Caribou: The Milk of Human Kindness

The Milk of Human Kindness


Changing your alias isn't the attention-getter it used to be, back when all you had to do for a Rolling Stone cover was make Cougar your new middle name. Now, thanks to the proliferation of online chat screen names, when Old Dirty Bastard announced that his new name was Big Baby Jesus, everybody just assumed he was trying to avoid stalker ex-girlfriend drama on MSN. Canadian laptop jockey Dan Snaith has had his share of issues, in the form of ex-Dictators guitarist Handsome Dick Manitoba's bizarre lawsuit alleging that Snaith's use of the name Manitoba constitutes trademark infringement. Snaith ought to know that changing from a Canadian province (Manitoba) to a woodland animal commonly found in Canada (Caribou) won't fool anybody. He should have followed time-honored Commonwealth trademark infringement practice by sticking "London" in there somewhere, which is the name-game equivalent of playing hide-and-go-seek by covering your eyes.

Like fellow handle swappers Sean Combs and Prince Rogers Nelson, Snaith could have used Handsome Dick Manitoba's trademark lawsuit as an excuse to zigzag artistically, but The Milk of Human Kindness follows a gentle upward slope. Sun-bleached, AM-gold harmonies and crackling drums are still the DNA in his collages, but there have been a few significant mutations. Milk swaps Manitoba's last album Up in Flames' clouds of white noise and British Invasion drum breaks for searing sitar buzz and Krautrock drum breaks. "A Full Warning" and "Barnowl" wring maximum dynamic potential out of the motorik template, adding faux-spiritual chants and other hefty doses of psychedelic excess to the focused intensity of a Neu! jam in full flight. Snaith's Teutonic mode is self-conscious, but the subtlety of his method prevents him from descending into hipster self-parody à la LCD Soundsystem. Instead of ostentatiously jamming his patchwork aesthetic in your face, he blends his source materials so seamlessly that the effect is like that commercial where Fred Astaire dances with a Dirt Devil. Even with its ex-choir boy vocals, frenetic drum break, and dashes of mellotron, you wouldn't mistake "Brahminy Kite" for a San Francisco all-star jam circa 1967. The real thing would be filled with rambling guitar solos, and be 20 minutes too long.

Even as the Manitoba/Caribou sound has evolved, its borders are well defined. It sometimes ventures too far into laptop trip-hop ("Lord Leopard") or bearded folkie territory ("Hello Hammerheads"), but things are reeled back in before they become annoying. Given folk's self-imposed limitations and sampling culture's reliance on cheap tricks, Caribou's cohesive fusion of their seemingly opposing aesthetics comes as a pleasant surprise. It's a testament to the strength of Snaith's vision, which finds a more focused expression on Milk than on either of his previous albums. He might not always know what to call himself onstage, but Dan Snaith knows who he is.

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