The legal system failed Dan Snaith, a.k.a. Manitoba, miserably. Faced with a potential court battle against Dictators frontman Handsome Dick Manitoba that he couldn’t afford, the Canadian-born, London-based musician was forced late last year to change his stage name. He decided on Caribou. The name change hasn’t affected his sound, though; in retrospect, the natural evolution on this album almost seems inevitable. In the larger cultural landscape, however, the personal progress from 2003’s Up in Flames is almost regressive, shedding even more of the clicks and whirrs of his 2001 debut, the now-unrecognizable Start Breaking My Heart.
To be fair, there didn’t seem to be anywhere else to go. When Up in Flames appeared, it seemed, like Boy in da Corner last year, to signal the emergence of a new musical style, a combination of art and pop that melded progressive musical styles and classic, time-tested structures. Even two years later, it is hard to point to a record that sounds like Up in Flames, and its music is as fresh as it was then.
The Milk of Human Kindness brings none of this originality. It bursts with its influences, which are so disparate that perhaps the album’s cohesiveness is the most impressive thing about it. Most of the current electronic influences are gone, and there’s a strong mid-’90s indie influence: on “Hello Hammerheads,” think Yo La Tengo and Belle and Sebastian. Then again, “Drumheller” sounds like a Streets intro in search of the beat to kick it into the first verse. Traces of current Wilco kraut-style guitars and (of course) early Boards of Canada are throughout the album.
Really, Caribou is reaching further back to ’60s rock and folk. Anyone familiar with the Silver Apples will recognize their enormous influence on The Milk of Human Kindness — not a surprise after the two-drummer tour that followed Up in Flames. The bombastic production and My Bloody Valentine-like sonic palette have been replaced by the stripped-down sound of Neu and other kraut rock, most notably on “A Final Warning.” The press release muses that the album could have been a long-lost record from 1973, but in all honesty this record would have seemed inconsequential among far better records of the time.
A somewhat confusing listen, The Milk of Human Kindness doesn’t have a strong enough presence to leave a mark. What is remarkable, however, is how listenable such an unremarkable record is. After twenty listens, I’m still uncertain what its ambitions are, but it never seems like a chore. Certain songs, mostly toward the end, where stronger melodies prevail (see “Brahminy Kite”), leave me with something more than a pleasant aftereffect. But for an artist as important as the newly christened Caribou, it’s not nearly enough.