Music Reviews

Daphni Jiaolong

(Merge) Buy it from Insound Rating - 6/10

Great things are expected from artists who have continually given us great things in the past.  It’s an inevitable cycle for musicians who constantly excel at delivering exactly what fans want, while also leaving some of those same fans to scratch their head in wonder.  Just talk to bands like Radiohead or Liars who have released music which both exceeded their fans expectations and divided that same base.  This seemingly purposeful drive to confound and impress their fans in equal measure is what drives so many artists into wild and unpredictable musical avenues.  And so accordingly, Dan Snaith can be somewhat forgiven for releasing an album like Jiaolong, which fails to come together in any manageable way, while also having released seminal albums like The Milk of Human Kindness and Up In Flames (under his Caribou and Manitoba monikers respectively).  But an artist can’t rely on the goodwill of their fans as a crutch for creative lethargy, and the bands which consistently end up impressing their fans understand this concept well.  Unfortunately though, barring a few notable tracks, this debut from Snaith under the Daphni name, fails to coalesce into anything resembling the creative designs of his previous records. 

His fascination with repetition, hinted at on earlier Caribou albums, comes to fruition here and does him no favors when it comes to creating memorable melodies and distinctive musical markers.  The sequencing of Jiaolong is also problematic but that could have been more easily forgiven had the quality of the songs been better.  As they stand, there are moments on this record which are recognizably Snaith’s, but the album feels disjointed and completely out of step with his past work, even for an album under a different musical alias.  His fascination with samples, wonderfully understated and used to dramatic purpose on Swim and The Milk of Human Kindness fall flat and sound downright grating as they are used extensively in repetitive looping of simplistic beats and monosyllabic synth lines.  I don’t care if he did preface this release by saying that it was a “dance” record.  A good chunk of this album just feels lazy.

Opening track Yes, I Know turns a dramatic Buddy Miles sample into a soulless clinical construct, bereft of feeling and teetering on the verge of creative dismissal.  And while that may seemly overly critical, I’ve never found myself so ready to skip a track on any of his other records.  There is something oddly off-putting about the way the song meanders without real purpose and attempts to shoehorn in this sample as a way of covering over its obvious lack of creative direction.  It gives off an odd sensation of musical misdirection which seems incredibly deceptive, as it feels in no way earned.  Follow-up track Cos-Ber-Zam – Ne Noya (Daphni Mix) takes an African poly-rhythmic vocal sample and runs roughshod over it by adding distractingly dull synths and crude beats.  When a decades-old sample can sound more vibrant and exciting than its surrounding music, there is obviously a fundamental problem with how the song is put together.  And after over a decade of making substantial music from insubstantial bits and pieces, Snaith knows better than to half-ass it like he does on this track.  What makes this seem more egregious than it might otherwise have been is that his electronic work has always been characterized by a natural, almost organic progression, and the total lack of any emotional core in these first two songs feels like a betrayal of his already well-established methodology.

Due to the unfortunate sequencing of these first two tracks, the album gets off to a rough start, with the music barely able to keep the listener engaged.  Thankfully, we break ties with the first two tracks on Ye Ye, an energetically charged whirlpool of elastic beats and oscillating synths that recalls some of the best moments from his past releases.  It sprints along at a rapid pace, leaving empty husks of pre-amps and sequencers in its wake.  This is what I expected from the man behind some of my favorite records of the past decade.  I just have to wonder about his choices in regards to the track order—and album inclusion for that matter. 

However, those concerns can be shelved temporarily as the album’s backbone, consisting of Light and Pairs, props up the album and manages to provide a brief glimpse of that devious collage-happy artist we’ve come to know and trust.  And though that trust is strained on Jiaolong, there is enough here to satiate die-hard fans, though casual fans may find it a tough sell.  Light pairs a motorik beat with laser beam synths and a flute sample that manages to thread together seamlessly despite its superficial disparity.  Pairs successfully combines an oddly arranged calypso rhythm with a throbbing bass line that twists around on itself while layering subtle synth arrangements in the background.  It’s a great example of what Snaith is capable of when he’s completely focused on the material at hand, which unfortunately is not the case on most of the songs here. 

The quality drops again on the back end with Springs and Long but doesn’t quite hit the lows of the first few songs.  If anything, it’s a forgettable ending to a mostly disappointing album, as these last songs never really hit their stride in any meaningful way and just seen instantly unremarkable.  Even the incessant tape hiss on Long that eventually morphs into aqueous squelches, as well as the spiked synths on Springs, can’t redeem an album so tied to constructed repetition.   It’s all the more disappointing as we were just beginning to hear what could be accomplished when all these jumbled pieces fall into place.

And though it may be unfair to judge Jiaolong according to the rules set forth by Snaith in his day-band Caribou, it seems that the comparisons are as apt as they are unforgiving.  He fooled around with synthetic repetition on Swim, but had the good sense to understand its limitations.  As Daphni, it seems as though he’s cast off any creative (read: self-critical) confines and just let the notes run around from reel to reel, casting formless shadows across the tracks.  The creative restraint that he exercised to exacting measure on Up In Flames and The Milk of Human Kindness, which is no way hindered his ability to extract perfect marvels of melody on those records, would have been a very welcome addition on these songs.  And while the album does have a very solid mid-section, with Ye Ye, Light, and Pairs anchoring the creatively adrift Jiaolong, it feels too scattered and thematically distant to ever feel like a true descendent of Caribou.  And maybe it’s not supposed to be but Dan Snaith better light up the sky with his new release or his fans may simply turn to other artists for their electro-pop fix.  At the very least, a trial separation from Daphni might not be a bad idea.  Now go listen to Up In Flames and just try to get that stupid grin off your face.