By Mark Abraham | 21 April 2010
Listening to a Manitoba record used to mean listening to something amazing: Up in Flames still sounds like nothing else, is the most obvious exclusion (to me) from our decade-retrospective list, and is still a kick in the teeth to expectations about what to expect from music. Still amazing, I mean, and still the path I wish Dan Snaith had taken. Still an album that makes a career, whatever I think about what Snaith has done since. Because ever since Manitoba became Caribou, listening to a Caribou record has seemed to mean listening to an approximation of whatever records Dan Snaith was listening to the month before he made it, which…is fine, I guess, but people came up with weird terms like “neo-shoegaze” to describe Up in Flames which are all kinds of laughable in how they don’t really describe much of anything, but call The Milk of Human Kindness “krautrock” and you’re pretty much on the money. And I get it: wishing for what he did in 2003 to be always what he does is kind of unfair for a whole bunch of reasons; I just wish that my enjoyment of his post-Manitoba work didn’t boil down to how much I like his given source material. Because he used to be the source material, you know?
Swim bears this problem out, and shows both sides of it: the innovation of Up in Flames has disappeared; instead we get mild retreads of stuff we already know. And while techno and other dance music (or maybe just Hercules and Love Affair) is a better fit for Snaith than the ’60s pop inspiration that resulted in the boring Andorra (2007)—I actually like a good portion of Swim better than that pill—I think I’m even more ambivalent about this one, since even the tracks I like I only like because they remind me of something else. And for those of you who don’t think that “cumulative fucking it up” is a fair way to judge an album, sure: Swim is unequivocally better than Andorra, but one segment farther along a calculus line into obscurity, so: same score. You can add back the ten points I subtracted for that if it makes you feel better.
Of course, that math is complicated. The first five tracks on Swim are Andorra-style farts that once again fall into the trap Snaith’s created for himself where instead of constructing his songs out of super-interesting sounds he’s Scotch-taping less-interesting sounds onto pre-made models. Once again Snaith is precise and dedicated about this, sure, but I can’t get around the fact that scribbling on the page of a coloring book doesn’t change the basic outline. And I don’t know whether this is a weird blind spot in the way non-dance artists see dance music or what, but my issue is simple: I don’t like Pantha du Prince or Ricardo Villalobos because they make music that sounds like I expect dance music to sound so why should I get all weak in the knees when a non-dance musician sets out to make a dance album that sounds like it is self-consciously trying to sound like a dance album? Whatever that means? When post-punk and no wave groups and artists like P-Model, Zig Zag, Y Pants, Ja Ja Ja, Liquid Liquid, ESG, Lizzy Mercier Descloux, the Mo-Dettes, Bow Wow Wow, Gaznevada, and a bunch of other more famous groups and artists like Talking Heads and David Bowie went dance people liked it not because they made disco records but because they subverted the idea of what disco could be. There isn’t much subversion going on here, and that’s compounded by the fact that the brilliant carnival of strange noise Snaith proved he was capable of on Up in Flames has been replaced by a typical dance palette.
Now, to be fair, Snaith is far less egregious in this sense than James Murphy, and—surprise!—I actually really like the last four songs on this album, at least superficially. But what these tracks make up in visceral enjoyment isn’t quite enough to overcome the basic issues I have with the first half of the album: these tracks are just better executions of a concept that isn’t particularly novel. It’s like if you had 9 mannequins and had 5 of them styled at Old Navy and the other 4 at H&M. And pasted pretty ribbons to all of them. I mean, the problem here isn’t that Swim is directly derivative of any one thing; the problem is that while listening to it I can’t shake the feeling that it only imitates a vocabulary worked better by any number of things. And because this is the third album in a row where Snaith seems to have devoted most of his effort into submerging his own unique voice deep within the musical persona he’s adopted, I just don’t really get what I’m supposed to do with it. Like, should we get him some water wings to keep his head above the water?