Caribou – The Milk Of Human Kindness: Round 70, Nick’s choice

caribouC26. I was convinced that Tom was trying to pull a fast one on me when my ‘random’ selection of letter and number lead me to Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, a record he adores and I cannot stand. His stated goal was “to make us bring something we’d never ordinarily choose” to record club. Surely this was too much of a coincidence? And his methodology for picking my letter and number was a little weird…

But if he was involved in a confidence trick, he was hoist by his own petard; among Trout Mask Replica’s many sins are its extraordinary length, and at 79 minutes it’s too long to play at record club. (Were it 35 minutes long I might have more patience with it.) So, as per Tom’s rules, I moved along to the next eligible record. Which was Caribou’s The Milk Of Human Kindness.

(If it seems crazy that I’m still on ‘Ca’ at 26 discs into the letter C, than Cadence Weapon, Cake, Calexico, Califone, Bill Callahan, Isobel Campbell and, significantly, Can, are the reason.)

Sadly for Tom’s intentions, though, Caribou is exactly the kind of artist I would normally play at record club, although, to be honest, I’d never really considered bringing this record along, even though it’s something that got spun seemingly all the time when Emma and I first moved in together in 2007. Less frenetic than Up In Flames, less song-based than Andorra, …Milk… is still clearly the product of a laptop, an imagination, and a deep love of musical history, but it’s far happier to float in its own grooves and enjoy its own prettiness than most of Dan Snaith’s other work. I love it the way I’d love a chair or a coffee table; not with a deep emotional passion, but with a warm sense of comfort and aesthetic pleasure. It sits in the room engagingly but without being demanding, although you can easily immerse yourself in the complexities of what it’s doing if you so wish. I think of it as the record that made our first flat together start to feel like our home, and I associate it with our first cat, Bob, who sadly and suddenly died last week, because he was another key presence in gluing our domestic life together.

Musically, there’s some of the woozy, distracted, pseudo-60s psychedelic pop that had antecedents on Up In Flames and would come to fruition on Andorra, but there’s also a hefty slice of krautrock-ish repetition, and almost minimalism at points (well, in comparison to the maximalism of Up In Flames. I don’t know where Snaith gets his drum samples (if they are samples), but he uses the same kind of tumbling, rattling, jazzy fills here that he has throughout his career. I don’t know how much of his music is assembled from samples and how much is played live – certainly when he performs live Caribou is a band, and things are reproduced by musicians onstage – but whatever the mix is, he has a unifying gestalt running through all the work he’s released under this name.

A great record? I don’t know; a record I really like and have played an awful lot over the last nine years, that’s for sure.

Interestingly, the evening before we met it occurred to me that I own a legitimate second C26, too; I keep digipaks and other unusually-packaged CDs in a separate run of discs, and the C26 from that part of the collection was Ornette Coleman’s The Shape Of Jazz To Come. I intended to bring this with me and give everyone an option of which to play, vaguely hoping that we’d plump for Ornette’s notoriously difficult free jazz opus. Sadly, though, I managed to pick up John Coltrane’s still jazz but much less free Giant Steps, which sits next to it and has almost identical packaging. So we played Caribou.

Rob listened: Liked this a lot, which left me wondering about the problem I have with Caribou. Every time I hear them/him I enjoy it, but I’m never drawn back. I listened to ‘Swim’ a couple of times when it came out, before Nick brought ‘Andorra’ to a previous meet. I liked it well enough but found it an easy record to walk away from, as in literally to leave the room during. I never really got a grip of it. Then Tom and I found ourselves walking across a darkening field at the End of the Road festival and hearing Snaith’s touring incarnation of Caribou strike up ‘Sun’ on the stage we were passing. It sounded great, but we carried on to the bar and never headed back. I thought ‘Andorra’ was strikingly inventive when Nick played it for us. I’ve never gone back and listened to it again. ‘The Milk of Human Kindness’ struck me as even better, crammed with life and detail and touch and verve. I hope I will go back and spend some more time with it but on past performance I can’t promise. I’ll save you the long essay speculating on why we leave lying some records that we find really appealing. I don’t know the answer.

Tom listened: I thought this was absolutely tremendous – better than I remember Andorra being on a first listen and much more realised and cohesive than my sole Dan Snaith record – Manitoba’s Up in Flames. Whilst I totally get what Rob is driving at (and that is precisely what has put me off exploring Caribou’s output more fully) I feel that The Milk Of Human Kindness would probably be the best place for me see whether Caribou is very exquisite, beautifully constructed and arranged window dressing or something deeper and more substantial.

Caribou – Andorra – Round 13: Nick’s selection


I don’t know how one is meant to go about quantifying how much one likes a record. I have always, often vehemently and profanely, objected to giving them marks out of ten, for instance (especially if decimal points are involved), and words are often inadequate, as anyone who’s tried their arm at writing about music knows. Maybe we should fall back to the list, another familiar tool that I dislike; but even if we do that, how do we determine what goes in first place, and what goes in second? It’s very rarely, in my experience, a clear-cut thing, and the dissonance between the arbitrariness of the choice and the potential authority of the reading of the choice is troublesome.

Perhaps the best way, although it seems a little utilitarian as I type, is simply to judge it by how often you’ve listened to a record through choice? Not the “I want to get to know / get to grips with this” kind of choice, but the “I want to listen to something I really enjoy” kind of choice. If we do use that as a metric, then Caribou’s fourth album, 2007’s Andorra, is maybe my favourite album of the last five years, because I honestly can’t think of another record I’ve played this much simply because of the pure pleasure of listening to it.

I still think of and describe Caribou as a “laptop guy”, after the gentle glitches, burrs, and electronic jazz tones of his debut album, but Andorra, for the first seven tracks at least, sounds for all the world, at first impression, like it was recorded in 1967 rather than 2007. Influenced by The Beatles, The Beach Boys, and especially The Zombies (well, sounding like, if not necessarily influenced by – although I suspect so strongly!), and touched with the familiar jazzy drum rolls and occasional brass touches that have characterised everything Caribou has released, it seems as if Dan Snaith has made an album of propulsive, groovy, gently psychedelic love songs rather than experimental laptronica. And he has, pretty much. But Andorra is an album of experimental laptronica, too.

Because the final two tracks, and subsequent listens to the previous seven, reveal this to be very definitely a modern record, clearly indebted to electronic music and made almost certainly by one man (with the occasional guest vocalist) on his own, with a roomful of instruments and a computer full of software. There are various clues to the album’s electronic heritage and gestation; something in the impossible drum fills, the intricate layering of sound, the subtle noises that simply couldn’t emanate from a traditional “rock” instrument, and the complexity of the arrangements betrays that this isn’t mere 60s pastiche or homage. And then there’s the clattering, disintegrating, exhilarating, beatific electronica of the final track, Niobe, quite unlike anything else on the album, or anything that Snaith had released previously. It points towards where Caribou would go with Swim – deeper into electronic dance music, taking it right to the edge of chaos.

I love Andorra, and listen to it, and Caribou in general, with an addict’s frequency. I love the songs; the opening lyric and riff of Sandy, the euphoric surges of Melody Day, the gentle soul of She’s The One. But I suppose, if I’m honest, I love the sound just as much, if not more; the way Eli descends into trippy, psychedelic bass and brass at the halfway mark, the tumbling discord and prettiness of Niobe, the delicious drum patterns of Sundialing. For me it’s both a warming emotional thrill and a delicious, aesthetic, sensual kick to listen to.

Tom Listened: Caribou have always fallen into the ‘I should really check this out’ category of my music wishlist. I have seen their albums for sale on many occasions but have always opted to get something else instead, nearly making that purchase but never quite committing. I think the main reason for this is that I have owned Manitoba’s ‘Up in Flames’ for many years now and, whilst I liked it a whole lot to begin with, rarely go back to it these days. For me UIF is easy to admire but hard to love. the songs are spectacular, but I don’t really feel an emotional connection to the music.

Obviously Dan Snaith has moved things on in terms of his sound since then and Andorra sounded amazing. Lush, rich and beautifully put together this is busy but uncluttered music that sounded wonderful on first acquaintance but will clearly reward repeat listens. I am keen to purchase it…time will tell whether it endures or goes the way of Up In Flames but I have a suspicion that the former outcome is the more likely in this case.

Rob listened: I let Caribou’s ‘Swim’ burble by in the background a couple of times last year but found it hard to give full attention to. I know how highly Nick prizes these records and now I can hear why. Complex but without being oblique, there’s a whole world packed in here. It struck me as a minor wonder that Dan Snaith has used his laptop to create the sound of a real band so fiendishly layered and constructed that no real band could reproduce it, until Nick told us that on stage that’s exactly what him and his buddies do. Shows how much I knew about Caribou.