Caribou – The Milk of Human Kindness

The Milk of Human Kindness

I don’t keep up with the bumper crop of laptop heroes putting out music that I hear about in the music press. I’m now sure that some of it must be fantastic stuff, though, and here’s why: I find it hard to believe that I stumbled upon the only really good release in the genre – Caribou’s The Milk of Human Kindness, and I love this album.

Caribou consists of Dan Snaith. He recorded under the name Manitoba for a few releases, and now he goes by Caribou (all because of a seemingly ridiculous lawsuit brought by the Dictators’ Handsome Dick Manitoba). Manitoba (the band) received much positive critical attention during its existence, and with the name change comes a slightly different approach to the music for Snaith. Manitoba’s Up in Flames hewed to “dream pop” or “bliss pop,” whereas Caribou touches on the same but then expands upon it.

The whole release feels thoughtful and thought-out, sophisticated without being showy, and organic where it could have been coldly electronic. There’s no mistaking the input of the electronics in the making of the record, but they don’t dominate the sound. The Milk of Human Kindness veers from being spare to being wide-open, and does it with grace.

For instance, “Hello Hammerheads” quietly exhibits an acoustic guitar and vocals, with minimal percussion and bass. It could almost be a Beach Boys song. Contrast that with, say, “Hands First” – which sounds like an Oneida outtake – or “A Final Warning,” which can hypnotize and transport you with its subtle, quiet energy and Mercury Rev-like backing guitar washes. (By the way, supposedly Snaith reworked a Mercury Rev song on the last Manitoba album.) It’s a beautiful song whose cinematic sweep could easily entice some film producer to incorporate it into a soundtrack. At times, “A Final Warning” recalls the quieter moods you find on Bright’s self-titled album of 1996 – particularly their brilliant songs “The Res” and “Point.”

Caribou drops a number of short cuts onto The Milk of Human Kindness. Maybe they’re designed to break up the album’s flow a little, or maybe they serve to introduce the cuts following them. “Lord Leopard,” for instance, spends 1:37 in a syncopated, almost hip-hop space. The song is followed by “Bees,” which begins with a similar vibe. “Drumheller” is a subdued introduction to the also-subdued “Pelican Narrows.” However, both “Lord Leopard” and “Drumheller” could easily have been full-blown, longer tracks on their own.

Album opener “Yeti” catches Caribou at its most psychedelic. Like much of the album, it requires close attention to catch all of the instrumentation and layering. The vocals surface here and there, imparting a surreal tale of some kind. I wonder whether the drums are sampled or whether they were recorded for this song. They work really well here in matching the feel of the song, which is a recurring facet of the Caribou sound.

The closing track, “Barnowl,” is available also as a separate release. It sounds a lot like Manitoba, and it will have an instant appeal for anyone who liked Up in Flames. It also packs a surprise for fans of early Medicine, as it features a sample that I’m 99% sure is the opening of Medicine’s Shot Forth Self Living. It’s not at all surprising that this would be the case, though, as much of early Medicine’s approach to cacophony-coupled-with-sweetness lives on in outfits like Caribou.

Because the cuts on The Milk of Human Kindness cover such a range of approaches and styles (dream poppy, a little noisy, pastoral, elemental-funkish, and so on), it can be difficult to describe the album as a whole. Compounding the problem is that any track might end up taking you in an unexpected direction or incorporate seemingly incongruous instrumentation (I don’t remember hearing sleigh bells like those on “Brahminy Kite” since since Polvo’s Exploded Drawing). But each song on The Milk of Human Kindness, and the album as a whole, epitomizes a kind of sonic gestalt that makes it all work according to some internal logic. I bet that The Milk of Human Kindness will appear on my and others’ “best of 2005” lists.