Who are The Caribbean? You can search Pitchfork and find reviews (good ones) of every one of their records. You can time travel back three years and read about their day jobs on Stereogum; a civil litigation attorney, an English teacher, and a US Dept. of Transportation librarian have been writing, recording, and performing music together for over a decade in Washington, DC. They've been on Hometapes since 2004, helping plow the land that grows bands you've heard of.
If indie rock is a high school, The Caribbean -- Michael Kentoff, Matthew Byars, and Dave Jones -- sit at the lunch table with Daniel Higgs, Wayne Coyne, and John Darnielle. But since their inception in 2000, they've always hidden behind something: lyrics, unorthodox chord progressions, slithering melodies, iconic-but-abstract visual art, humor and satire, a nearly un-Google-able band name, and even their own normal-guy appearance. Discontinued Perfume, their first album in three years, began no differently: it was born Municipal Stadium, in the tradition of ambiguous album names like Plastic Explosives and Populations. But then the compass arrow turned. On the suggestion of friend and album co-producer Chad Clark, the song "Discontinued Perfume"-- a reference to the mysteriously doomed Teresa Duncan and Jeremy Blake -- surfaced as the namesake. This change in direction, with a name so open to interpretation and edging on sounding pretty, was no subtle shift. For The Caribbean, and specifically frontman Michael Kentoff, this was a revelation.
"In February, I was completely non-functional -- for days I didn't remember how to play guitar. I went with Maureen to the Whole Foods and wandered around -- I didn't know what I was supposed to do; all I could focus on was the bizarre sounds people made as they talked to each other in the produce section (it was like tripping, without the fun). My brain said, 'You want to do lots of shit in multiple worlds, eh? How about functioning in none?'" Michael Kentoff describes, in an email, the moment he realized he was having a nervous breakdown during the making of Discontinued Perfume.
At forty-six years old, he's a veteran in the independent music scene (and its DC-based epicenter). He wears a collared shirt every day and drives to Georgetown to work. He's married. He has cats. He has season tickets. He has an alarm clock. He goes to shows. He has parents. He has lunch. He attends funerals. He has Pro-Tools. He has laundry to fold. And he describes it best in the lyrics to Discontinued Perfume's "Artists in Exile":
The houses are real
and the garden is real
and everything looks nice enough to steal.
So meanwhile in the basement, secret tapes roll seven IPS.
Artists in exile on your street:
Yeah, they're living alright.
This voyeuristic tone that Kentoff has cultivated in real time over four albums and two EPs is flat-out autobiographical. "It's pretty explicitly about living as a secret artist, wherein a person exiles themselves, in being an artist, from the straight world (workmates, neighbors, family) and, in living a straight life, from other artists," writes Kentoff. "That duality is one of the things that, I think, makes our music unique and I believe in it. I didn't realize until February that, in order to maintain that duality, I was compartmentalizing different parts of my life and that if one compartment overflowed, I'd be shoulder-deep in some bad shit. No idea. When I wrote the song, it was a celebration, a declaration of defiance."
This fact opens up Discontinued Perfume like no Caribbean record before, and advocates a revisitation of every lyric booklet in their catalog. Michael Kentoff is not the first to put his truths to music. But The Caribbean, and specifically Discontinued Perfume in its honesty about modern life, are ambling toward universal truths. This band, and we as listeners, cannot be separated from the era we live in. Our waking life has expanded to embrace new dimensions of communication, experience, and measurement. Our own evolution has Google Analytics running on it. Your pocket is probably vibrating. And, all the while, there's a collective unrest among us, a zeitgeist of 21st century realization. "Discontinued Perfume seems to be about living a strong, practical, grown up life and being comfortable with leaving that world and accepting the unknowable," writes Kentoff. Brought to life on the cover of the record, this sentence defines the album, and, if you might entertain the thought, the state of mind of the generations born in and around the 70s -- or anyone in the process of reconciling their humanity with the world we've built. Though the sentence is over 140 characters long.
Kentoff continues, "Many of the songs are about trying to see through closed doors. Trying to understand people who have done terrible or unfathomably disturbing things ("Lands & Grooves", "The Declarative", "Discontinued Perfume"), people who hurt you ("Collapsitarians", "Outskirts"), those with no ability to communicate or who communicate in off-putting ways ("The Clock Tower", "Municipal Stadium","Mr. Let's Find Out"), victims and/or oppressors ("Thank You For Talking To Me About Israel", "Supply Lines"), or just one's own mysterious dual life ("Artists in Exile")."
The Caribbean's writing process is only matched in intensity and experimentalism by their recording process. The sonic steps taken by Discontinued Perfume illuminate the psychological strides of the album. Matthew Byars' rhythmic arrangements, from percussion to synthesis to vocals, armor Kentoff's conceptual core. Dave Jones always-otherworldly guitar has sprouted a tractor beam, transporting you from song to song without ever touching the ground. This trio, bolstered by the sonic presence of usual collaborators Tony Dennison and Don Campbell along with friends Brad Laner (Medicine), Thomas Wincek (Volcano Choir, All Tiny Creatures), Nick Butcher, Slaraffenland, and Chad Clark (Beauty Pill, Smart Went Crazy), has made their finest music to date.
Discontinued Perfume is about the gray area -- where we all live. "Just breathe and try to relax: we’re all alone," sings Kentoff. "There are no microphones, no cameras in the walls." The Caribbean builds up and tears down again, embracing all the magic of the world with the full knowledge and acceptance of the fact: "No matter where you end up, you’ll find yourself on somebody’s list." Identity is intangible and uncontainable; you do your best to stake a claim, realizing that the power to be anything is largely out of your hands. The lesson of this album is that there is no lesson. The songs of Discontinued Perfume are snow globes -- tiny dioramas to be shaken and shaken again. Like living, The Caribbean is not easy…until you put on your headphones, stop worrying, and let it be.
-Sara Padgett Heathcott, Hometapes
released October 29, 2013
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