music | reviews | album
CaribouThe Milk of Human Kindness
Great production but sketchy songwriting from Manitoba that was.
By Ed Chamberlin
Dan Snaith is quite a confusing fella. 2001’s Start Breaking My Heart served up a very tasty slice of down-home electro pie, signalling the arrival of his Canadian Four Tet Manitoba - but it was followed by the wildly different Up In Flames, a record barely recognisable as coming from the same artist. Trying to discuss the relative merits of the two albums or speculate which is better is pointless. Although they are both enjoyable, the latter has received more praise and will be the more enduring legacy, because its focus was squarely on pop. Rather than focusing on ‘songs’ in the traditional sense, though, the entire album was a constant barrage of the genre's most heart melting moments: endless drums solos, melodic phrases that seem precisely calculated for maximum emotional impact and irresistible wild abandon in the playing.
So maybe we could have expected another 180° turn for Snaith’s third album and first under the new moniker. This doesn’t happen. the sound on The Milk of Human Kindness is much the same as Up In Flames, and unfortunately, some weaknesses in his skill become evident as a result.
First, although he is a great producer, Dan Snaith is not a good songwriter. This is fine when you are burying short melodic phrases underneath unstoppable waves of other euphoric noises, as happened on the previous album. But after a smooth grinding organ/sleigh bell intro to Yeti, the vocals arrive and prove hopelessly inept. The singing is anaemic and the melody is simplistic and annoying. This is a pity, as it's only the vocals' volume that really keeps the track from greatness. The instrumentation contains all the sweetly twinkling wonder we know and love, and when the drum circle mid-section (posing as a chorus) thunders into view, you're transported back to the swirling psychedelic exhilaration of Up In Flames. He’s still got it, he’s just forgotten how to use it.
This is but one example. The whole album is an embarrassment of ideas, as we would expect. Throughout there are glimpses of the Silver Apples, Neu!, The Orb and DJ Shadow – you can’t fault the influences. A Final Warning happily chugs along into space drenched in reverb and full of Orb-ish vocal gibberish. It sounds a lot like Neu!’s E-Musik, but then you look at the counter and realise that seven minutes of the track have passed without it actually going anywhere.
Hello Hammerheads is the most successful of the lot, mainly because the vocals are restricted to oohs, ahhs and hums. Brahminy Kite has an awesome, kinetic groove and sounds almost identical to the Silver Apples (even down to the wimpy medieval troubadour singing).
It's a shame that the influences are never transcended, and so it’s interesting to note that the best track, Pelican Narrows, is the only one which revisits the sound of Start Breaking My Heart. This is the first time Snaith has trodden that ground again and its baroque piano hook, agile organs and deft production stand out not only because of its quality, but because you get a sense that it shouldn’t even be on this album.
The album ends on another high note, Barnowl, which eschews all vocals in favour of a head-bobbing motorik groove. You can tell it will be stretched out to epic proportions live.
Finally, the name change. What the fuck is handsome Dick Manitoba’s problem? Not making enough money flipping burgers? In case you didn’t know, Dan Snaith was forced to call himself Caribou (quite fitting, to be fair) after the pro wrestler and former frontman of defunct proto-punk band The Dictators filed a lawsuit against him for wrongful use of his name.