Complete Guide: Caribou

Complete Guide: Caribou

Solving Dan Snaith's aural equations...

Dan Snaith isn’t very rock and roll, nor does he fit the superstar DJ model. He’s a modest guy from Ontario with a doctorate in pure maths. He is also the brains behind cerebral, catchy, eminently danceable act Caribou.

With his seventh studio album 'Suddenly' about to drop, we thought it’s time to take a look back at the last 17 years of work from the enigmatic Canadian.

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'Start Breaking My Heart' (2001)

Dan Snaith’s debut was originally released under the name Manitoba, before Handsome Dick Manitoba (of punk band The Dictators), sued for trademark infringement, despite having never released any music under the name Manitoba, let alone Handsome Dick Manitoba. All a bit messy.

In any case, the genesis of Snaith’s musical journey delicately straddles a dangerously thin line, especially for a debut effort. It could have fallen into a zone where it would be remembered as ‘sounding like’ Boards of Canada or even Spiritualized. As it turns out, 'Start Breaking My Heart' manages to stay on the right side of originality. 

The opening track, Dundas, Ontario (also Snaith’s home town), warbles through your mind unobtrusively, with occasional glitchiness keeping you on toes. Skip forward to 'Lemon Yoghourt' and you start to hear a sound akin to the Caribou of today. 

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'Up In Flames' (2003)

What happened to Dan Snaith between 2001 and 2003 will remain a mystery. All we know for sure is something inspired him to move well away from the cultured, thoughtful IDM of 'Start Breaking My Heart' and turned to analog. Bring on layered guitars, organ and the glockenspiel. Yes, the glockenspiel.

Working with Koushik allowed him to further layer dreamy, gentle lyrics on top of this psych fest of a record. Overall, 'Up in Flames' is a love letter to dreamy 60’s indie pop. If you feel the need for comparisons, think something like Phil Spector / Brian Wilson with a drizzle of Primal Scream circa 'Screamadelica'. If you’re really bold, top that with a touch of early 2000s Flaming Lips.

Bottom line, it’s classy, if a little rough around the edges. His move to analog demonstrated a special ability and more importantly, willingness to look beyond the laptop.

'Up In Flames' was the moment Snaith first really began to carve his name into a crowded genre. Ironically, he did so by splicing the genre into fragments of creativity before somehow cohesively bringing them together.

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'The Milk Of Human Kindness' (2005)

Dan Snaith’s third album (and the first one officially released under the moniker Caribou post the Handsome Dick Manitoba debacle), is yet another move away from the two preceding records.

Two years on from the release of 'Up In Flames', Caribou forges an altogether stronger identity. With clearer arrangements it is a more controlled, calculated release. 'Bees' is one of the standout tracks from the album, with elements of the free jazz Snaith loves so much intertwined with a beautifully structured early riff bearing the hallmarks of all that we love about Caribou.

'Lord Leopard' showcases more of Caribou’s range and flair with it’s jittery, catchy hip hop vibe. For a humble, modest man, this is a throw-down telling the industry just what Caribou is capable of.

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'Andorra' (2007)

'Andorra' is something of a throwback to 2003’s 'Up In Flames'. With it’s hazy, hypnotic sun soaked aesthetic, it’s hard not to dream of green spaces, blue skies and the tickle of grass between your toes.

Opener 'Melody Day' is arguably the track most evocative of those bygone days, while simultaneously throwing in Caribou’s trademark pause at the end of a bar before an explosion of percussion. While the finished product is a throwback to a previous title, the work gone into production is not lost on the discerning listener.

Similar to 'The Milk Of Human Kindness', it holds high production value, as opposed to the sometimes scatty nature of 'Up In Flames'. While much of the album is sprinkled with nods to the Mamas and the Papas as well as the Beach Boys, tracks like 'Irene' throw the listener strong hint of what is to come in the future.

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'Swim' (2010)

'Swim'. Ah yes, 'Swim'. You’re thinking of 'Odessa', 'Sun' and 'Found Out' right?

These are just some of the most ‘Caribou’ tracks Snaith has produced over the last nearly two decades. From the evergreen 'Odessa' to the wavy 'Sun' and the darker, moodier 'Found Out', they are all classy compositions in their own right.

'Swim' is a move away from the light, day-glo, psychedelic collections of the past. As Snaith put it himself, the aim for Swim was to create a record that sounds more like water than metal. 'Swim’s swirling, dainty effects on Odessa are a pinpoint reflection of this goal.

However, the core sound behind the effects are more precise than ever. Much of 'Swim' is a cerebral listen, and some tracks require a little more effort. Unlike 'Up In Flames', which can be listened to in one dreamy, hazy sitting, 'Swim' needs some extra concentration.

That doesn’t detract from the quality of the record. It is arguably Caribou’s most popular release for a reason. With help from pal Kieran Hebden (Fourtet), it was always going to be more intensely thoughtful than early records, but this only makes for a more satisfying, enjoyable piece. One that refuses to age.

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'Our Love' (2015)

Personal. Intimate. Open. These are possibly the most apt words to describe Snaith’s sixth studio album. The record is still intensely thoughtful and carefully constructed as we have come to expect. Having said that, 'Our Love' gives the listener more of an insight into Snaith the man, rather than Snaith the creator.

Musically, it’s hard to pinpoint, as it has a spellbinding quality unlike previous releases. It holds you tight, wraps you up in it’s warming simplicity. All you are left with is a need to step onto the dancefloor, despite not being explicitly dance-y tracks.

How can this be? Well, it’s Caribou. It’s Dan Snaith, the guy who obtained a doctorate in pure maths while producing. It doesn’t add up (forgive the pun), it shouldn’t be feasible but hey, it works. Who are we to complain, critique or comment. It’s without doubt the zenith of Snaith’s body of work to date.

Our advice? Listen to it all over again (and again), and get excited for 'Suddenly'. If it’s anything like 'Our Love', we’re in for a treat.

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Caribou will release new album 'Suddenly' on February 28th.

Words: Milo Wassermann

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