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Published: 2005/05/08

The Milk of Human Kindness – Caribou

Domino Recordings

As a writer, I've always both loved and resented Brian Eno, a mocking presence lurking behind the moments when language seems most like a medium. When I was younger my mom and I would sit in our backyard and listen to Another Green World, laughing appreciatively when pieces of the outdoor setting appeared to place themselves within his lush ambient compositions, in the moments when the artifice would dissipate and the two contexts would blur and straighten as one.

Literature was the predominant household art form and Eno seemed to us to be a sonic James Joyce, endowed with the same absolute sensory clarity and expressing it through the same bottomless variety of experimental modernist approaches. Eno always put texture ahead of craft; the man is obsessed with noise and talented enough to make people see the most common manifestations of it as art. His pieces exuded a specificity that gave each of their elements value, and placed the same value on our capacity to recognize them. By proxy, they defined a good electronic album as one that awakens the same separation of sound in everyday life that it is able to produce artificially in the studio.

Along that road of open-eared innovation walks talented London based songwriter/producer Dan Snaith, a.ka. Caribou. A native of Canada, Snaith released two critically acclaimed albums under the moniker Manitoba before recently being subpoenaed by original New York punk rocker Handsome Dick Manitoba (sad, huh) and forced to concede the name. Fortunately, after also earning his Ph.D in Mathematics, the trauma doesn't seem to have stifled his creativity. With The Milk of Human Kindness, Snaith has delivered a collection of rhapsodic, carefully textured sound-dreams that breeze through everything from psychedelic-era Beatles and tripped out Flaming Lips space orgasms to the coruscating white noise of My Bloody Valentine, while puncturing entry points into each hallucination with his beat-heavy consciousness and guiltless post-pop infatuation with a pretty melody.

Like Eno, Snaith's artistic virtue lies in the differentiation and placement of his detail. "A Final Warning," finds a shimmering aquatic pulse emerging out of nothingness, washed over by intermittent waves of ambient sound and aggravated into static disturbances. Spastically evolving and de-evolving into different shapes and forms as it moves through the acid-trip of a soundscape held in linear motion by its nascent heartbeat, it reduces itself to that primordial identity and combusts just as abruptly into a barrage of abstraction. Meanwhile, tracks like "Bees," weaving Snaith's breathy vocals and expressionist flourishes into a raw, riff-based blues structure, conjure up the post-modern collages of Beck and the Dust Brothers as well as the Velvet Underground's primitive noise pop. The climactic "Barnowl," anchored to the ground by its frenetic beats, surrounds similarly iterated sound blips with subtle industrial touches and futuristic atmosphere before drifting away into a pseudo-Moroccan haze.

Around these more expansive compositions, Snaith inserts a series of highly variegated noise vignettes, all trainwreck collisions between conventional songcraft and stomping sonic experimentation. Minimalist hip-hop beats locked to Baroque piano ("Lord Leopard") give way to shoegazing explosions of distortion ("Hands First"), while snare heavy marching band percussion hammers away under Snaith's languidly ethereal harmonies ("Brahminy Kite") and string section melodies are sucked into viscous Strawberry Fields reversal ("Drumheller").

Having already established himself as something of a rising star among the electronic intelligentsia, The Milk of Human Kindness announces Caribou as a force to be reckoned with outside of that insular space . A robust celebration of all things audio, the album maintains both a carefulness and exuberance that set it apart from a sea of pre-packaged pop creations, fine-tuning the ear well enough for an interesting afternoon walk or a marathon of Eno reissues.

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