April 23, 2003

Caribbean "History's First Know-It-All"

Four years ago, a couple of ex-members of Washington, DC bands Smart Went Crazy and the Townies formed the Caribbean. They wrote and recorded their songs by sending Zip disks to each other through the mail. Their first album-length collaboration, Verse by Verse, was one of the most undeservedly overlooked albums of 2001. That album demonstrated a gift for both melody and experimentation that was positively Beatlesque. I don’t mean to imply that the Caribbean sound anything like the Fab Four, though. The Beatles’ songs were a combination of raucous R&B and traditional English music-hall balladry, and their production tricks came from tape-based musique concrete. The Caribbean, on the other hand, runs pretty indie-rock songs through computer manipulations that were unthinkable before the advent of IDM. (It doesn’t come as much of a surprise that German label Tomlab, the same label that gave us the Books’ amazing Thought for Food, has licensed this album for release in Europe.) However, four decades later the song remains the same: you’ve got to love a group that can write good pop songs AND make them sound weird. The Caribbean definitely fit the bill, and though they’re far from being Fab, their sophomore album History’s First Know-It-All definitely takes a couple more steps in the right direction.

The average listener might consider it pretentious for a group to credit one of its members in the liner notes, not with vocals or instruments, but with “visual literacy.” However, it must be acknowledged that the Caribbean puts the same care into the production of its music that a cinematographer would into one of his/her films. Take, for instance, opening track “Oahu Sugar Strike,” whose introduction sounds like a crappy field recording of the band playing the song live in someone’s kitchen. All of the low frequencies have been wiped out of the mix, and you can hear all kinds of ambient interruptions: crackling microphones, a person handling dishes, someone fiddling with a shortwave radio, etc. At the two-minute mark, though, someone strums a tremolo guitar, and the rest of the band is pushed into the front of the mix. It’s an effect not unlike a black-and-white movie transforming into Technicolor at its most climactic moment. Even after the song’s sudden increase in fidelity, though, the same noises that disrupted the introduction pop up now and again. The Caribbean never lets the listener simply bask in the song’s beauty, and their refusal actually helps the song. These songs are so subtle and unassertive that without the sonic gizmos, they could easily become mere background music.

Moments like this pop up all over History’s First Know-It-All. The Caribbean knows that even the slightest touches can radically transform a song. Listen to how “Bulbs and Switches” switches from real drums to programmed drums at precisely the right moments. Listen to how “The Requirements” fades into nothingness after drowning itself in a sea of droning harmonicas and crowd noises. Listen to how “Perish the Thought” derives most of its tension simply from the absence of a bass guitar, or even how the drumming does a credible impersonation of the frenetic rhythms of drum-and-bass without drawing attention to itself. Listen to the entire record on headphones to absorb all of the little tricks and interruptions that pop up every couple of seconds. It’ll take a while, though. Once you’re done doing that, then notice how firmly rooted each song on this record is in a strong, indelible melody, even as the Caribbean steadfastly avoids obvious choruses, or throws odd chords into otherwise standard progressions.

I only have two quibbles with this record. One is that “It’s Unlikely to Settle the Difference” is, hands down, the album’s weakest link. The first half of the song is little more than its title repeated ad nauseam, and the second half is an acoustic noodle that bears little relation to what came before it. The Tomlab edition of this album replaces this song with a different track, “The Coward’s Approach,” which (although I haven’t heard it) I’m sure is much better. This might be the only argument I can give American readers for shelling out money for the pricey imported version. The other complaint is that singer Michael Kentoff often sings TOO quietly, as if he’s afraid to get spit on the microphone. On the otherwise great “Annunciator Zone,” he almost ruins the album’s best melody by straining his voice to whisper the high notes instead of actually belting them out (which he does well on a couple of other songs, most notably the album’s title track). There are songs on this album in which the background vocals are more assertive than Kentoff’s, which isn’t a good thing. If he can either get some voice training or some self-confidence, the Caribbean’s third album should be a sure thing!

---Sean Padilla

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