”Don’t you realize / They were camouflaged / Right before your eyes”
– The Caribbean, “Sixteen Kingdoms”
As much as critics tend to privilege perceived innovation, how many bands working in the rock/pop idiom truly have developed their own musical language? The (mainly) Washington, D.C.-based band the Caribbean has, while flying basically under the radar. It’s one built at the whispery cross-section of the mundane and the wild, where ghosts and businessmen meet, where nonchalant dinner-party music reveals itself to be strange, even gut-piercing, in the right light. Their sound always seems overtly built out of musical blocks, both strange and familiar – you can clearly hear each piece of the puzzle in a solitary way, even while it together forms its own creature. The beauty of their music lies in that together-ness, the synthesis of elements that also seem independent.
To listen back through their discography is to realize that this language was there from the start, at 1999’s self-titled EP. Yet it has evolved spectacularly. Their fifth album, 2011’s Discontinued Perfume was a high point not because they had done anything that differently on it, but because of how their musical growth coalesced around a particularly emotional set of songs.
Moon Sickness picks up at that point, with the band displaying an extra sense of comfort within their own skin, while staying solidly on the path they’ve created. That allows them to go strange places while being completely, confidently themselves.
On the surface, the Caribbean is a trio: Michael Kentoff, Matthew Byars and Dave Jones. Yet Don Campbell and Tony Dennison are still present, as they have been all along, despite their absence on stage and in press photos. And Chad Clark, the producer they’ve worked for at least a decade now, just about has to be considered an additional Caribbean member at this point. At the least, he seems like another significant contributor to the unique clarity and construction of their sound.
“The Chemistry Sisters” begins the album with a scene of actresses peeking out from the curtain at the theatre crowd, or lack thereof. We’re being told a story with some mystery, or so it sometimes seems – witness the ominous silence after “the house manager makes some calls…” One steadfast rule with the Caribbean is that a song will feel like an expansive work of mystery or science-fiction, and then you’ll read the lyrics and see how simple they really are. A in some ways unremarkable scene or action takes on an extra sense of wonder or dread within a song (example, from “Imitation Air”, the line “twice I think I saw her check her watch”).
Within “The Chemistry Sisters” alone lies many fascinating details: a guitar riff that could have escaped a rock song, pleasant harmonies that arrive and soon depart, a twisted echo of someone calling a phone number out through a loudspeaker. The latter is how the song ends; are we receiving a clue to something? Each song can be detailed out like this – almost to infinity.
On this album there’s an especial bounty of details. Besides the inherent combination of the various instruments, there are loops and exclamations, handclaps and guitar solos. Guitar solos! On “Imitation Air”, it’s handled like a jazz solo, where you imagine the musician stepping out front, playing the solo, and then retreating into applause. At the end of “Echopraxia”, the solos almost turn into “jamming”.
In a way the title track “Moon Sickness” seems emblematic of the album’s approach, while also standing at the middle of the album like a core. It stretches out uniquely. They’re spinning a sci-fi/horror tale – “There is no cure for moon sickness / Bottom line / You simply languish and die” – at a patient pace.
To focus on the intellectual or practical approach they take to music is not to dismiss the emotional impact this album can have, through a stray phrase (“easily our worst July”, in “Electric Bass”, always reaches out to me, though it’s a literally making an agricultural point), a sound (the guitar/drum machine combo in (“Sixteen Kingdoms”, for example) or the overall mood (the bittersweet hesitation of “We’re Both Villains”). The emotions felt by the listener may or may not always match up perfectly with the actual subject matter of the song – which speaks precisely to the group’s brilliance.