A Primer On The Washed Out Sounds Of “Chillwave”

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Yesterday marked the release of Within and Without, the debut LP from Georgia’s Washed Out, and it’s gotten rave reviews from Brandon Soderberg at Pitchfork (who gave it their “Best New Music” moniker) and Andy Beta at Spin, who in their sub-headline called the album “Lush chillwave for people who can’t stand chillwave.” Washed Out is not about to top the charts with this album, but its release more or less marks the second anniversary of chillwave, a joke name that stuck for a genre that, for the moment, isn’t going anywhere. So, what do we talk about when we talk about chillwave?

THE BIRTH OF CHILLWAVE

When a number of unconnected bands began making gauzy summery pop that happened to share a number of aesthetic values, including low fidelity, nostalgia, and synthy melodies, Carles of the satirical blog Hipster Runoff podcasted a trendpiece in the summer of 2009, dubbing this curated genre “chillwave.” The name, both a pun on coldwave and an accurate descriptor of the music’s emotional contents, stuck where David Keenan‘s neologism “hypnagogic pop” had not, and though the music fell under “hauntology,” the theoretical umbrella explored by Simon Reynolds and others, that name also quickly faded. That summer’s biggest chillwave song was undoubtedly Washed Out‘s “Feel It All Around” (which would later gain increased recognition as the theme song for IFC’s Portlandia). Unsurprisingly, the Life of Leisure EP that contained the song became the battleground for the newly developing style. In a qualified rave for Pitchfork that September, Marc Hogan explore the style’s sample-based evocation of times past. “Feel It All Around” eventually got a fan-video treatment is perhaps too technically “refined” but otherwise suits the song:

HYPE AND BACKLASH

A majority of the chillwave “bands” were solo bedroom projects; practically none had toured or even played a single show. South by Southwest, which has steadily replaced New York’s CMJ Music Marathon as the festival of choice for band premieres and showcases, became the artists’ unofficial deb party. Some of the bands could not translate their music to live performance; for those artists, the music was bedroom pop for a reason. But the rest found enthusiastic crowds and considerable success (at least, on a small scale). Between pre-festival coverage like Garin Pirnia‘s chillwave primer for the Wall Street Journal and post-mortem evaluations like Jon Pareles‘s takedown of the genre as a whole for the New York Times, the Austin festival’s media coverage exposed a much larger population to the music, and inspired all sorts of analysis. Brandon Soderberg‘s “In Defense of Chillwave” for Sound of the City praised chillwave for rescuing the best musical values of “uncool” eighties pop by filtering them through a cassette-tape memory haze. Among other things, he discussed New Age and praised “Feel It All Around” for sounding nearly identical to Paul Weller’s post-Jam project The Style Council. A week later (on April Fool’s Day), Kansas City’s Sound of the City equivalent, Wayward, ran a facetious “R.I.P. Chillwave 2010-2010″ piece by Corban Goble. SXSW, in short, winnowed the chillwave field down to its leading lights (Ducktails, Neon Indian, Small Black, Memory Tapes, Toro y Moi, and, of course, Washed Out) and created an enormous bubble of interest that quickly popped.

CHILLWAVE IN 2011 (AND BEYOND?)

The first clue that interest in chillwave had not entirely faded came in mid-December of last year. A number of the bands had toured through the summer and fall, but no new bands had joined their cause, and none of the OGs were recording. Then on December 13, Pitchfork revealed the top ten of its staff-collaborative “Top 100 Tracks of 2010″ list. Toro y Moi had hit #75 with “Blessa,” but the revelation was the list’s top track: “Round and Round” by Ariel Pink. Clearly, at least for Pitchfork’s critics, there was room for hauntological pop music, if not for chillwave in particular. Toro y Moi’s sophomore LP dropped in February to rave reviews, and today, the night after a sold-out Washed Out show at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City, Within and Without looks to be doing the same. In a bit of fortuitous timing, Simon Reynolds is releasing Retromania, a new book on the ways in which today’s pop explores the past, next week. We suspect he will have not a little to say about chillwave. (He certainly did when he spoke to The Quietus.) Whether chillwave is just the musical equivalent of Everything Is Terrible VHS-arcana, or a fuzzed-out variation on the late-eighties pop revivalism of Bon Iver, or a new and real force in the avant-garde of indie-pop remains to be seen. But chillwave does not appear to be going anywhere?at least, not until the summer is over.