Caribou: Up In Flames

Up In Flames
The Leaf Label

There’s an old saying about life and lemonade that would be unbearably trite if it weren’t, in this particular case, eerily applicable. In this instance, Daniel Snaith — the man behind Caribou, formerly known as Manitoba — was given a potentially career-derailing setback in the form of the threat of a lawsuit from “Handsome Dick” Manitoba. Manitoba, veteran of the early punk scene, vocalist for the Dictators and a reformed MC5, threatened to sue over Snaith’s use of the word “Manitoba”. Given the vagaries of trademark law, Snaith decided that discretion was the better part of valor: rather than risk a potentially disastrous legal challenge, he acceded to Manitoba’s wishes and changed his nom de guerre accordingly. So, from the ashes of Manitoba emerged Caribou.

Whereas this kind of legal morass could have easily derailed a lesser artist, Snaith’s decision to put the matter at rest allowed him to continue forward in as seamless a manner as possible. Snaith premiered the Caribou moniker with last year’s The Milk of Human Kindness, but the transformation from Manitoba to Caribou has been rendered complete by the rerelease of Snaith’s first two albums under his new guise. In the same spirit of opportunism that springs from the best crisis management, Snaith has managed to turn these unpleasant circumstances on their ear in the best way possible. While some might legitimately question the utility of rereleasing two albums that were originally released as recently as 2001 and 2003, both albums have been handsomely outfitted with generous bonus discs compiling early singles and rare EPs. Unless you have been a Manitoba / Caribou completist for many years, there will invariably be some surprises here.

Start Breaking My Heart is, in retrospect, exactly what you would expect as a debut from a promising young talent: nascent, tentative, and overtly-mannered, but still quite delightful in places. The album looks out upon the same gauzy, slightly tremulous minor-key horizons as Boards of Canada and early Lemon Jelly, bolstered by a pleasant willingness to experiment with acoustic sounds and gently strumming guitars in place of a purely digital conception. There are hints, at the edges, of the kind of psychedelic revelation that would bear fruit on Up In Flames — when the polite breakbeats and synth riffs step aside, a track like “Lemon Yoghourt”, with bracingly aggressive melodic thrust, can prove momentarily breathtaking. The jazz elements that sneak into tracks like “Paul’s Burthday” are interestingly placed, lending structure instead of ornamentation, a refreshing reversal from the usual attempts at electronic jazz fusion.

The bonus disc included with Start Breaking My Heart performs the rare feat of upstaging the album with which it is paired. If Snaith’s first album is quiet and tentative, the various singles and B-sides included from the 2000-2003 period show him slowly coming into his own. The quietude of Start Breaking My Heart is present on early tracks such as “Victor and Carolyn”, but already there is something larger at work on tracks like “Evan Likes Driving”, which features repeated guitar figures and glitchy beats building, over the course of 10 minutes, into something more impressive than merely the sum of its parts. A remix of the album’s “Dundas, Ontario” spotlights a more rhythmically assured side of Snaith’s work, probably the most incongruous two-step / UK garage remix in electronic music history. The two-step fascination continues with the oddly Kid606-ish “If Assholes Could Fly, This Place Would Be An Airport”. The dense, club-influenced beats on these later tracks point towards the direction of Up In Flames — perhaps not a club album, but definitely a departure from the then-prevailing mood of leftfield electronic music in terms of density and texture. Placing an increased emphasis on complicated, heady melodies and harmonies, as well as emphasizing organic, acoustic instrumentation over artificial textures would soon yield impressive results.

Which leads us to Up In Flames, and a more impressively confident follow-up to Start Breaking My Heart could not be imagined. If there can be such a thing as a movement in the disparate realm of leftfield electronic music, Snaith is definitely a leader in the zeitgeist, at this time joining acts like M83, Four Tet and Ulrich Schnauss in defining a new and defiantly eclectic sensibility for computer-created sound. There is a sense of everything-and-the-kitchen-sink adventurism that lends itself to a kind of overwhelming haze, like the all-encompassing blood-blister guitar fog of My Bloody Valentine or the peripatetic weirdness of early Beta Band. It’s also interesting to note how many of the tracks on Up In Flames are actual songs, with lyrics and choruses and everything, neatly dovetailing the development of singer-songwriter based electronic acts like the Postal Service. Perhaps the vocals are nowhere near as prominent in the mix as such a comparison might suggest: Snaith’s voice, a fragile falsetto, becomes as much an additional layer of sound as anything else, echoing shoegazer touchstones like Mercury Rev.

But comparisons, while useful, are ultimately ineffective and woefully approximate. The effect Snaith achieves is solely his own, and the album succeeds on the deliberate juxtaposition of many seemingly conflicting approaches in a singular holistic approach. “Bijoux” reaches heights of scattershot magnificence based on a dizzying mixture of alternating elements that build into progressive crescendos. Even a relatively minor sketch like “Twins” succeeds on an energy and wit that was almost wholly lacking from the earlier album. The authoritative, ramshackle grandeur of album-closer “Every Time She Turns Around It’s Her Birthday” approaches an immensity of spirit that belies the album’s brief 39 minute running time. It feels like something far more significant than the modest facade would suggest. The humility is refreshing.

The bonus disc for Up In Flames is far shorter than the album itself, but no less effective for the brevity. It’s fairly obvious why these tracks didn’t make the album: there’s nothing wrong with them, as such, but they would have probably seemed extraneous in the context of such a magnificently concise statement. “Cherrybomb” and “Ole” feature the kind of heavy breakbeats you would expect to find on one of Jack Dangers’ Tino’s Breaks albums, save for the minor-key melodies and acoustic breakdowns. “Silver Splinters” is no more than a sketch. “Seaweed” is the real surprise, a melancholy synthesizer track that could have wandered in off a vagrant To Rococo Rot album. Nowhere near as essential as the B-sides included with Start Breaking My Heart, these tracks nonetheless offer a vital, breezy companion piece.

Although the circumstances behind the rerelease of these two albums may not have been ideal, there’s no arguing with the results. Although electronic music may not be as loud a presence in the musical scene as it once was, there is no doubt that there are still many fine musicians creating exciting work. If Up In Flames makes anything clear, Snaith is at or near the top of this class. The opportunity to rifle through his back pages yields significant pleasures.

RATING 8 / 10