erasing clouds

The Caribbean, Populations

reviewed by dave heaton

Over the years the Caribbean has been perfecting an unlikely style of pop music: melodic, yes, and in tune with the history of songcraft, but also filled with secrets. Its construction resembles minimalist architecture, with hidden depths. There's a drum beat here, a guitar there, and among them are other smaller, quieter sounds that entice and challenge. That is right in step with the elusive way singer Michael Kentoff handily turns unwieldy lyrics into verses and choruses, and with the nature of the lyrics themselves. The words he sings offer observations and fragments of stories – often seemingly in the form of field journal entries, classified documents, office memos, plans, pages of history texts, and written-in-thought unsent letters – that give us intriguing details and ideas but also leave much unspoken or undefined. Their songs are a skeletal framework for a universe of questions.

I said "perfecting" in my first sentence because their third album, 2005's Plastic Explosives, sounded like am absolute clarification and realization of their vision. Populations follows on that same level but sounds even further refined: streamlined. There's a clarity and soothing, beautiful glow about the album as a whole. It's partly from the emphasis on purty acoustic-guitar playing as a backbone, and the layers of sound that complement it. Kentoff sings softly, as always, but this time it matches the mood especially well. Don't assume, though, that the album is calm or complacent; it's no less provocative underneath the surface. It’s just as likely to make the most attentive listeners spend ample time pondering what they're hearing.

At a compact 11 songs and 35 minutes, this is an album, in the classic, play-the-hell-out-of-it sense. It also has a clear sense of progression. Populations starts out especially 'pop' on the first three songs. Opener "Do You Believe in Dinosaurs?" tells a story in a more straightforward way than usual for the band (though one with a big question as part of its topic), and has an easygoing manner and music-fan allusions in its favor. That song and "Bees, Their Vision and Language" also benefit from a brisk pace wedded to a pleasant melody, the latter song throwing in harmony vocals, hand claps and references to a Nobel-Prize-winning ethologist (all the ingredients for chart success!). Yet the third song and first single "The Go From Tactical" – released as an excellent 7" on Hometapes earlier this year – is the band's most 'pop' moment yet, in all the good ways. That is, I've spent days singing it to myself, daring the song to try and leave my head. I've listened to it countless times in a row. I've played it for friends. All of that defines 'great pop single' if you ask me. The fact that I can't explain to anyone what the words mean, yet listen carefully to them every time – always noting the ominous parts, and marveling at that final line, "You're going to have to stop crying at the choruses of your favorite Go-Betweens songs / cause they're gone" – makes it thoroughly a Caribbean song as well.

As Populations proceeds, it gains a feeling of melancholy drifting, starting with the title track, which shifts the mood in a stark but at the same time almost imperceptible way. It's accomplished in part through a sort of directed open-ness in their playing, of typical rock/pop instruments but also turntable, tapes, electronics, and "treatments". The songs tend to break free in controlled ways. "Populations" is on one level a heartfelt ballad, but horns and spacey effects help lend it a more complicated demeanor. "That Anxious Age" has a funky drum beat and Old-World accordion; it's story-driven at first but halfway through gets instrumental and eerie, with a thick set of notes that sounds ominous (like a scary fog-horn) when its first enters, but is soon soothed away by 'strings'. "The Ill-Fated Cougar" is wide-eyed like its characters, finding the narrating band's recording studio after an apocalypse. Halfway through crackling noises start to emerge, like an earthquake's lurking. Guitars rise wildly in background, but never fully materialize. In the end it's down to one lone acoustic, but with growling bear noises behind. "Color Television" has chaos: metallic/electric sounds and a scientist speaking about stereo tests. But it's also a portrait of domesticity, in sound and lyric: "Everyday's a summer Sunday night". These songs are more restlessly exciting than the Caribbean’s music has ever been, I’m tempted to say: free, but also smartly arranged.

The Caribbean's music has never felt anything less than human, but Populations feels especially human to me. There's harmony vocals galore, and love songs, maybe. At the same time it's wilder in sound than ever. Both deceptively wild and deceptively calm, it's a "quiet storm" album that contains both quiet and a storm, united as one.


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