Just when things are going well, some killjoy always has to come in and ruin the fun. Gifted laptop musician (and part-time mathematician) Dan Snaith was going about his own business, creating some of the most euphoric, dazzlingly beautiful electronic music that’s come out this decade; nicknamed Manitoba, his 2003 album Up in Flames was a breathtaking blend of Avalanches-style cut-and-paste sampling, the sonic depth of early ’90s shoegazer, and the blissed-out, kaleidoscopic ones of ’60s psychedelic rock, a record that quickly made Manitoba one of the most popular artists in the whole laptop/folktronic subgenre. Then, last summer, aging punk (and former Dictators member) Handsome Dick Manitoba spoke up, threatening legal action unless Snaith changed the name of his act, in a ludicrous, and downright grumpy, declaration of ownership of the Manitoba trademark (this, despite the fact that the government of the actual Canadian province of Manitoba had no problem whatsoever with Snaith). Although Snaith was just being a good Canadian kid in naming his project Manitoba, in a typically Canadian move, he politely decided to avoid controversy by changing monikers. It’s hard enough for a band to replace something as crucial as a lead singer, but for someone whose popularity was only beginning to grow to completely change band names is an even bigger risk. Re-christened Caribou, Snaith is up for the challenge.
Anyone who has witnessed the live performances of Manit — I mean, Caribou, over the past couple years could easily tell which direction Snaith would head toward next. Instead of boring audiences with onstage laptop twiddling, Caribou further enhanced the organic feel of Up in Flames by performing as a trio, using live drums (often two drummers at once), guitar, keyboards, and other odd and ends, allowing for more improvisation over the backing sequencer track. It was loud and huge, actually compelling the normally jaded-looking indie kids in the audience to move. After the dazzling Up in Flames and the boisterous live performances that followed, one would figure the next logical step for Caribou to take would be to come back down to earth, which is precisely what the understated The Milk of Human Kindness does. More folk, less tronic, if you will.
Although The Milk of Human Kindness sounds more stripped down, its simplicity is deceiving, as Snaith has drawn from a much wider musical palette that he ever has in the past. The stirring single “Yeti” is the track that most closely resembles Up in Flames, but still, the differences are just as obvious. While samples are still present, they no longer dominate, as organ drones and whimsical synth melodies carry the song, before it bursts into the kind of overblown drum fills the band delivered in concert. Also, whereas Snaith chose to drown out his vocal track on the previous record to the point of indecipherability a la My Bloody Valentine, here, his vocals are right up front, singing lyrics that owe more to Donovan than anything else (“Shivering we cling together and watch him pass us by/For falling like a shiny feather the tears begin to cry”). In the tradition of DJ Shadow and Prefuse 73, Snaith also brings in a strong hip hop influence from time to time; “Lord Leopard” is highlighted by its menacing tones and sharp urban beats, while the delicate “Pelican Narrows”, with its chiming Rhodes piano and languid rhythm has a decidedly soulful feel to it. The gentle, yet powerful “Brahminy Kite” utilizes a snappy acoustic drum sample and sumptuous flute melodies to great effect, and the understated epic “A Final Warning” revisits the shoegazer theme, bringing in a more ambient, Krautrock-inspired sound as well, sounding as if Neu! suddenly decided to go dreampop.
The songs that will jump out a first time listeners, however, are the ones where Snaith makes the transition from organic samples to a more simple band performance, but while the compositions mark a major shift in his musical approach, they still remain true to the Caribou sound. The leisurely five-minute jam “Bees” centers around a relaxed ’60s garage/blues rock groove, complete with cool touches, such as a memorable recorder solo, only to be briefly interrupted by string samples and more of Snaith’s thunderous drum fills. The warm “Hello Hammerheads”, meanwhile, is straightforward, late ’60s folk pop, the plaintive acoustic guitar and layered vocal harmonies greatly resembling both Simon and Garfunkel and Nick Drake.
All the influences come together the best on the closing track “Barnowl”, as Snaith combines guitar, lilting keyboards, insistent beats, nonsensical vocals, and a subdued pastiche of samples that threatens to explode into the kind of ecstatic moment that we’ve come to expect, but never quite does. The song is a perfect example of how disciplined and clear-headed The Milk of Human Kindness is, and why it works so well; it might not go for the kind of dazzling aural fireworks that Up in Flames pulled off so brilliantly, but it does have a quiet dignity all its own.