Music

The Caribbean: Discontinued Perfume

They walk out of step with prevailing pop-culture trends and fashions, yet they're making some of the most interesting and multi-faceted music that exists right now.


The Caribbean

Discontinued Perfume

Label: Hometapes
US Release Date: 2011-02-22
UK Release Date: 2011-02-21
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The Caribbean's building-block, artisanal approach to pop music has matured at every step since the band's first EP was released in 1999. At least since 2004's William of Orange EP, each recording has felt like a leap forward at first. Then you go back and listen to the record before it, and realize the template was all there, that they never leap as much as grow. On their fifth LP Discontinued Perfume this is true again. They’re not doing anything all that differently, yet it seems like a giant step forward, and their best album yet.

Again they set up an environment filled with sonic details, where listeners can bask in everything going on or train their ears on a specific component, either way inevitably getting surprised at what's lurking in the shadows. The credits give a sense of the myriad tricks up their sleeves; listed along with more conventional instruments are field recordings, tape filtering, processing, tape loops, "email drums", and a meow. Singer Michael Kentoff sings in a uniquely conversational way. His voice has a hushed quality, like he's whispering us a secret. With each album, the Caribbean have been getting more out of the elemental form of a song, while still experimenting. The Caribbean's songs keep poking at our emotions more, in the way you want pop music to do, while the band continues to counter expectations and build a vivid, strange world of its own.

Their lyrics present anecdotes, stories, and fragments that portray contemporary life as a mystery that can never be solved. The songs are puzzles, but also narratives. They tend to reference systems -- business, architecture, science – and where people fit into them. Across their discography are references to board meetings, business conventions, customer care reps. This is a band that once turned its website into a fake company site, and has presented news releases in the anonymous voice of a corporation. Their perspective might make the everyday creepy, but it also makes the songs feel like they have something in common with our humdrum everyday lives, even when the specific goings-on within them are awash in espionage and intrigue.

The building on the cover of Discontinued Perfume seems a typical suburban home. Juxtaposed across it are quotes from an email that vocalist/guitarist Michael Kentoff wrote to the band's record label Hometapes, trying to explain what the album is about. For a band that thrives on secrecy, putting it all out there like that seems a change. The cover also dovetails nicely with the album's theme of trying to figure out other people -- "To see through closed doors," as Kentoff puts it. The normalcy of the house brings to mind the album's song "Artists in Exile". In it, successful, blue-collar workers head home, go into the basement, and work on experimental films and other weird art projects. The album's most straightforward song, it can't help but remind us of the band's own story. This is a lawyer, a librarian and a teacher who often appear on stage in dress clothes, looking like they just left the office. In the song, artists who live "normal" lives end up feeling uncomfortable in both settings: “True / We live a counter life in any universe." The music in the song is dreamy, even eerie, with a bittersweet keyboard (I think) part that repeats, and keeps haunting me when the album isn't on. The song ends, with guitar at front, on a note that feels like contentment. "Artists in Exile" offers a resonant base for listeners to hook onto; some of us certainly identify with the problem of balancing things we love to do, of sorting out how to pursue our divergent impulses.

Discontinued Perfume keeps touching on the idea of private lives and public lives -- on seeing people and trying to understand what their lives are all about. And the flipside of that are people who are wary about what happens when they enter the public sphere. "Collapsitarians" is populated with pessimists worried about the future, our narrator wondering who will worry about those who worry all the time. In "Thank You for Talking to Me About Israel", our narrator reassures his conversation partner they're in a safe place to talk freely about a controversial topic: "There are no microphones, no cameras in the walls, so please feel free to shed light." Echoing that, the final "The Declarative", a love song of sorts, seems to exist in a dystopia where people are test cases for experiments: "They forced all my people into thought camps." Wars and political shenanigans pop up all around the album. In "The Clock Tower", a dying creature (an alien?) is kept trapped, used as a prop by politicians. People's lives are getting messed about, and the album's heart is clearly with them.

"Mr. Let's Find Out" might be the best illustration of the way these songs carry societal anguish, fascination with other people's lives, private worry -- and combine them in ways both funny and sad. The song casually strings together observations and thoughts. It seems the protagonist is counting down the minutes until a business meeting begins, feeling like PowerPoint = death, and thinking about his next-door neighbor who takes in stray dogs. That's the part that stays with you. "It seemed endearing 'cuz at first she's like 'Let's save some lives' / Then she's online for days / Buying heat lamps, cardboard boxes / A sea of puppies in an endless maze / It feels like we failed." It's that "it feels like we failed" part that hits you in the gut, and stands in for a general feeling of disappointment across the album. There are lines that jump out like that all across the album, like in "The Declarative", when he sings, "everything I've accomplished is lost," his words trailing off. I've never noticed if the Caribbean have always published their songs under the name "You have that lost look again", but I keep thinking about it in relation to lines like that, and to Discontinued Perfume. It seems representative of both the drifting feeling of the music and that private sense of failure or loss.

Another great poetic description of disappointment appears on "Mr. Let's Find Out": "The skyline hunches over / Losing heart." There's a general public and personal malaise you can feel in pretty much all of these songs, whether it's a description of a stadium being built ("Municipal Stadium"), a narrative of taking the long route to avoid someone you know has passed away ("Outskirts"), or stories about people out of step with the world. The title track focuses on the latter. Kentoff has mentioned it's about the real-life suicides of the artist couple Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan. You don't need to know that to appreciate the song, but knowing it has made me even more fascinated with it, made it resonate with me even more as they take their description of disaffected people shutting themselves off from the world and play it off soft, pretty guitars. The lyric that stills me each time: "I was unhappy for 17 years when I met you."

Listening to the song, I keep thinking about my encounters with Blake's art, especially of the first piece of his that I saw, part of his Winchester trilogy. I was watching an image of a house mutate, knowing the house itself contained its own share of tragedies. I think about the swirling colors he used, there and in general (even in his segues for the film Punch-Drunk Love, another bittersweet look at the extremities of human behavior), and with them the many color/light references across the Caribbean's discography. I think about the song's line "our pursuers will stop at nothing to win," in the context of Discontinued Perfume's other paranoid people, and in the context of Blake and Duncan's apparent certainty that Scientologists were after them (which I then can't help but put in the context of The New Yorker's recent lengthy article on filmmaker Paul Haggis' experiences with Scientology). I think about how surprised I was to read news articles about Blake and Duncan, surprised because I knew nothing of their lives, only of Blake's art. That gets me thinking about other moments like that: of learning of Spalding Gray jumping off the Staten Island Ferry; of the time I heard an Elliott Smith song on the radio and thought "Wow, they're playing Elliott Smith," and then they played another, and another, and I thought “Oh no”, and my heart sank. I think of Vic Chesnutt, releasing a song declaring that he wasn't ready to die, and then killing himself later the same year. I think of people I actually knew, who I learned had died, sometimes years after the fact -- classmates, co-workers, neighbors.

Discontinued Perfume ties together this whole idea of the album being about seeing into other people's lives, about how little we know. The people in the songs are like secrets trying to understand other secrets. Meanwhile, the band, in its focused attention on strange sounds, operates like that too -- like they're trying to understand how music works, to unlock that secret. The Caribbean itself is like a secret. Their music almost doesn't exist, as far as the larger culture is concerned. They are not flashy enough to become the next hot thing. Their music doesn't hit the right high-energy buttons to immediately blow people away. They walk out of step with prevailing pop-culture trends and fashions. Yet they're making some of the most interesting and multi-faceted music that exists right now. Operating on the fringes, they're nonetheless capturing essential dilemmas of our time, and doing so through the musical equivalents of quandaries, rumors, and whispers. To the band, the listener, the songs' characters, and the instruments themselves, Discontinued Perfume is an exciting exercise in unlocking the puzzle that is the world around us.

9

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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