Saturday, June 12, 2010

Caribou: Swim [2010]

I'm pretty sure the first time I saw a laptop on stage at a rock show, I rolled my eyes. Along with the flute, triangle, and keytar, the laptop is hard to 'play' without looking like a nonmusical nerd (visualize playing "air laptop"). I have tended to avoid seeing computer-based music live, since on several occasions I have stood there, bored, watching the star of the show stare blankly into a computer; I might as well have stayed at home and blasted the record. Over the last decade, though, the quality of computer-generated music has made me rethink the new songcraft. The best electronic artists, in transcending the physical dexterity necessary to play, for instance, a saxophone, have proved that one can build a song from scratch on a computer, not unlike a composer drafting a classical opus on a sheet of paper. This is not to say that laptoppers aren't dextrous, of course—what impresses me about the best computer music is its writing. The real innovation lies in the limitless access to every possible sound. Rather than choosing a guitar and a rack of effects pedals, the laptop artist can take a sound and manipulate it into tones and textures not possible with standard instruments.

Dan Snaith has been recording electronic music since 2000, and in his many fine records he has explored many types of musics, with his earliest records sounding like fairly typical late-90s electronica (a loathsome term, but here it applies). Each successive record, though, has sounded less and less "laptop-y", and his devotion to songs rather than just textured beats sets him apart. All of his records are, in my opinion, worthy of close study (and try and track down his excellent tour-only mix CDs), but the new one, Swim, is simply amazing. This time, the beats are basically disco, but the watery, fluid production (echoed in the aquatic title; in interviews, Snaith said he'd recently learned to swim) and gentle, plaintive melodies undercut the rhythmic propulsion. Some have compared the sound to Arthur Russell, and the comparison is fitting: both make disco, but it's an arty, headphone disco. On Swim, intricate (and odd) sampled beats are occasionally frazzled by honking or looping free-jazz horns, while the quiet, emotive vocals give the record the human resonance missing from so much computer music. Fans of Four Tet, Arthur Russell, Erlend Øye, Animal Collective, LCD Soundsystem, or Flying Lotus will definitely dig.

Hint: listen with headphones!



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