The Caribbean: Plastic Explosives

Plastic Explosives, The Caribbean's third album and follow-up to 2004's William of Orange EP, is both instrumentally rich (the quintet's acoustic guitar-bass-drums foundation augmented by banjo, accordion, and marimba) and succinct (its eighteen songs—more precisely twelve songs and six interludes—total a fleet 40 minutes). Furthermore, the recording feels intimate (the songs are authored by Michael Kentoff only) yet also expansive (on account of a bold production style that prominently places the drums at the front of the mix). It's a seeming mix of contradictions, then, all of which makes the music all the more absorbing.

That Kentoff was, in some previous incarnation, a “frustrated short-story writer and former ad pitchman,” doesn't surprise, given the fragmented, stream-of-consciousness lyrics scattered throughout (a sample curio: “Conventioneers to the left. Aspirations to the right. How, in entertaining his charge, the Procurator witnessed the light; he understood”). That allusive quality is a key part of the group's appeal, however, with the listener attempting to decipher the album's narrative arc to determine whether songs are thematically connected or separate vignettes—how refreshing to encounter lyrics that embrace a literary indeterminacy rather than bludgeon with tired clichés. Expect nothing so simple or straightforward as verse-chorus-bridge structures either; lyrics don't repeat and songs take eccentric melodic detours. Call them 'art' songs minus the pretension.

With its woozy flow of breathy vocals, harpsichord, and drums, “On the Use of Mirrors in the Game of Chess” is a typical exemplar of the style. In the first half of “French Radio,” soft vocals and a winsome ambiance suggest similarities between The Caribbean and Death Cab for Cutie, while the harpsichord, banjo, and phasing effects in its second half evoke “Cabinessence”-era Brian Wilson. Memorable moments abound: the faintly tropical vibe of “Tarmac Squad,” the chiming interplay of electric and acoustic guitars in “The Procurator Understood,” the pairing of Tom Morante's accordion and marimba in the remarkable title song, and the snarling guitars that strut through “The Truth Hurts Jamie Green.” Plastic Explosives manages to be accessible without sacrificing its offbeat persona in the process. (Mention, too, should be made of the deluxe packaging which nicely coordinates colour cubes on the panel photographs to the booklet wthin.)

November 2005