Album Review: Caribou – Swim Remixes




Reading through the one-sheet for Caribou‘s excellent album Swim, we learn that the man behind the moniker, Dan Snaith, was not until recently actually able to, well, swim. Faced with that unfortunate predicament, his wife acted, purchasing lessons for Snaith as a Christmas gift, and soon after, the musician couldn’t get enough of the water, which he found to be the perfect place to distance himself from the intensity of his writing sessions on a daily basis. But the regular dips went further than that: Underneath the surface, Snaith found the inspiration for not only a new album, but a new musical vocabulary.

“The real substance of the sound of the record for me is this idea of making dance music that consists of liquid elements,” Snaith explains on Merge Records’ website. “Rather than sounding metallic and rigid, everything is washing around you while you’re listening to it – from one ear to another – but also the pitch is oscillating up and down, and each instrument is going in and out of tune with everything else. Sounds are emerging and disappearing, like everything is made out of water.”

If you’ve heard Swim or read the near-ubiquitous praise it’s received since it was released in April, then you know that Snaith captured this feeling precisely. And, arguably he’s one of the few current artists who could pull off such a theory-to-practice feat (if you’re not yet convinced of his intelligence, consider that the man’s mathematics doctoral thesis was entitled Overconvergent Siegel Modular Symbols). But what’s always been refreshing about Snaith’s work, whether he’s dabbling in psychedelia, shoegaze, IDM or, now, club music, is that he uses his intellectualism to inform his work rather than override it. Sure, it’s more heady than most of what’s available, but even the casual listener can find something endearing in the varying styles Snaith is so capable of making his own. 2007’s Andorra, particularly, could just as easily impress the most obscure type of electronic music fan as it could an individual who found his or her way into indie rock via The Shins.

Swim‘s background narrative and the careful balance Snaith regularly strikes between intelligence and accessibility are important to note when considering the album’s companion piece, Swim Remixes. Comprised of 14 reinterpretations from 13 artists, and clocking in at a meaty 90 minutes, the album strays overall from Snaith’s original thesis in both concept and practice. Where much of the source material is densely smart but danceable, most of the remixes feel tedious and, as Pitchfork‘s reviewer noted, even outright “unnecessary.” Though there are plenty of bright spots — at this point, it’s unlikely that Snaith will ever sanction an outright failure — more often, the collection feels burdened by an attempt to over-intellectualize the source material. And, as some of us learned the first (and hopefully only) time we tried to impress our freshman philosophy professors, that’s typically a dubious endeavor.

The most extreme examples of excessive plodding are Motor City Drum Ensemble’s take on “Leave House”, Holden and Gavin Russum’s take on “Bowls”, and David Wrench’s all-acapella remix of “Odessa”. With the exception of the Wrench piece, which adds nothing to the listening experience (the barb isn’t aimed at its singular use of percussion — it’s just not that interesting), the other songs aren’t necessarily uninspired. Rather, the ideas presented just seem to run amuck, taking far too long to resolve and offering little to no reverence of Snaith’s originals. Maybe it’s the writer in me, but why take nine, 10, even 11 minutes to get your point across when the same ideas could’ve been articulated in four or five? I get the concept of tension and release and the merit of building an idea gradually, but I’m unconvinced that listeners will be thankful that there’s an extra 30 to 40 minutes of repetitive sequences when they purchase this album. If anything, because it’s Snaith-sanctioned, they’ll feel guilty for skipping through them.

The real winners here come from Iknonika, DJ Koze, Nite Jewel and Walls (it pains me to leave Junior Boys off the list, but their minimal take on “Odessa” left me cold). Iknonika (or, Sara Abdel-Hamid) is a relatively new artist on the hot UK label Hyperdub, and here, she reworks “Leave House” into a thrilling thing well-suited for Britain’s intelligent nightlife, marrying shuffling drums and thick, swelling synths into a futuristic bass music melange. Germany’s DJ Koze, who shows up twice on Remixes (and a third time if you purchase the record on iTunes), is most impressive on Swim standout “Jamelia,” pitch-shifting Snaith’s vocals and asymmetrically slicing-up the guitars as a minimalist glitch beat swaggers underneath. The effect, like Nite Jewel’s indelibly warm, spacey take on “Odessa”, is a transformation of ideas that progresses the source material rather than negating it, or simply taking one stem and roiling in monotony for uncomfortably long periods of time. Similarly, Walls take “Kaili”‘s known ethereal quantities and pushes them to the astral reaches, creating a towering ambient wash that, ironically, is one of the only songs to fall within Snaith’s underwater guidelines.

Elsewhere, the mechanized, slick sound found on most electronic records (that he was trying to, and did, avoid) is in no short supply, lending Remixes a conventional flair that Swim thankfully had nothing to do with.