May 03, 2005

Caribou "The Milk of Human Kindness"

Caribou is the new pseudonym of Canadian sonic architect Dan Snaith. His last album, Up in Flames, which was released in 2003 under the name Manitoba, accomplished what the Chemical Brothers’ Surrender failed to do: update 1960s psychedelic rock for the 21st century through intricate DSP and absurdly booming beats. The album was critically acclaimed across the board, and sold so well that it actually had to be reissued with bonus tracks. When he and his band stopped through Austin on his supporting tour, their set ranked with one of the best I’ve ever seen. Snaith, presumably riding a wave of artistic momentum, started work on his next album immediately after the tour, only to be interrupted midway through by a lawsuit. Handsome Dick Manitoba, front man for punk has-beens the Dictators, sued him for copyright infringement. Snaith couldn’t afford to fight the case and lose, so he simply changed his name.

It’s not as if Snaith hasn’t changed his identity before: although recorded under the Manitoba name, the garden-variety IDM his first album Start Breaking My Heart bore few traces of what was to come on Up in Flames. Likewise, only one song on his latest album The Milk of Human Kindness comes close to replicating his previous work. Opening song “Yeti” is built off of an insistent rhythm comprised of a kick drum and sleigh bells. Underneath it, a morass of fuzzy synthesizers, prickly dulcimers, grinding violins and whirring synthesizers slowly rises up in the mix. Meanwhile, Snaith’s limited but endearing voice repeatedly sings a circular verse. Around the two-minute mark, a series of splashy drum rolls usher the song into a percussive frenzy that might as well be one of Snaith’s trademarks. However, anyone who hears “Yeti” and thinks that he’s going to give them Still Up in Flames: The Sequel will end up sorely disappointed.

Some listeners may be disappointed by Snaith’s abandonment of Day-Glo Big Beat for a darker, less melodic sound. At its best, though, The Milk of Human Kindness pursues his new influences with the same energy and attention to detail that he expended on his old ones. “A Final Warning” is a total Krautrock exercise, during which Snaith adorns a simple, repetitive rhythm with munchkin voices, cascades of backward strings and overwhelming phase shifts. It would have fit either of the last two Boredoms albums like a glove. “Pelican Narrows,” another album highlight, is built off the kind of break beats and minor-key piano loops that one would normally expect from a DJ Shadow song.

Unfortunately, the rest of the album isn’t as successful, mainly because of Snaith’s inability to flesh his compositions out. There’s a thin line between sounding minimal and sounding demo-ish, and The Milk of Human Kindness spends too much time on the wrong side of the divide. “Subotnick” and “Drumheller” are little more than brief, disjointed collisions of loops that don’t end as much as they simply fade into the ether. “Bees” spends the majority of its time running a barely audible garage-rock loop into the ground; by the time Snaith finally kicks the song into high gear around the four-minute mark, it becomes too little, too late. Songs like “Brahminy Kite” and “Drumheller” are filled with so much open space that they end up unintentionally underscoring the weaknesses in Snaith’s voice. He sounds as if he simply can’t hear himself over all of the drums. Of course, I can’t expect Snaith to run every song on this album through the same instrumental overload that characterized Up in Flames…but just a little more embellishment would have done these songs a lot of good. In short, The Milk of Human Kindness comes across as a series of promising but ultimately unfulfilling sketches for what SHOULD’VE been the next Manitoba album.

Handsome Dick, I blame you for distracting Snaith from making another great album. You’d better not let your band set foot in Austin ever again.

--Sean Padilla

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