February 02, 2006

The Caribbean "Plastic Explosives"

When the Caribbean released its debut album Verse by Verse in
2001, much attention was paid to the band’s unorthodox working method: all five members traded Zip disks of their performances to each other in order to assemble the songs. Because of this method, their music came across as both malleable and detached. The songs could go anywhere, and often did. The lyrics read like codes never to be cracked, chord progressions took longer than expected to resolve and few real hooks arrived to tie the songs together. At no point did the songs make an obvious attempt to draw listeners in. Many rock records try to make you feel like you’re in the same room as the band. In the Caribbean’s case, there was no room to speak of. Because of this, Verse by Verse was the kind of record that was easy to like, but required a lot of patience and repeated listening to love.

Of course, the concept of mail-based collaboration stopped seeming as new once the Postal Service and the Fading Captain Series took it and ran with it. The Caribbean responded by taking gradual steps toward becoming a “proper” band. Their second album History’s First Know-It-All and its followup EP William of Orange boasted increasingly sharper writing, stronger musicianship and more assured singing. With their new album Plastic Explosives, the Caribbean has honed its sound to the point where it’s possible to tell one of their songs apart from any other band’s within seconds. Almost every Caribbean song is built around Michael Kentoff’s nasal voice and gently played acoustic guitar. Skilled yet skittish drumming propels the songs, while dreamy keyboards, psychedelic sound effects and irritating glitches are used to fill in all the nooks and crannies. It’s the sound of breezy folk-pop updated for the Clicks and Cuts generation. Hell, the album even begins with an Oval sample!

Kentoff’s lyrics are as oblique as ever, but that doesn’t mean they don’t make any sense. Details that initially seem random and meaningless end up being the linchpins to some cool stories once you start paying attention to them. “Interfaith Roommates” is a portrait of a hermit who uses the Internet as a substitute for the real world. “Tarmac Squad” tells the story of a group of friends who conspire to hijack an airplane. The protagonist of “Calla Lilies” finds a book about plants that triggers memories of his last good date. In “First and Apple,” a detective gets ambushed as soon as he gets close to finding the person he’s looking for. The album’s catchiest song, “The Truth Hurts Jamie Green,” laments the plight of a failed hairdresser. Other songs are sung from the point of view of men who are bored with corporate life (“French Radio”) and battling mid-life crises (the title track, “Great!”). For the first time on a Caribbean record, Kentoff’s singing is just as strong as his writing. A voice that is as limited in range as his shouldn’t be able to navigate such odd chord progressions that adeptly, but it does.

As always, part of the joy of a Caribbean record comes from listening to the songs go slightly haywire. “Interfaith Roommates” ends with a cute and brief exchange between Kentoff and his cat. On “French Radio,” the guitars are gradually drowned in reverb and backwards tape loops. The drum machines on “Great!” experience sudden changes in volume, as if a hyperactive child kept messing with the faders during the mixing process. The album’s weirdest head trip comes with “On the Use of Mirrors in the Game of Chess.” On that song, Kentoff’s voice is run through a thick syrup of reverse reverb, and there’s a long section in which the drummer plays an eighth-note out of sync with the rest of the band. You’ve gotta love any band that understands the value of happy accidents, and there are many of them scattered throughout Plastic Explosives. This is the band’s best and most interesting record yet, and I recommend it to everyone who reads this

--Sean Padilla

Artist Website: http://www.thecaribbeanisaband.com
Label Website: http://www.home-tapes.com

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