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Spirited Reinvention

 

Caribou: The Milk of Human Kindness

The Leaf/Domino, 2005

Rating: 4.3

 

Posted: May 2, 2005

By Laurence Station

Being forced by way of litigation to change his performing handle from the sixth largest Canadian province to an outsized reindeer native to the colder climes of North America hasn’t deterred stylistically restless laptop composer Dan Snaith. The Milk of Human Kindness is a confident, more daring (if less stunning overall) successor to Snaith’s 2003 breakthrough Up in Flames. Branding being the important marketing tool that it is, Snaith’s swift transformation from Manitoba to Caribou (including the re-labeling of his back catalog) is laudable. (Whether Richard Blum -- otherwise known as Handsome Dick Manitoba, lead singer of long-fossilized punk rockers the Dictators -- actually stands to benefit from filing a trademark-infringement lawsuit against Snaith is another matter.)

Where Up in Flames was open and carefree, The Milk of Human Kindness is controlled and precise. Snaith continually subverts expectations, refusing to let the songs flow gracefully from one track to the next. Prime example: the three-track sequence of “Bees,” “Hands First” and “Hello Hammerheads,” which moves from a groovy-guitar, open-highway cruiser to a stunted, spastic breakout (reminiscent of late ’60s Captain Beefheart) to psychedelic British folk, with Snaith flatly delivering lines like, “She told me to stay or go away / And I looked in her eyes and left her.” The range of styles is impressive, which trumps the lack of logical or elegant transitioning. Snaith may be showing off, but at least he’s backing it up with strong and memorable arrangements.

As dissimilar as the individual pieces sound, Snaith successfully manages, via animal and geographically-based titles (not to mention naming a song after electronic music pioneer Morton Subotnick) to weave a boldly shamanistic vision-quest vibe through the album. The vibrant, extroverted “A Final Warning” jumps all over the musical map, boasting a powerful motorik beat, chopped and distorted vocals cut at the syllable, and a cacophonously messy climax that brings to mind raging fires and dancing figures attempting to summon forth the perfect digital note. “Brahminy Kite” and the opening “Yeti” are closest in structure to the Up in Flames material, the former working off of a crashing cymbals-booming drumbeat combo and the latter fashioning sun-baked synthesizer lines, with both shaking a “C'mon, get happy” tambourine with the verve of an eternal optimist during a post-Iowa Howard Dean pep rally. “Pelican Narrows” mixes DJ Shadow-ish, stylized piano with a sample of persistently buzzing flies and lazy hand claps; the closing “Barnowl” builds on a steadily throbbing electronic hustle and bustle that sounds like background noise to a futurecast traffic report from the 22nd century.

While nothing here approaches the dazzling ebullience of Flames’ “Kid You'll Move Mountains,” Milk emphatically proves to be a progression on the ideas Snaith’s been exploring since his 2001 debut, Start Breaking My Heart. The familiar adage “the only rules are that there are no rules” certainly applies to Snaith’s adventurous approach to making music: He’s still supercolliding different styles and discovering what sticks, and where the quest takes him is anyone’s guess. But be it as Manitoba or Caribou, there’s little chance Snaith will cease pushing the boundaries of familiar convention and form. It's doubtful Handsome Dick can say the same.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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