwbacks.
Accordingly, the album opens with a wordless track showcasing the new instrumentals. “Intro Chi Chi” begins with a sunny muddle of acoustic, electric, and vocal sounds before falling into a laid-back groove of bass and some churning electronics. The electronics are tastefully incorporated, used for mood-making nuance rather than showing off. “New Beat” just begs to be accompanied by grainy footage of long-haired teens playing Frisbee: it’s beyond retro, but when the band joins together for the aggressively catchy line during the chorus, it becomes easy to forget how recycled this music is.
Perhaps one of the only aspects of this album that suffers from the outset is the lyrics. Bundick’s lyrics are more discernible here than in the past, and that’s not necessarily a plus. Consistently hackneyed and forgettable, they deliver that particular blend of indie loneliness and longing that rings of the inauthentic. On “Go With You,” for example, Bundick emotes about an escape he is planning with his addressee for some unexplained reason. Clichés abound when he reaches the last lines of the verse: “And I won’t care leaving everyone behind / ’Cause I’ve got them all leaving with me in my mind.” Such mundane observations about generic situations permeate the album. Bundick never truly escapes the limitations of vagueness, a fault which leaves the lyrics frequently inscrutable. Ultimately, the lyrical emphasis on melancholy themes occasionally overshadows how much fun these songs really are.
Despite the lyrics, the album remains strong throughout its central portion. The music provides enough variation of mood and timbre—the sudden acoustic guitar intro on “Before I’m Done,” for example—to remain engaging. “How I Know” is a glowing highlight, a mid-tempo tune where Bundick’s songwriting finally seems to have reached the level of musicianship that characterizes the instrumentation on the rest of the album. When he finally breaks into a tremendous outro, it is nearly impossible to resist the urge to sing along. This is throwback bubblegum pop at its best; it is a perfect thesis statement for the album, and for Bundick’s work in general. “Are you havin’ fun?” he inquires, and it would be hard not to answer “yes.”
Unfortunately, “Underneath the Pine” ends on a faltering note. After the stellar “Still Sound,” “Good Hold” turns out to be a tremendous let-down—a song that seems badly conceived and extremely out of place. When it abruptly breaks down into flashy phaser effects at the end, it sounds like a track off Bundick’s first album, and the song suffers the consequences of overproduction. “Elise,” the six-minute outro, cannot completely recover from this misstep, relying so heavily on the pop sounds of the late ’60s that it almost directly quotes The Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreaming.” When the album ends at a mere 39 minutes, it short-changes the glory of the first half-hour.
It may not be a masterpiece, but “Underneath the Pine” is a huge step in the right direction for Toro y Moi—an extremely listenable piece of retro pop that will undoubtedly worm its way into the ears of listeners new and old.