(Merge; 2007)

By Mark Abraham | 17 August 2007

Dan Snaith is one handsome dick. He’s basically built his career on sustain-pedal retreads of clipped genre works. You know the formula: hint at the old, lock a thunderous groove under it, rotate and swivel. And Snaith is incredibly good at it, even if I’m not sure anything he’s done hits with the same urgency as “I’ve Lived on a Dirt Road All My Life,” a “Dancing with the Moonlit Night”-style mini-opera for the rest of us, and the first track on the Manitoba-now-Caribou album that introduced us to the reason why we were excited about Snaith in the first place. Up In Flames (2003) represents an interesting moment in millennial history: this was right before late 1960s freak-folk and psychedelia had become the revival-sites du jour. But more importantly, Up In Flames made that shit sound different. It was distinct and new, and those drums were a digital apothecary set running roughshod over all your old Zombies and Pink Floyd fantasies. It didn’t make them superfluous; it made them shine in a different light.

In hindsight, it now seems as if The Milk of Human Kindness (2005) was a brief tangent. When it came out we cheered that “Yeti” and “A Final Warning” resurrected Neu! and Cluster and Can and Faust in the same way that “Hendrix With Ko” punched the psychedelic Byrds in the face. And while some (including me) mourned the lack of consistency on the album — which featured a bunch of short interludes and hastily executed ideas — few disagreed that Snaith had once again been able to revive and rearticulate the language of a given genre, blithely mixing it with lap pop in the tradition of his early dalliances with IDM.

Andorra is a return to the style of Up In Flames at the same time that it drops all the important features that made it revelatory. It might as well be a Zombies album; while the presence of processed music and lap top experimentation is still present, Snaith is now applying it directly to pastiche. Nobody heard “Every Time She Turns Around it’s Her Birthday” and thought, “hey, that’s the follow-up single to ‘Walk Away Renee’ that the Left Banke never recorded.” It hinted in that direction, though. But here, Andorra‘s lead single “Melody Day” could be a single from that era, just gussied up with some crisp arps and blips.

Now, that wouldn’t be a large enough criticism to pan the album if it was a good retread, but here’s the second problem: even if Andorra is actually the tangent, and Snaith has only abandoned his unique approach to music temporarily for a rough-and-tumble with his chosen muses, its track selection is spotty at best. “Melody Day” and “Sandy” open the album with strength, even if the latter tends too willing to ape Pink Floyd Zabriskie Point OST b-sides and it’s most interesting moment is actually like 3 seconds of wicked string samples. And the lyrics.I mean, if this is full on pastiche, maybe, but I feel like Snaith is pulling vague sentiments and sayings from the era, rather than actually listening to, I dunno, Arthur Lee or Syd Barrett or whoever. Like, he’s listening to the kinds of one-hit wonders who made money off the psychedelic scene rather than actually getting inside it. It was not this pretty a place, however the 1960s have been reframed in the popular conscious. A house is not a motel, right?

I mean, I’d buy the lyrics as “ironic,” perhaps, if chafe like “After Hours” didn’t gum up the works immediately after the strong opening salvo. “After Hours” sounds like a direct rip of a generic psychedelic jam, except it’s not nearly as intense or interesting as its lengthy duration suggests. In fact, the track seems to operate on the cues of psychedelia, more interested in hitting all the important movement-based tropes of the jam without actually worrying about little things like whether the jam itself is any good. It seems caught between the idea of actual pastiche and the current climate that is against wanky guitar solos. But you can’t really stick it at some point in between, unless you do what Snaith used to do: ignore the difference. “She’s the One” and “Desiree” further depress; the former is a beautiful exercise in vocal samples that slaps Steve Reich onto a psychedelic body and the latter features some gorgeous strings. Problem? Both songs aren’t particularly well-written.

“Eli” opens up the album again; it follows the three-song slump like a breath of fresh air. Or musty air, since it isn’t any more innovative than anything else on the album; it just happens to be the best composed song on the album, and even manages to graft a little of the missed Snaith sensibility onto its outro. “Sundialing” is the closest to the Snaith I miss, rocking a robotic lead vocal over 4/4 guitar notes and a shuffling drum beat. If it disappoints it only does so because it doesn’t advance any of the experiments of Snaith’s last two albums, serving only to remind you how good Up In Flames was. And, really, by the time you hit “Irene,” a confusing mess of samples and pan inversions, you’ll have long ago made up your mind about the album, but the track is notable mostly because it sounds like Snaith mistakenly thought psychedelia meant “as many effects patches as possible.” Track is fucking ludicrous, and does nothing technically to improve on the work of musicians who invented these tricks, so why is Snaith just pushing buttons?

But it’s the 8-minute closer, “Niobe,” that most clearly hints at the problem with the album. A full on union of psych-whatevers, lap-pop, and electronica, except that union sounds incredibly uncomfortable throughout. Snaith throws a boring mid-‘90s synth riff (straight from Da Rude) over a bunch of Jethro Tull flute riffs and his signature portamentoed pianos, harmonizes vocals with himself about falling far and hoping some girl is waiting for him, and tries to get his “My Friend Dario” on. He does not succeed in the least, and far from the tension he’s attempting to create a la “I’ve Lived on a Dirt Road All My Life” we simply get an undulating track that seems to be undulating in place, the occasional bubble of noise popping at the margins. I cannot express how little forward momentum this track has, which is ludicrous given that its momentum is played up at every opportunity. What’s coming around that next corner? You’re going to make everything quiet again? A brief snatch of drums? You’re going to adjust the delay on that synth? You’ve fallen how far? Oh my god! Why won’t this song end?

As a Caribou album, this is mediocre. Not bad, but it’s not much of a Caribou album anyway. As homage, with the exception of “Irene,” it’s a thrilling example of Snaith’s dedication to the sound of psych-rock or pop but evidences none of the compositional or quirky qualities of the best of that genre. To use Piper at the Gates of Dawn as a comparison: where’s “Bike”? Where’s “Scarecrow”? And why are Andorra‘s “Astronomy Domine“s and “Interstellar Overdrive“s simple lukewarm rehashes of better Caribou songs? Has Snaith just painted himself into a corner? Or is this just the most obvious example that his skills have never resided with traditional song composition in the first place? I really, really hope it’s the latter, and we get back to some out-there few-lyrics Caribou-style music.