The Milk of Human Kindness

(Domino/Leaf; 2005)

By Matt Stephens | 13 April 2005

When the history books on early 21st century indie rock are written, the peculiar case of Dan Snaith versus former Dictators frontman Handsome Dick Manitoba should deserve a sidebar blurb in every one. That a long-forgotten proto-punker would sue a humble, commercially anonymous indie rocker over the use of one third of his stage name--the name of a Canadian province, no less--and actually win is the kind of deeply bizarre and hilarious episode that only rock and roll can offer. Through it all, though, you couldn’t help but feel for Snaith. A typically humble and gracious Canadian, he seemed genuinely hurt and confused by the whole incident, and perhaps a little terrified at the prospect of having to start over.

If The Milk of Human Kindness, his first outing under the new Caribou moniker, is any indication, he need not worry about losing his identity or his fan base in the process. The album ups the ante on everything that made Up in Flames so astounding, and adds more pop structure to the chaotic bliss-outs, resulting in what is probably his biggest achievement to date. Here, Snaith is more adventurous and offers far more variety than ever before, and only sounds more distinctively himself for the effort.

Opener “Yeti” gets things off to a rolling start with a cacophony of rattling drums and an eerie vocal chant that segue into an atmospheric keyboard hook, sounding like most of the Elephant 6 catalogue being covered by My Bloody Valentine and produced by, well, Dan Snaith. The song is stunning from the outset, but it doesn’t hit real perfection until the 2:02 mark, when the first of Snaith’s trademark drum breaks kicks in. For the first time, his music has real muscle, and the contrast between the psychedelic, sun-tinged delicacy of the keyboard arrangement (along with Snaith’s wonderfully flat, whispery, dare I say Moby-like vocals) and the veritable orgy of snare and tom-tom hits send “Yeti” straight to the heavens.

After the subdued, vaguely Pet Sounds-esque instrumental “Subotnick” comes “A Final Warning,” a beguiling but oddly beautiful experiment where muttered half syllables from a voice, sounding not unlike that of South Park’s Cartman, leads into Gregorian chanting and massive bursts of feedback. Though it’s likely to scare away fans of Snaith’s more derivative shoegazer tendencies, it’s a weird, brave step forward, and probably Human Kindess’ best track. It’s followed by another instrumental, the ninety-second “Lord Leopard,” a bouncy hip-hop-with-a-harpsichord freakout that Snaith leaves sadly underdeveloped.

Following the almost bluesy “Bees” and the brief drum workout of “Hands First” comes “Hello Hammerheads,” the album’s biggest surprise and arguably the first fully-crafted song Dan Snaith has released. Behind only a sparse acoustic guitar and rudimentary drum beat, Snaith’s voice--heretofore just window-dressing to his magnificent soundscapes--takes on the numb intensity of the late Elliott Smith. It’s one of a number of real surprises on Human Kindness, and it points to any number of possibilities for Snaith’s future.

If the second half of Human Kindness feels inconsequential, it’s only because it isn’t quite as startling. “Brahminy Kite” and “Pelican Narrows” are as good as anything else on the album, but they lack the surprise factor of its more adventurous and immediate pieces. In all, though, the record is another impressive step forward for Snaith, one that seems far less premeditated than the one between Start Breaking My Heart and Up in Flames. His skill as a producer has grown considerably, and he asserts himself as a first-rate melodic songwriter. When those two qualities rub shoulders as they do here intermittently, the results are nothing short of astonishing. If he can better marry these two tendencies next time around, there’s really no telling how far he can go.