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White Noise: Caribou – Swim

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Caribou – Swim

Caribou, a.k.a Dan Snaith, the musical mathematician behind kraut-rock project Manitoba, called his album Swim as a reference to his attempt to “make dance music out of water”. If there was ever a vague and challenging idea for a dance album, it's that. However more of a surprise is the fact that most of the time when you expect this album to fall flat it succeeds, moving fluidly (ha) from strength to strength across its 50 minute playtime.

The album bursts into life with now-famous grimy opener Odessa, with heavy synths looped into a track that could easily be a classic on the dancefloor. Not content with this, the track is laden with constantly brilliant and surprising detail, from the tiny piano-like samples following his assertion that “She can take” to the lush natural-sounding synths that burst into the track briefly around the 3 minute mark. With all this its easy to forget that he's actually singing about a messy break up. The track moves into arguable album highlight Sun, with a trippy throbbing synth and slick percussion that feels as if its moving all around you. Movement is perhaps the true achievement of the album, it circles your brain and insinuates itself squarely into your head. The moment halfway through the track when the submerged vocals seem to physically break through the surface of the sound and suddenly become crystal-clear is almost revelatory, conjuring images of sunlight filtered through water.

The album is full of gorgeous details like this, such as the sound towards the end of Sun appropriated from the extraordinary album closer Jamelia. Out of any track on the album, for me it is the last that deserves the most praise. Starting with a formulaic synth and tinny beat, Luke Lalonde's guest vocals seem to be shaping up to a pleasant album closer. But then things start to go slightly awry. Just before the one-minute mark, an out-of-tune string noise slices through the song, and as it continues different unexpected sounds punctuate the otherwise regular formula. Halfway through the track these noises flutter and swell out into a driving, messy, natural rush – suddenly the vocals are no longer sitting on top of the track, they are breathlessly trying to catch up with it. The music sounds as free and pure as any I've heard, it sounds like pure joy.

It's unfortunate that the album suffers a few problems, because these tracks are so incredibly promising. Although some of the tracks I haven't mentioned are good (The one-two punch of Leave House and Hannibal are especially satisfying), the middle of the album sags noticeably. Kaili sounds quite good in the context of the rest of the album, but the heavy reverb on the synths make it sound as if it belongs in a cheesy club, and although the vocal harmonising at the end is an interesting change, it doesn't quite work. The next two tracks, Found Out and Bowls are also both rather underwhelming, exhibiting the same techniques and ideas as more choice album cuts (even some of the same melodies) but the marriage of the disparate musical aspects is not as fluid.

Every album has a few tracks that aren't quite as good, and it would be entirely forgiveable if it weren't for the slight identity crisis from which the album suffers. The tracks are often too dancey for a relaxed listen, but not enough to go all-out on the floor, so it sits in a kind of middle-distance where it's never that close and never that far away. Yet his attention to detail and inspired cross-genre tracks are staggering at times, and Swim is certainly a great album, but its a hard one to love as a whole.


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