Just about every CD sent out to be reviewed is accompanied by a press kit—it may have photos, an interview with the band, background info—that the record label or band publicist fills with glowing praise and superlatives. Taking the painfully biased label synopses with a grain of salt is the only way to go, but some write-ups will get one’s hopes up pretty high sometimes. Enter the Caribbean and their third release, History’s First Know-It-All.
Whoever crafted the notes for the album apparently aimed right for me and the hearts of my fellow lovers of cracked and fractured pop. “[T]he Caribbean makes albums filled with profound little pop sketches. Nonlinear pop sketches to be sure, but hidden inside every song is the Caribbean’s relentless gift for melody.” Heck, the group is even said to be a mix of Godspeed and the New Pornographers. Without a listen and based solely on this description, I had high hopes. Curse my naivety! I’ll never believe another press release again!
History’s First Know-It-All is certainly filled with nonlinear little pop sketches, but few of the albums 13 songs show any signs of a “relentless gift for melody.” The group tries to cram in any number of disparate elements—found sounds, samples, quirky production tricks—to augment the traditional piano/guitar/bass/drums setup, but all they do is clutter and distract from songs that aren’t strong enough to support the extra weight.
Repeated listens only further expose the weaknesses of History’s First Know-It-All. Whether playing the disc for the second, third or 20th time, none of the songs seem remotely familiar. Even if the songs were unfettered by the assorted clunks and clangs, the Caribbean doesn’t infuse their songs with enough memorable hooks to make a lasting impression. Each track shuffles along at its own languid pace, ambling along without a sense of direction, ultimately ending abruptly on par with its aimlessness.
“Oahu Sugar Strike” is the perfect leadoff track for the album—a slow, strummed guitar and Michael Kentoff’s low-key, breathy vocals waft in while clunks shift from channel to channel and radio voices crackle in and out . . . all leading to, well, nothing. The song drags on in excess of five minutes, and doesn’t offer any substantial shifts in tempo or pacing. It’s just . . . there. The same goes for “Bulbs & Switches”, which thankfully leaves out the extraneous sound samples but again remains stagnant for three-and-a-half minutes. Trying . . . to . . . stay . . . awake. And I’m out.
The album doesn’t hit upon a catchy melody until “Officer Garvey”, which starts off with a searing little guitar riff and a tuneful piano line. It’s similar to “Lovely Rita”, without the flair or wit of McCartney’s songwriting. It’s a quaint song that shows some spark not evident in too many of the other tracks.
“It’s Unlikely to Settle the Difference” is another album highlight, with Kentoff benefiting from some help with harmony vocals by Maureen Kentoff. The airy, heavenly guitar effects are well-placed next to the soaring duet, which then breaks down to a percussive solo soon followed by a gentle guitar outro.
The song, like much of the album, is ultimately listenable but too fractured and messy to appreciate. Looking back at my notes for each song, the word “pleasant” pops up fairly often, but so does “unnecessary.” Would the album be more cohesive without the thrown-in elements? Probably, but I’m not sure how much better it would be. The four members of the band live in three different cities, and often communicate their song ideas over the telephone or email. While the system is a fascinating concept—creating music together from thousands of miles away—the result in this case is a scattershot mélange of sounds and styles (for a top-notch example, check out the Postal Service’s Give Up). Sometimes there’s just something to be said for a bunch of guys in a room making beautiful pop music together.