The Caribbean: Populations

The Caribbean's thirty-five minute Populations refines the style documented on the group's previous full-length Plastic Explosives. Michael Kentoff's distinctive voice remains the number one signature (something confirmed too by its prominent placement in the mix), and the group (on this recording, singer and guitarist Kentoff joined by multi-instrumentalist Matthew Byars, drummer Tony Dennison, bassist Don Campbell, and guitarist Dave Jones) again supplements the traditional guitar, bass, and drum instrumentation with an expanded arsenal that includes dulcimer, banjo, and violin. Though Kentoff's singing may be the focal point, one shouldn't forget that The Caribbean is a band: the tight swing with which the group powers “Bees, Their Vision and Language,” for instance, shows that it's much more than a vocal-centered project. The drums give the swoon of “Do You Believe in Dinosaurs?” some punch (so much so that the casual “Kinks” and “Nick Drake” references near the song's end almost go unnoticed), and lend the languorous title track some appealing heft. Throughout the disc, well-placed touches, such as the accordion in “That Anxious Age” and the bells at the end of “Color Television,” enliven the material with sonic colour. A single song cracks the four-minute barrier, with the one in question—“The Ill-Fated Cougar”—using the extra time to indulge in a brief stab at space-rock.

The album's standout is the laconic “The Go From Tactical” which includes a hook to die for, specifically the melody that rises at “Pick up my sound signal to you / that was the go from tactical…” and repeats thereafter; it doesn't hurt that Kentoff's voice pairs up so sweetly with Melissa Quinley's harmony vocal either. Despite being anchored by its acoustic guitar and drum elements, “That Anxious Age” wends a byzantine melodic trajectory that's entirely in keeping with its subject matter (“Mister James seen carrying a—a short typed manuscript into the large chamber of the Chitchat Society…”)—and when was the last time a stutter appeared in a song's lyrics? It's surely not the first time the band's songs have been likened more to musical “short stories” than conventional songs. A case in point, the opening lines of “Color Television”—“After the catastrophe of 1981, nothing much was left of our hometown. Mmmm—no suitcases were found”—read more naturally as the opening lines of an American short story than a three-minute pop song, especially when the band eschews familiar rhyming patterns for a style that's more interested in stream-of-consciousness and non sequiturs. The Caribbean 's misfit music is slightly skewed but not by design—the band is certainly not contriving an avant-garde stance. It's merely a byproduct of the group's unique and rather oblique—one might even call it cubistic—take on the pop tradition.

May 2009