Album Review: caroline – caroline

[Rough Trade; 2022]

We often exhibit this uncontrollable desire to render the undefined and incomprehensible aspects of our lives as sensible and rational. Our prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain constantly moving to rationalize and make order of the sensations in front of us, is a strong force. But sometimes, experiences in life that are so incomprehensible, the only thing to do when faced with these wonders is to allow ourselves to react accordingly — with emotion. caroline‘s self-titled debut is one such miraculous occurrence that indulges the emotional self to sit and respond to what formless, imprecise beauty could be.

Hailing from the same post-Brexit London art-rock scene that houses bands like Black Country, New Road, Black midi, deathcrash, and others, caroline are simply different. They haven’t arrived to make a poignantly overarching statement about our generation, nor are they here to deliver musical bizarreness kindred to their contemporaries. This experimental, baroque folk project merely wants to share its mutual, deep connection with the art they have evolved to make, reflected through haunting elusiveness, cloistered melodies, and sweeping compositions that never cease to amaze. 

Even with all the fantastic art being churned out from the new guard of British guitar music, it’s a scene that has already developed patterns and templates. For this reason, hearing caroline doing something different is a surprising and refreshing development.

This eight-piece is full of multi-disciplinary talents, many with various roots and musical backgrounds, all of which buoy the entrancing howl of drummer, cellist, and vocalist Jasper Llewellyn. And yet, the band’s beguiling core is much more than Llewyn. The other two founding members are guitarists Casper Hughes and Mike O’Malley, both of whom also lend vocals throughout the self-titled debut. This trifecta operates within its own realm through improvisation, the communal, coursing lifeblood which makes caroline a fully alive and breathing creature – a body that exists solely to emote. 

Since its birth, this creature has learned to walk, has gone through puberty, and added a few wrinkles as it has developed: drums, bass, clarinet, trumpet, all of which now make up this current octet. They are all equally part of the creative process as its founding core, and it shows in the glorious unison displayed throughout this stunning debut. 

Not one single track on caroline’s self-titled stands out drastically from the other, and that’s ok. The beauty of this record is its cascading, amorphous entirety — many layers folding and rippling into another while simultaneously revealing its many tiny components along the way. Feedback, white noise, and distortion often deluge and contort the many instrumental parts into a single, hypnotic hum. But there are times where a precise strike of piano or pluck of guitar, clash of a cymbal, or even and resonant slide of a cellist’s bow will remind listeners that this is music made by people rather than the natural elements that clash around us. This LP is a Pollockian painting where flicks of sounds come across as errant and meandering, only to reveal beautiful whole from a bird’s eye view. 

Amidst this project’s blissful sonics, abstract lyrical turns take hold, conveying a contrasting but overarching tone pronounced through moments of yearning, desperation, and teary-eyed weariness. “Good Morning (Red)”, for example, encounters one of the band’s vocalists shouting into a wistful void, repeatedly asking, “Can I be happy / in this world?” Meanwhile, another member repeats with unphased delusion, “Good morning / It’s that time again,” entrenching listeners in this headspace of monotony – yet beautifully so.

The appropriately titled “desperately” follows suit, furthering and even enhancing the plaintive tone of the track prior, which was only hinted at through mere, underground shouts from below. Pulling the record’s weary demeanor beneath the earth, this is a dirge — a ceremonial lament that proves itself to be breathtaking yet devastating, even though it’s just over a minute long.

The record’s tiredness is intensified by the futility expressed on “IWR”. An Appalachian folk hymnal that sounds like it should be sung alongside others and in between pews, this reeling composition is startling haunting and hopeless with lyrics that hint at something sinister having already transpired. “Sunk Everytime / somehow / I was right / all along,” the band harmonizes, mournfully, on the track.

The rational brain can hardly comprehend these foreboding, abstract poetic turns, but the primitive brain does what it can only naturally do — connect on an emotional level that is often perplexing but empathetic and, thus, comforting. Even when the record’s midsection is falling apart and in danger of metamorphosing into an industrialized monster, the music remains crushingly warm, like an ember — a smoldering embrace amidst the sonic wavering and improvised clangour. This is the power of caroline’s music on their eponymous debut — perennially communicative of hope even when it’s so easy to lean into an exhaustively bleak and disorderly world.

caroline clearly love playing in a deep sea of emotion, but this is hardly conveyed through words; to them, words don’t always tell the whole story of what they’re saying. It’s sheer music – the silence between the different notes and instrumental swells, the calm between structural breakdowns – that speaks louder. Between the eight members, this mysterious, unworded language sounds natural, harmonious, and alive, even when they produce moments that feel overtly modulated, cold and precise. 

caroline are a shapeshifting act whose next album is unlikely to sound like this debut. In hindsight, we’ll probably rave about their desire not to be boxed in, and that’ll be justified by what we been given to experience in caroline. This band are making aural marvels that are sporadic, reactive, and organic — disguised inexactness that will have listeners frozen in an undeveloped state, merely connecting on an emotional level that can hardly be rationalized.