Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Album review: Swim – Caribou (City Slang)

The name change for a musician seeking to signify a change in their sound is so common that its become a cliché in itself. Think Eminem becoming Marshall Mathers, David Bowie adopting Ziggy Stardust or most infamously Prince changing his name to symbol in a vain attempt to reinvent himself.

In the case of Canadian Dan Snaith the change (actually brought about by a legal challenge from another musician) has been more incremental. True, there has been a shift in his sound since changing his moniker from Manitoba to Caribou but fundamentally he’s still making music that, while laptop cased, has at its heart both melody and human empathy.

His latest album Swim is certainly his most fully realised (and perhaps accessible)release to date. Like Animal Collective’s recent Merriwater Post Pavillion, he takes a vocal and incorporates it deep into a heady mix. The listener has to actively search out the melody but once located can’t help but feel a sense of smug satisfaction on ‘getting it’. This is music for those who need to persevere up to a point but not for those who want something resolutely underground.

Opening track Odessa is, by the rest of the albums standards, a fairly straightforward vocal number and not entirely representative. It wouldn’t be too great a leap to imagine this sung on Top of the Tops circa 1982 were it not for the nagging housy bassline and wierd sound effects, for the vocal is reminiscent of the Human League, early Dépêche Mode or even the Pet Shop Boys. None of these are bands I particularly like but this track is a wonderful combination of all sorts of sounds and utterly infectious.

Momentum is sustained with second track Sun which again has a housy feel. Where it differs from most house music though is that it doesn’t get trapped in repetitive drum 4/4 beats so common of the genre. The bass is allowed to breathe much more than in much electronic music while the vocal is used as a sound effect in itself to help drive the song along. About 4 minutes in trippy synths kick in and you can’t help but think that you want to hear it in a 10,000 strong dance tent at a festival.

Kaili builds and builds without the need for the sort of breakdowns so beloved of Daft Punk or Bassment Jaxx and is again built almost entirely around a vocal sample. To describe this as dance music as such would be misleading for it has more in common with the aforementioned Animal Collective or even Aphex Twin than it does the Chemical Brothers or typical Ibiza fare. What it does share with dance music though is tempo and energy which is so often lacking in much electronic music.

Found Out and Hannibal both picks up on themes that focus on the female mindset. In the case of Hannibal the vocal doesn’t actually come in for four and a half minutes - 'the thing that she says she can fall for she knows she’ll be there on her own' he sings. The dreamy, spaced out vocal adding to the sense of loneliness that the lyrics evoke.

Bowls meanwhile is an opportunity to introduce Tibetan instruments into the mix (not something you could imagine Calvin Harris doing any time soon). Snaith again uses the basic sound to create an infectious groove. Similar in pace to Hot Chip’s Over and Over this climaxes with eastern harps over piano riffs and various sound effects brought into the mix. It should sound cluttered but it never does. Like Four tet and Madlib, Caribou understands the importance of what is not there as what is.

Final tracks Lalibela and Jamelia are perhaps the most avant garde of all – backward masking, snatches of string instruments, steel drums and whispered vocals are weaved into the mix to create something both disorientating and homely.

This is a fantastic album. It manages to be both electronic but organic, is rooted in classic song writing but very original, speaking from both a male and female perspective and ideal for dancing too or for home listening. Contradictory perhaps, but aren’t we all? I urge you to seek it out.

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