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'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.