Music

The Caribbean: History's First Know-It-All

Tim Alves

The Caribbean

History's First Know-It-All

Label: Endearing
US Release Date: 2003-03-04
UK Release Date: Available as import
Amazon
iTunes

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.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less
Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Keep reading... Show less

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

Keep reading... Show less

Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
3
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image