Let’s start with the familiar and use it as a way of accessing the unfamiliar, because at the outset The Caribbean might sound like pretty typical graduates of the late-90s indie school. Think Grandaddy: acoustic guitars whose radiant warmth seems to be setting off whole rooms full of heat-sensitive electronics. Daubs of backward guitars or blurry harpsichords for a bar or two. Ephemera. Banjos ’n’ loops. Such auditory seasoning, even in excess, is so familiar to us that it’s not going to ruin any songs. Now: can chord changes (the modulating sort, the curveballs) be peppered throughout a song like so many banjo loops? Or is that analogy ‘too far’? We might think so, simply because a lot of us think that chords — unlike arrangements — are the ‘guts’ of music and should be treated seriously, whether they change or not. If you’re gonna rock, rock the tonic-dominant. If you’re gonna write, don’t obstruct your lyrics too much. If you’re gonna modulate, son, it’d better be in the name of sheer modernist ambition. Because you’ll be messing with the guts of music.
The Caribbean don’t come off as ambitious, but they do get you thinking about how and why pop songs are constructed — all the numerous threads that have to come together, and usually do so invisibly, automatically. If the reliable beauty of pattern recognition is that any set of chords can become someone’s pop music, where does meaning come from? What distinguishes it from experimentation or (if we want to go there) laziness? Who are these guys, anyway? Their tendency to trace outlines — sonically, and right down to the intentionalist-bordering-on-press-kit album jacket musings — has led to firm critical support (we like a splash in the face), but not a lot of steadfast fans. Some have tagged them avant-pop, and while I don’t want to call that tag too hasty (or, Christ, accuse The Caribbean of ‘misunderstanding’ avant-pop convention), there’s something off about the label nonetheless. Namely, The Caribbean seem more interested in accessing the ordinary from a wildly different angle than blowing anyone’s mind.
Michael Kentoff is a loquacious and often-excellent Dada-meets-DeLillo lyricist with a penchant for weekly SAT-prep vocab. “When you left, you left, you said, on principle/ Moved in with a man, a collapsitarian/ He’s got a righteous blog; yeah, he likes sweet wine/ I find myself reading it everyday.” Like John McCrea, or others of the perpetual smirk, he’s liable to come off as making a lifestyle wisecrack from delivery and reputation alone; “we came here to work” doesn’t have to be sarcastic, but it’s probably best left up in the air. In “Mr. Let’s Find Out,” the contrast between the narrator’s neighbor spouting heroic ideals and then shopping online to actualize those ideals doesn’t have to be funny, but the chord flop on “buying heat lamps” turns it into a deadpan punchline. Kentoff’s unhummably nasal vocals stick with you like an emphatic speaker, chord changes serving as (sometimes indecipherable) facial expressions.
The quirked-out-convo factor makes “Thank You For Talking To Me About Israel” the album’s exemplary song. “I know it’s such a loaded conversation,” Kentoff grimaces, not exactly helping matters as he shuts the blinds and feels for wires over a clumpy, disconnected guitar. The song is chock-full of brilliant, self-reflexively paranoid lines, my personal favorite of which is, “Now we’re in what I call ‘the snowflake zone.’” They kinda are; “Israel” represents a rare moment where every band member seems to know exactly the mood they want to produce. Elsewhere, unity and ‘aboutness’ feel a little more accidental. In the few shards of referential melody — the soaring chorus of “Artists in Exile” — Kentoff’s a beady-eyed misanthropist dragged into a Kodak Moment, suspicious of the suggestion that his feelings might be shared.
There’s an existential white-collar battery to all of this, the chords and words and instruments bouncing like Nerf balls off slack ties and receding hairlines. Discontinued Perfume has a net effect, despite its potpourri. Still, I wish they’d let some of their ideas out to roam a little more — just look at the looped field recording at the beginning of “Artists in Exile,” which lasts so much longer than anyone expects by that point. What’s that one woman in the crowd saying? “I wanted to keep it a secret. I wanted to keep it alive.” It’s a weirdly powerful moment on an album in which field recordings feel like part of a larger grab-bag. But all that probably happened is that they let one contributor (the band has three members, but eleven others vamped in at some point) really run with a good idea. This could happen more often, so those great lyrics get all the facial expressions and personality that they have on paper, or an adamant toy piano helps a wonky chord progression earn itself. You have to respect a group that lets things slip away so easily, but you don’t find yourself craving their company. Democracy (read: division of labor) has helped to reveal those invisible threads of pop music, sure, but The Caribbean are long overdue — and have plenty at their obstinate aesthetic’s beck and call — to tat themselves a manifesto.