Caribou – Dan Snaith and cohorts – is a band on a real high. Their previous album, ‘Andorra’, was awesomely confident, combining lo-fi sensibility and folk tunes with a live performance that mowed down everything in its path. The album version of keystone single ‘Melody Day’, was haunting and lovely. The live version was another matter, the band unleashing something seriously primal on stage. They toured with two drummers downstage, one kit featuring Dan Snaith when not playing guitar and/or keyboards and singing, and the other kit force of nature, Brad Weber. Their live presence was honed over the course of a mammoth tour, and the final gig at the 2008 Green Man Festival was a highlight of the year, Snaith and Weber ending the show standing on their kits pounding the skins as though conjuring dark forces in exchange for their souls.
Once you’ve reached a climax that cathartic, where do you take your music next? I freely admit that my heart sank a little when I pressed play on ‘Odessa’, the first track on new album ‘Swim’, and realised Dan Snaith has turned to dance for his answer.
‘Odessa’ – although who could dislike a band with a penchant for naming their songs after exotic-sound places for no apparent reason – is a divisive opener. It has a killer riff, but it lacks the irresistible energy of Caribou’s best songs. It also sounds disconcerting like the mid-90s Orbital of ‘In Sides’, an album to which time has not been kind. The video is all elliptical snowy road trip scenes, filtered through smoke, reflections and lens flare, a fitting analogy for the music which is slight but insistent, masking emotion behind a frosty vocal and crispy beats backed by vibrato flute and keyboard riffing. The vocal is the main problem here. By standardising his voice, Snaith seems to have sacrificed a crucial distinctiveness that made ‘Andorra’ so compelling, although the chorus “She can sing, she can sing…” is hard to forget.
‘Odessa’ is still, on balance, a quality track, but ‘Sun’ heads a lot further down the wrong route, to all intents and purposes a gloss on Orbital’s ‘The Girl With the Sun in Her Head’. It’s hard to justify any more trippy songs based around repeating “Sun, sun, sun, sun, sun…” It’s not a shorthand for acid-drenched good times, it’s just lazy and annoying. Then ‘Kaili’… Snaith, what have you done? Surely the whole album can’t be like this, a succession of trudging, blissed-out keyboard riffs with all the effects buttons pressed at once, and the vocals strangled by a vocoder?
Things start to look up a little with ‘Found Out’, with the vocals more up front and the beats more inventive, and the organ weirder and psychedelic. It also gets up off its arse, and generates a little momentum, building tempo and distortion, taking the listener with it rather than lying on the grass, staring at the clouds and ignoring everyone.
Then there’s ‘Bowls’, which appears to reference the Tibetan singing, rather than the lawn variety. It’s an instrumental track that sounds like a small army of crickets route-marching through a cymbal shop. It has a distinctly Buddhist atmosphere, temple bells playing counterpoint to turntable flickers and clicks. It’s really rather fantastic, light as a prayer flag but laying down a serious, unrelenting groove. This is more like it: the real Caribou hallmarks are here, music you didn’t know you needed and won’t be able to do without.
And we’re off, with what sounds like a jug tune introducing ‘Leaving House’, then tin can percussion and a mysterious, menacing falsetto vocal that seems to be telling someone that it’s time to go.
‘Hannibal’ is a delightful track, the album’s highpoint, which employs a detuned piano, a muted horn section and an infectiously bouncy bass to irresistible effect. It’s a shame Caribou can’t maintain the standard throughout, but this track alone makes the album worthwhile. Rather than feeling the need to tick tedious dance boxes, ‘Hannibal’ brings a smile to your face through unrestrained inventiveness and silliness. By the time the vocals arrive at 5.05mins, we’re ready for anything.
‘Jamelia’, the final track, isn’t a million miles from ‘Odessa’ but works better because it gives more space to Dan Snaith’s singing, while retaining capacity to surprise with it bursts of church organ, and sad melodies oscillating through a valve wireless. The whole song has the acoustics of an illicit cassette recording taking from the radio and played down the telephone.
‘Swim’ refers to the new, liquid sound that Caribou attempt to create on this album. Sacrificing the characteristic ‘Andorra’ sound is a brave, but necessary move, but through much of this album Dan Snaith has thrown too much away. ‘Swim’ is best when it still sounds like Caribou, and surprising bad when it falls into the trap of imitating others. Listen to this, for sure, but skip tracks 2-4 for a guaranteed satisfaction.