Over the course of his first three albums, among many other things, Caribou’s Dan Snaith made it a point to bring awesome drums and percussion back into music, cramming his tunes full of loud breaks and bombastic fills that sounded as much marching band as they did rock band. 2007’s Andorra saw him throw another of his curveballs as, inspired by late 60’s psychedelic pop, he sharpened his songcraft by following traditional song structures and taking a stab at being a singer. Still, the booming drums were included when possible. His new album Swim, written and recorded in the midst of first learning to and then becoming obsessed with swimming, dispenses with both the martial drums and joyously sunny psych for a relatively more austere, dance-influenced sound. Swim maintains Caribou’s vivid, almost tactile sound while experimenting with production techniques meant to simulate the washed-over feeling of being immersed in liquid.
Swim’s drums are more straightforward than in the past, but the attention to drums and percussion have not disappeared. Instead of being rhythmically brash and loud, Snaith now focuses his attention on texture and slight alterations. Smearing blobs of sound across the stereo spectrum and restlessly tinkering with percussive additions and subtractions puts Caribou in league with left-field house genius Isolée, reimagining dance music as a dynamically shapeshifting field instead of as a linear development. This comes through best on the mid-album three song run “Found Out”, “Bowls”, and “Leave House”, as hand claps, sleigh bells, kick drum, hi hat, shakers, tin cans, bottles, and overdriven blasts all drop in and out of the mix, giving the main themes different environments in which to soak in and reflect color and adding depth and movement to tracks that would probably sound pretty cool even without the additional effort.
Drums aside, Swim charms with its crudely vivid sounds and sometimes blunt mixing. The music feels precise, but within that precision lives a wildness. Sometimes this wildness comes from easily recognizable elements like a free jazz sax line or the fluttering of a recorder, but even the main melodic phrases frequently jump out at you from nowhere. A lot of the instrumentation sounds piped in directly from the early 90’s Hot 100. The squelching synth of “Kaili” and the bouncy plinks on “Hannibal” give Technotronic and C & C Music Factory a run for their money, and overall the sonics steer clear of the smooth in favor of the bright and discrete. Rattling percussion parts like wind chimes or pencil-drumming elbow in from time to time to keep you guessing, and add more high-end rhythmic elements to the mix. All of this compositional attention to repeating parts is nothing new, but it gives Snaith room to mess around with his liquid immersion production concept. At times the production achieves this cool effect, especially on building mantra “Sun”, but occasionally it leaves a track with its pants down, like when the panning flute totally drops out leaving a short blank sounding space in the middle of “Odessa”. Snaith could definitely afford to push this idea a little further. For now, it’s sort of interesting at times to hear the sounds running through different filters while they approach and recede at different rates, but the overall feel of the compositions are still the real star.
Snaith’s voice is still the weakest link here, but he seems to understand this as well, and uses his weak vocals as a means toward creating intimacy. Though the aboutness of Caribou records is usually relegated to afterthought, couplets suggesting a coupling gone awry nestle themselves inside the patchwork, pushing the listener ever so slightly out of head-bobbing mode and into chin-scratching mode. It supports the dour, minor key feeling of the music, whose melodies sound like they’ve come full circle to reconnect with the smaller, more insular sonics from his debut Start Breaking My Heart. That Caribou is still hitting the bull’s-eye on a moving target is no surprise, but that he’s done it with an emotional heft beyond what he seemed capable of in the past makes this album feel like a personal victory as well as a step forward.