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Top 25 Art Blog - Creative Tourist

Caribou – Swim – Album Review

A masterpiece of electronic engineering, Caribou's latest album is a change in direction that will galvanise bedroom producers across the world

Written by Ian Steadman

ian steadman
Has lived the glamorous life – born in San Francisco, buy moved to Wolverhampton, then Solihull, then Slough. Lost his West Coast accent, hashed together something that sounds like a lazy BBC presenter, and gained an ability to string words together. Decided it would be a good thing to try to do for a living. Realises that the more he tries to keep up with the new things in the world the more he fails. Reads voraciously – will stop strangers in the street and plead with them to read Roberto Bolaño. Has an unfailing loyalty to Bob Dylan.

Writes music journalism mostly, but actively trying to get into the serious stuff – famines, wars, plagues, depressions, recessions, shortages of tzatziki down the corner shop due to volcanism, that sort of thing. Thinks there aren’t enough Ryszard Kapu?ci?skis in the world. Has a twitter that is updated infrequently; has a blog updated even less frequently.

http://butmostlywind.tumblr.com/
http://twitter.com/iansteadman
Has lived the glamorous life – born in San Francisco, viagra moved to Wolverhampton, try then Solihull, then Slough. Lost his West Coast accent, hashed together something that sounds like a lazy BBC presenter, and gained an ability to string words together. Decided it would be a good thing to try to do for a living. Realises that the more he tries to keep up with the new things in the world the more he fails. Reads voraciously – will stop strangers in the street and plead with them to read Roberto Bolaño. Has an unfailing loyalty to Bob Dylan.

Writes music journalism mostly, but actively trying to get into the serious stuff – famines, wars, plagues, depressions, recessions, shortages of tzatziki down the corner shop due to volcanism, that sort of thing. Thinks there aren’t enough Ryszard Kapu?ci?skis in the world. Has a twitter that is updated infrequently; has a blog updated even less frequently.

http://butmostlywind.tumblr.com/
http://twitter.com/iansteadman
Has lived the glamorous life – born in San Francisco, drug moved to Wolverhampton, rx then Solihull, check then Slough. Lost his West Coast accent, hashed together something that sounds like a lazy BBC presenter, and gained an ability to string words together. Decided it would be a good thing to try to do for a living. Realises that the more he tries to keep up with the new things in the world the more he fails. Reads voraciously – will stop strangers in the street and plead with them to read Roberto Bolaño. Has an unfailing loyalty to Bob Dylan.

Writes music journalism mostly, but actively trying to get into the serious stuff – famines, wars, plagues, depressions, recessions, shortages of tzatziki down the corner shop due to volcanism, that sort of thing. Thinks there aren’t enough Ryszard Kapu?ci?skis in the world. Has a twitter that is updated infrequently; has a blog updated even less frequently.

http://butmostlywind.tumblr.com/
http://twitter.com/iansteadman

When it comes to talking about music constructed of non-organic noises (sampled, treat synthesised) then I have to admit that I am at something of a loss. Badum. Kaching. Ting ting bading. Crash. Words are not music; I can talk about the words that are sung alongside the music just fine, but this is a dance record of sorts, and my knowledge of where this thing is coming from is patchy at best. I shall have to be throwing together some kind of thesis constructed out of childhood memories, ones consisting of adverts for Euphoria compilations on Channel 4 and a general understanding that there were parties happening on islands in the Mediterranean and that I was far too young to understand why everyone was so happy to be all covered in foam and wearing whistles. Oh, idle youth.

What I do know, and can talk about authoritatively, is that Caribou is the long-time project of Dan Snaith. He’s something of an intellectual (with a doctorate in mathematics), his music has always been steeped in IDM and psychedelia, and this is his (and his band’s) third album of the past ten years. At first listen it’s a radical departure from the psych-electronica-rock of 2007’s Andorra, but it can also be seen as an evolution of Snaith’s play with musical texture. This is a veritable smorgasbord of sound; pay attention to anything that feels like a gap or pause and, like some kind of aural Mandelbrot set, there are yet more treats hidden within.

Listen to first track ‘Odessa’ and feel the confusion as it dawns on you that every typical reference point is useless. As a reviewer, this is particularly challenging – hence discussion of ka-wooshing and ba-thumping. That guitar line is straight 70s funk, the percussion is halfway to dub, and half the melody is some kind of distorted animal yelp while the other half a constipated squeak from an instrument that I have yet to determine the nature of. Lyrics are mixed low, and often unintelligible – though that which does break through tends to be strangely melancholic (example: “As they watch themselves grow old/as he helps her into bed/just a hint of it survives/just a spark inside his head,” on ‘Kaili’). It is enthralling, it is fantastic.

‘Sun’, next, is a mesmerising tune that sounds how laughing gas feels – Snaith chants “Sun/sun/sun/sun/sun/sun…” over and over again, the sound fading and surging, swooshing from one side to the other, over a beat that brings to mind the electronic hip-hop of Flying Lotus. Personal favourite ‘Bowls’ has a thumping bassline augmented with dozens of overlapping chimes that are presumably bowls being tapped with metallic spoons or something of that ilk. Then there’s the pacy ‘Leave House’, sounding uncannily like the greatest track Hot Chip haven’t made.

I suppose I can draw upon a metaphor here for Swim as organic music, an ecosystem in a record. All these strange confluences, these peculiar balancing acts – they all combine to create something that is unquestionably organic and real-sounding. The noises are mostly real, created by hand, but put together like an architect using a design program, erected into something vastly complex and, importantly, homely. Again and again I struggle to find a better descriptor for this album than ‘warmth’ – this brings me towards talking about what appears to be the clearest of all the myriad reference points on offer.

Take away the wobble in the synth on ‘Sun’ and you could be listening to ‘You’re Not Alone’, pre-Tinchy; or notice that ‘Bowls’ relies on a pulsing, pointed melody absolutely typical of Faithlessbiggest single; or consider the familiarity in the saxophone refrain on ‘Kaili’. Or, perhaps, the biggest hint – 3:50 into ‘Leave House’, and 1997 threatens to break through the surface. A pounding euphoria beat rises, like some majestic fatty aquatic mammal trained to jump through a hoop, but then… vanishes again, beneath the waves. It’s only there very briefly, but it’s perhaps the only moment on the album where Snaith’s vibe is displayed on his sleeve for all to see. If I were searching for a pithy genre label here I could settle on ‘math-rave’ or ‘math-house’, but that could be tempting fate, as from Tokyo to Chicago the blogging hordes jump onto some kind of hideous bandwagon – or is that a compliment to how natural Swim feels, how it feels like something we should all already be doing? We are (weirdly, as many anthropologists have pointed out) hairless apes, the simians that love to swim, that are actually born with the ability to swim. Swim, the name being so apt, is an album that is entirely instinctual in its construction.

As befits music critics, they’ve begun cobbling together some kind of proto-hypothesis as to the fundamental characteristic of alternative American popular music. It contends that, in the US, bands still worship, that they are still in awe of, all those horribly sincere and gentle psychedelic lads from the 60s – your Grateful Deads, your Jefferson Airplanes, Allen Ginsberg setting William Blake’s Songs of Innocence & Experience to his own immature compositions. When Patti Smith came to London for the first time in the mid-70s to play her first LP, Horses, she and her band were seen as being at the front of this brave new ‘punk’ idea they had over in that New York City of theirs. Lydon and his Sex Pistols played the same night, and he opened their set with this sentient credos: “Horses? Horses? Horseshit!” That’s the kind of evidence that can, if a review demands, be taken and applied over a whole society – we are the country that had punk as mainstream movement, as political ideology, as nihilistic creed. We came out of the 70s with the tombstone of Ian Curtis and synthesisers set to ‘dread’; Americans ended up with ‘Shiny Happy People’. In short, the British are, in the main, over it when it comes to hippie idealism in music; the Americans have never really recovered by comparison, and prefer to get lost in the niceties of older eras where sincerity had yet to give way to irony.

You could, apparently, see this in effect just last year, when we saw Animal Collective release their Fall Be Kind EP with the first commercially-licensed sample of a Grateful Dead track. Perhaps Snaith is another adherent to the same trend – taking hold of stuff a lot of other musicians might consider gauche and reassembling it as exciting, bold, new. He’s a Canadian based in London, so maybe that explains why he’s been looking towards the Balearic islands for a warm and friendly drug scene to take cues from instead of San Fransciscan flower children.

What this all boils down to, regardless of whether it follows some general cultural phenomenon or not (and it can certainly be taken as one possible analysis of why this album has arrived in the form that is has), is this: Swim takes something that, to the vast swathes hogging the blogosphere, is fundamentally uncool, and completely refurnishes it. Snaith has tapped into the warmth of those synths, and that period, the sense of belonging and the sense of nostalgia, to create a work of electronica that has few faults. A masterpiece, dare I say it.

Regardless of myself or anyone else giving this some needless new label, we’re likely going to be seeing a lot of kids in bedrooms starting to raid yet another era of dance music, the rehabilitation of previously verboten dance forms, perhaps even a reappraisal of Kevin & Perry (though that will probably be the high water mark). The irony of this all is that it has taken a man with a doctorate in mathematics, a man who is clearly a perfectionist and a delicate composer (rumour has it Swim is a synthesis of over 600 original compositions) to reinvigorate genres of music entirely associated with the emotional mindlessness of ecstasy. This album has a heartbeat, a kind of Frankenstein’s monster brought to life by a scientist who believes in poetry and beauty.

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