Caribou – Swim (2010)
by Mike Mineo
It is difficult to classify Dan Snaith’s newest album, Swim, as either a step forward or backwards from its widely acclaimed predecessor, Andorra. Whereas that basked in gorgeous ’60 pop with technological additives, Swim takes a more direct approach in its use of electronics. The album’s name alone, Swim, derives from Snaith’s desire to give his songs a sort of flexible “flow” not often characteristic in dance music. With a reputation for rigid structures and repetitive loops, dance music does not exactly coincide with the way water flows back and forth unpredictably, but not capricious enough as to prevent instantaneous enjoyment. Snaith has never been a stranger to ambition, so seeing him tackle a new sound on Swim is not all that surprising. Despite this shift though, the newest Caribou album still sounds distinctively like Caribou. It helps that Snaith’s whimper of a voice is distinctive enough to warrant this in most cases. Regardless of what stylistic fetish he plans to explore the songwriting remains generally solid and, at the very least, thematically or structurally interesting. The thematic notion of Swim into Snaith’s conception of flexible dance music is certainly evident in a stylistic sense, even if a couple tracks do rely too much on a singular driving idea. For the songs that allow themselves to expand, which describes most of the tracks on Swim, they reach successful territory as usual for Snaith.
Snaith’s collaboration with Junior Boys’ Jeremy Greenspan on Swim is highly indicative of the album’s direction, as it seems Greenspan may have even given Snaith a few pointers for adjusting his vocals to a style of production more likened to the electronica of Junior Boys and Kelley Polar. These artists employ rhythmic effects that are somewhat unconventional for contemporary electronic-pop, often ditching cliched components of electronica like auto-tuning and forced flanging for more structurally daring feats. Swim follows in that ideology quite familiarly and Snaith’s ceaselessly unique vision creates some very interesting results. There is noticeably less reverb and special effects on Snaith’s vocals than on Andorra, and this in addition to the instrumentation being more minimalistic and electronic makes new interests in dubstep and old flings like Kraut-rock emerge for Snaith. Even if some tracks like “Kali” and “Lalibela” implement prevalent vocal effects for suitable atmospheric effect, the electronic aspects of production on Swim are implemented more accordingly to its arsenal of instrumentation and song structures.
The already-acclaimed “Odessa” captures Snaith’s desire for water-like flexibility immediately. The bass line here aligns with a repeating sample for little complexity, immediately opening an opportunity for Snaith’s usual expansion into gorgeous hooks and/or wild bursts of percussion. The rhythmic constant of bass-and-sample here paves the way for the track’s greatest moments, which include the smattering of bell-like percussion, quick swipes of guitar, and trickling of synth arpeggios. None of these moments hit you hard upon first listen, but once the mainstay components of “Odessa” become familiarized these moments are savored and anticipated. The same can be said for the magnificent “Leave House”, easily one of the album’s most infectious efforts. The flutes here play the same role as the bass and squawking sample in “Odessa”, setting up for a chorus so seamless and integrated that its raw infectiousness is somewhat surprising since the actual change in melody is minimal. An extra flute assumes lead over the original (which is still repeating), and Snaith alters the style of a voice into an anthemic chant that allows for several snippets of extra verses and a very melodic bridge. The addition of these structural components help tremendously in keeping this track relevant and captivating. The result is one of the most accomplished tracks of Snaith’s career.
One of the only grand accomplishments on the album equivalent to “Leave House” and “Odessa” is Swim ‘s closer, “Jamelia”. Luke LaLonde (Born Ruffians) takes over vocals here, which for casual fans of Caribou may not be immediately evident. LaLonde’s approach during the beautifully barren verse is similar to Snaith’s, but when “Jamelia”’s chorus arrives it becomes evident why LaLonde was picked for the role. Clearly the poly-rhythmic and involved textures of the subsequent chorus are aligned more to LaLonde’s strengths. When he picks his intensity up, his vocals appear more youthful and dynamic than Snaith’s, which often sound deadpan in the most complementary and effective of ways. Here though, on this very emotive and atmospherically perfect closer, the extra dose of emotion is necessary. Snaith can stir up whatever he wants through his music but is never reluctant to use a voice that may apply more suitably for the project at hand. For instance, the stylistic vision for Swim was derived mainly from Snaith’s work on Daphni, a dance-centric project under which he has already released a remix of Cortney Tidwell’s “Watusii”. Without such experience, there may have been a hesitation in pursuing certain components on Swim that ultimately proved successful. For the ever-ambitious Snaith,
The bulk of efforts on Swim are very good, and even overly extensive efforts like “Sun” and “Bowls” have their moments. “Found Out” is a particularly good song and contains easily some of the album’s best hooks, propelled by a distorted electro-drum, clamoring jingle bells, and a playful synth that all work well with quick jabs of guitar. Considering the album is not terribly long though, the six-minute “Hannibal” is not executed to an extent that deserves such property. Even an extra kick to the drums and brass lead in its final minutes cannot save a mundane beginning that does not prepare for the worthwhile latter half. The ominous twinkle of “Lalibela” nicely set ups the excellent closer “Jamelia”, so barring a few hiccups Swim is another great addition to Snaith’s discography. For those that already dig electronic-pop in the vein of Junior Boys, Swim may be one of your favorite releases this year. As for fans of Andorra, if they can avoid overemphasis of certain components of production, the evolutionary songwriting will be hard to miss due to its distinctive familiarity.
RIYL: Junior Boys, Kelley Polar, Erlend Øye, Morgan Geist, Lindstrøm, Munk, Thieves Like Us, The Juan Maclean, Kamp!, Fischerspooner, Born Ruffians
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