In 2003, Caribou’s Dan Snaith defied the usual clinical IDM standards of the era, and to an extent, the precedents of his own prior catalogue, to release Up in Flames. In place of the icy synth loops and precision percussive glitch that might have been expected, Snaith delivered an album of exuberant psychedelic pop, messy and maximalist, his careful editing hand obscured by wall of sound sheets of guitar, sax, and wordless vocal harmonies, with live, unsequenced drums rolling overhead in big sloppy fills.
Tellingly, Snaith, then still recording as Manitoba, had toured with Prefuse 73 and Four Tet that spring, and together the three seemed determined to produce a new blueprint for a more organic electronica via their respective releases in the first half of that year. Prefuse 73’s One Word Extinguisher imbued his jittery cut-up hip-hop homages with a rediscovered funk and feeling, while Four Tet’s Rounds seamlessly reconfigured acoustic instrumental sources into an impossible, beautiful mélange, completely natural despite its unplayability. Snaith’s turn to ’60s psych-pop, perhaps the most surprising revision of the three, was also perhaps the most likely to turn heads outside of the electronic music world. And it did exactly that.
- Litigation-happy aging punk “Handsome” Dick Manitoba (shouldn’t anyone with that name be federally required to go into pro-wrestling?) sues for rights to the name Manitoba, which apparently belong to him, not the entire Canadian province. Snaith, anticipating ungainly legal fees regardless of outcome, opts instead for a new name equally suggestive of the wilderness expanses in which he grew up (and the prior referents of which don’t tend to go to court very often).
- Snaith releases his first album as Caribou. Seeking new material lending itself to noisy crescendos in concert, his Milk of Human Kindess pares down both the most overt pop inflections and some of the outright psych-euphoria of Flames in favor of slower-moving near jam sessions. The luster is diminished, but not gone.
- Extensive touring, as planned, ensues.
- Snaith prepares a return to tightened pop songwriting. Andorra results.
At its best, Caribou impresses primarily on the strength of Snaith’s pop instincts and arsenal of appropriate musical references, as should be clear from any representative track. Opener “Melody Day” wastes no time, just two chiming notes and Snaith’s understated falsetto floats in over insistent drums and flexed bass throb. Just four lines in, echoed guitar and quick chord changes break up the verse; when it returns, low brass notes has appeared along with sun-bleached summer-of-love swirls of strings and trilling flute. Crashing cymbals usher in the chorus, along with first brittle proto-rock guitar phrases, then descending bass horns for an ominous undercurrent in the manner of “Strawberry Fields”. The verse returns as before, this time with a vocal melody continuing through the previously instrumental change-up and spiralling off into bleary-eyed guitar haze. Just when all seems over, the chorus leaps back to finish off the song in a clatter of brisk percussion. It’s pop by careful formula, hook-packed and never resting too heavily on a single phrase or section, but, crucially, consistent enough never too lose the listener in a maze of prog-variation. Pop formatting can be a tightrope, but Snaith walks it gracefully. The only component missing are notable lyrics, the words here just another sound in the mix — but that’s hardly unusual for Snaith’s writing, or even for a lot of music from the era he is referencing.
“Melody Day” seems to offer a blueprint for much of the album, though the particulars change endlessly. “After Hours” is fueled by clamorous live drum fills and delineated by a recurring series of crisp, echoed guitar and piano chords, while “She’s the One” uses recurring vocal clips as the melodic bedrock for lazy organ riffs, sweeps of further backup vocals, and perhaps Snaith’s strongest, clearest weary-love-song vocal performance. Later, “Eli” demonstrates Snaith’s facility with instantly-familiar-seeming guitar melodies, and “Niobe” manages to crib synth builds long held by prog-trance, and still make it fit. It’s not all flawless — “Desiree”, untethered by percussion, becomes a frivolous pop-psych confection, and some of the others, where pop standards are further relaxed, become unfocused and less memorable — but nearly every track has something to like.
While it’s certainly impressive that Snaith has managed to integrate so many instruments and components into cohesive songs as a solo artist, his background and method also help explain his finesse. By starting out as a solo IDM producer (after years of keeping busy by tinkering with sounds in rural Ontario) Snaith developed the meticulous, precise production talent with which he now crafts his highly embellished ersatz psych-pop. It’s the same resume that informed the masterful editing of old friends and tour-mates Four Tet and Prefuse, but while neither of them ever segued into full-on pop, Caribou seems to be smoothly making the transition. As such, it shouldn’t be too surprising that this fall he’ll be touring, instead, with elaborately orchestrated studio pop projects Architecture in Helsinki and the Go! Team.
At this point, I’m actually starting to wonder how Snaith’s production talents would fair with the music of other bands. His own vocal work is up to the needs of his own songs, but lacks the presence of other singers approaching songwriting from the opposite side of the formula. Snaith seems to craft vocals to fit into his instrumentals, where other songwriters may seek their arrangements more as housing for lyrics and voice. Of course, some of the best moments in pop happen when near equal relevance is granted both elements. Caribou has definitely edged closer to that mark over the years, gradually expanding his use of vocals, but he’s still a ways off. Fortunately, the sun-soaked summer fields he finds himself in on Andorra are a fine place to be right now.