CARIBOU (MANITOBA): UP IN FLAMES (2003)
1) I've Lived On A Dirt Road All My Life; 2) Skunks; 3) Hendrix With KO: 4) Jacknuggeted; 5) Why The Long Face; 6) Bijoux; 7) Twins; 8) Kid You'll Move Mountains; 9) Crayon; 10) Every Time She Turns Round It's Her Birthday; 11*) Cherrybomb; 12*) Silver Splinters; 13*) Olé; 14*) Thistles And Felt; 15*) Seaweed; 16*) Cherrybomb Part II.
Ambition begins to bubble here — Manitoba's second album is even louder and more colorful than the first, and goes on to spread its tentacles in even more directions. By 2003, Dan Snaith had staked his claim somewhere midway between Sufjan Stevens and The Animal Collective, although I would guess that the major influence on Up In Flames was neither, but rather an older artist — My Bloody Valentine, whose psychedelic production techniques Dan must have studied at length, because some of this stuff (such as ʽKid You'll Move Mountainsʼ ) often tends to sound precisely like MBV at their most trippiest: woozy, delirious grooves with interlaced ghostly overdubs and whiffs of vocals that are sometimes felt more than heard.
As derivative as the overall style tends to be, it is still Dan's own: there's not enough somnambulant guitar drone here to qualify as «shoegaze», way too much non-electronic instrumentation to count as «electronica», and way too many borrowings from all sorts of musical genres to conform to the already poorly understood definition of «folktronica». «Psychedelic» is the only term that fully applies, largely due to its inborn vagueness — this is music from another dimension, although, in nice contrast to much competition, it does not brag about its origins, but rather just behaves in an orderly, ordinary manner, humbly inviting you to try out the rabbit-hole instead of pulling you there by force.
The musical skeletons of these songs are less jazzy than before, and owe more to folk, classic Brit-pop, baroque pop, and even dance-pop — but really, the skeletons should be of more interest to musicologists than simple music listeners, because the sonic textures clearly take precedence here over basic composition. Once the groove is set up (and this is usually done quickly: Snaith is no lover of overlong intros), Snaith opens his mid-size bag of tricks and pulls stuff out largely at random — bombastic percussion bursts, pastoral flute passages, avantgarde jazz brass blows, angelic vocal chants, astral noises, and sometimes all of it at once (ʽBijouxʼ). Although it does have the unfortunate effect of making all the songs sound the same, the soothing countereffect is that Up In Flames is a pretty short record, and we could all stand fourty minutes of a same-sounding universe that could be best described as «trying to interpret the Animal Collective for a five-year old kid», or «a cross between Loveless and Sesame Street».
My only real problem with the record is the old «middle-of-the-road» problem: it all sounds very, very nice, but it never blows the mind in quite such a decisive way as its influences or the best of its contemporaries. Even when the man goes for a really large, quasi-epic sound, like on the supposedly climactic grande finale of ʽEvery Time She Turns Roundʼ, it still seems quiet and cloudy and a little too messy. All these sounds — the electronic blips, the sax farts, the chimes, the bells, the whistles — seem like packs of scurrying ants and other tiny insects under your feet, a hustle-bustle that is nice to observe from a certain vantage point, but hard to get into. Like I already said, at times this seems to be an advantage (humility, lack of emotional manipulation, etc.), but at other times you feel like he's gone too far in the other direction and does not give a damn about properly involving the listener at all. And that can be a little maddening.
Nevertheless, on the whole this is a major step forward from Start Breaking My Heart — more complex in almost every respect, and positioning Snaith in the respectable camp of people with a floating, rather than fixed, formula of self-improvement. And if you like this at least as much as I do, and definitely if you like this more than I do, go for the more recent expanded 2-CD edition that adds seven extra tracks: some of these, like ʽCherrybombʼ, go heavy on samples and dance beats and could work well on the floor, while others, like ʽSeaweedʼ, are more firmly rooted in the baroque-pop soil, merry chimes and all. Essentially more of the same, but focusing almost exclusively on the instrumental side of things. Thumbs up.