Spy stories are often set in exotic locales. The next James Bond film is currently shooting in the Bahamas, for example. Or when not exotic, the settings are seedy: back alleys, brothels, speakeasies. Shadowy tales of intrigue and suspense are seldom set at business conventions and convenience stores. They rarely take the place in the suburbs. They hardly ever involve frequent-flyer miles or the Barbizon modeling school or shepherd’s pie. In the world the Washington, D.C.-based band the Caribbean creates on their third album Plastic Explosives, they do. The Caribbean’s worldview is one where everyday locales, circumstances, and objects are full of mystery, one where something really creepy might be going at that office park, or in the IT department’s conference room, or in that Starbucks across the way…
“Strapped himself in the driver’s seat / on Saturday 8 am Eastern,” the album begins. And what next? “Bought a Diet Coke at the Royal Farms.” So these aren’t your proper suspense stories, for sure. In fact the Caribbean’s lyrics are more like pieces of stories than proper stories. They’re snatches of memory, glimpses of goings-on, pieces of diaries. They read like records of mundane life; we witness someone waking up, turning on the TV. Someone But they also hint of lost chances, of regrets and concerns, of unresolved dilemmas and corporate misdeeds and mid-life crises. Occasionally they tell of genuine spy-like affairs: the girl climbing over a wall with a tape recorder taped under her shirt, for example. But mostly it’s in the spaces they leave empty where the stage is set for imagining untold mischief. As lead vocalist Michael Kentoff sings in “Interfaith Roommates”, “What you think lives in the box is important to me.”
The sense of mystery to Plastic Explosives is only partly due to these ambiguous slices of life. And it’s only partly due to the way that Kentoff sings them like he’s not just crooning a pop song but simultaneously whispering a secret. There’s an aura of suspense built into the uniquely minimalist nature of the Caribbean’s music. A Caribbean song always seems like it’s been carefully arranged, element by element, to create just the right mood. This has been true of every previous release—two albums and two EPs—but it’s especially true of Plastic Explosives, which represents a richer, more fully realized version of their inventive style of music.
Here the album itself also feels particularly well-composed, laid out like a mansion, albeit one where you can never quite get your head around the layout. Much like the cover art depicting brightly colored boxes curiously placed across town, Plastic Explosives feels like a series of puzzles that add up to a greater one. Tunes appear and reappear, as interludes first and later as songs, or the other way around. Songs fade out in a spacey, eerie way. The voices of people speaking lurk in the background, but what are they saying? There’s more intrigue here than in a hundred episodes of Murder She Wrote.
The masterminds behind the curtain of this suspense novel are the authors themselves. And they accomplish much of their magic through make their songs intricate, filled with layers of sounds even within a stark setting. On Plastic Explosives they use not just the basic rock instruments but also ukulele, turntables, samplers, violin, dulcimer, and more. They use each sparingly; you’ve never greeted with a cacophony of sound. Instead each song feels like you’ve entered a nearly bare room where you’re highly aware of each element yet at the same time completely taken with the overall atmosphere. Sounds seem placed so purposely that they make you long to investigate further, to dig deeper, yet you also enjoy just listening.
The Caribbean are specialists at creating a mood, yet each song on Plastic Explosives is also exactly that: a superb pop song, one that can insinuate itself into your head, one that’s pleasurable to listen to, one you can hum to your friends. This is true even though the lyrics are wedded to the melodies in unconventional ways and the melodies aren’t as direct as those of your average pop musician. In that way the Caribbean often seem to be honoring the time-honored tradition of pop songwriting while simultaneously subverting it. They’re taking Brill Building songs and writing them in invisible ink, turning jazz standards into Twilight Zone episodes, turning folk songs into clouds of fog. They’re writing their own secret code, creating music that’s both soothing and mystifying.