Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Caribou – Swim

Caribou’s nine-song Swim follows his nine-song 2007 Polaris Winning-Andorra. The last one was 42:59. This one’s 43:10. Just a quick, statistical way of pointing that that since Dan Snaith founded his project as Manitoba ten or so years ago, at least on the surface (and by the numbers) he’s been incredibly consistent. But then, because he obsessively creates most of the music alone and by himself, its details shift with his listening habits or other outside interests. For example, as he pointed out when he gave us a Progress Report, the new songs are dancier:

It just happens that some of the tracks that were supposed to be dance-y were the most interesting to me. They had elements that dance music wasn’t supposed to have, or had sounds dance music doesn’t traditionally have in it, or some beat or tempo that wasn’t characteristic of dance music or whatever … I’ve never been successful at being rigid and saying, ‘Okay, this track is going to be in this genre.’ I always follow my nose and throw in any elements that appeal to me.

Then, take another listen to Andorra — it’s pretty danceable, too, albeit in a very different way.

On Swim, you won’t think of the Byrds or the Zombies as much. There aren’t those outdoors airy, psychedelic analog-radio flutes (though you do get a different sort of flute action on the head-nodding “Leave House”). The sound is more insular, indoors, and basement jacked … and more inwardly, trickily expansive. The electronics are integrated seamlessly (and upfront). It’s more propulsive … because it’s dance music.  He’s said the new material is “liquid,” but that’s not the only thing giving Swim its name. He took up swimming after his wife got him lessons for Christmas:

I became completely obsessed with it and now I swim constantly … The only times I really left the house in the past year were either to go out to a club late at night or, in the middle of making music during the day, I’d go to swim every day. It was important to get some distance, and ideas would percolate around in my head as I was swimming away. So it seemed like a theme that was appropriate.

The combo of pastoralism and indoor late-night clubs could work as a descriptor for the collection … but you get the sense the trips to the club were more frequent than the time spent in the watering hole. Swim opens with the aforementioned “Odessa,” so you already know things get started on a darker, dancier, groovier, cow-belled note. That same vibe’s carried through to “Sun,” a song that does not sound like the sun, despite the echoing repetitions of the word and the sampled giggles. Andorra captured the sun, Swim seems to be predominantly for the night (or at least dusk). That’s the thing, “consistent” doesn’t mean Snaith lacks variation in his overall aesthetic … You can tell it’s a Caribou album, but he continually drapes different genres, styles (shoegaze, IDM, Krautrock, ’60s pop, ’80s dream pop, etc.) and tone colors to the template. Swim is his biggest leap to date.

The following track, the more experimental “Kaili” is a pulsing, balladic acid-house crooner that weaves Eastern flourishes, wood-like percussion, jazzy horn arrangements (both lite and aggressively free), and muted dance traps into a warping structure. Despite the different ebbs and flows — the cavernous oil drums, sleigh bells, blips, and guitars of the downcast “Found Out,” the escalating thump thump thump of “Bowls,” a clanging harp-sweeping bit of icy minimal glitch — like most after-hours dance parties (or afternoon dips?), Swim works best when you let things flow.

It’s a collection that works well from beginning to end, but the energy really crests and peaks in the second half via standouts “Hannibal,” which reminds us of Underworld in a good way, and dubbed-out finale “Jamelia,” which features the guest vocals of Born Ruffians’ Luke Lalonde. To chart everything that happens in “Hannibal” would demand its own review … The horn players who appear on it (and elsewhere) are a young Toronto free-jazz quartet Snaith met when Flaming Lips invited him to do something for ATP NY. That, and the vocals are more assured, the spaciousness more patient. The song drifts into the briefer “Lalibela,” a dream transition more or less, that builds up to the previously mentioned closer, “Jamelia,” a song that finds a way to mix warm synths, chilly tapping production, new music/neo-classical clatter, an army of steel drums, those welcoming Lalonde vocals, and somehow remain easily digested.

As should be clear by our attempts to describe Swim’s sounds, it’s an ambitious/dense/compositionally rich/well-produced record. To Snaith’s credit, it’s an ambitiousness that only takes a listen to find welcoming and easily appealing. When you do put on the headphones, though, and try to get your head around the production (or plop it on the stereo again and again), things open in a way that feels deeper than his previous work. Maybe that sense of sonic fathomlessness is really what he took back from learning how to swim.

Swim is out 4/20 via Merge.

Tags: Caribou