Caribou’s recorded progression, beginning with the stilted, synthetic IDM of 2001’s Start Breaking My Heart has been a continual tug of war between the artificial and the organic, one that has inched further and further toward the latter. By 2007’s Andorra, the laptop DJ element had become secondary to a blindingly sunny retro-pop sensibility, which while effective in the short-term, also felt like something of a dead end. Swim thankfully wades back into the fray, balancing human vocals and machine emissions, physical instruments and computer sounds. Ultimately, it’s a better album, more steeped in rewarding sonic conflict, more fully evocative of the stylistic struggles the band has come to represent.
The songs, while retaining Andorra‘s naming system (one word titles, often bearing female names), are as glossy as those on the breakthrough Up in Flames, just as often reducing the vocals to another building-block element of the music. This is most evident on the vibrant “Sun,” which repeats the title word almost continuously throughout, dragging it through sparkling fields of wobbly keys and stiff 2/4 techno. Other songs exploit vocals more overtly, but the words still never quite feel like the point, oblique and fuzzy, couched in landscapes that have far too much else going on.
The worst moments on Swim seem to occur early on, when those vocals are pushed toward predictable aims, kneaded into thin, airy missives that seem to approximate the weightless but weighty tone of Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock. Similarly, “Odessa,” with its grimy, throbbing backbite and bird-like sample, recalls the dreary, rain-spattered landscapes of Burial exposed to direct sunlight. These are willfully false moments that, like much of Andorra, strain too hard to inhabit a specific twist on a familiar sound.
“Kaili” almost suffers the same fate, seemingly poised for a standard-issue bursting crescendo, a common crutch on the band’s earlier material. Thankfully, the song gets abruptly grounded halfway though, tugged into a more interesting equilibrium by a brass band of sad-sack tubas and moody trumpet swells. Similarly, the bells on “Found Out” add a bit of antithetical sleigh-ride spirit to a song otherwise dominated by stabbing, artificial guitar bleeps, elevator synths, and trebly drum-machine whaps. The best songs follow this mold, surreptitiously assaulting bright electronic canvases with the intrusion of bluntly organic elements.