Give the Caribbean some of your time. Not just a little. A decent chunk. Over the past decade, the local trio has crafted five albums of pristine, thoughtful songs full of subtle twists, turns and observations. Each successive listen peels back another layer of new insights and intricacies.
The new “Discontinued Perfume” may be the best of the bunch and fits snugly into the universe the band has created — a place where visitors are encouraged to poke around and ponder. The band isn’t looking for fans so much as friends.
“The reason I got involved with music, directly or indirectly, was to meet people. In other words, communicate with strangers,” says singer-guitarist Michael Kentoff. “That’s a very, very complex process.”
While it may be a very, very complex process, that doesn’t mean the band makes very, very complex music. It may seem that way at first, though. And Kentoff is fine with that.
“I’ve always liked music that I didn’t necessarily fall in love with on first listen,” he says. And “Discontinued Perfume” is absolutely less a love-at-first-sight album than a friends-then-gradually-lovers one. It’s a slowly seductive collection in which a slinky guitar line eventually becomes catchy, or a head-scratching lyric suddenly becomes insightful.
General tags such as indie rock or guitar pop may be accurate enough to describe the Caribbean, but it’s rarely quite so simple. The band’s songs aren’t written so much as crafted, with every sound and word meticulously considered. They are meditative, and sometimes contradictory. Even a comparatively straightforward tune such as “Thank You for Talking to Me About Israel,” which rides along on snapping drums and fuzzy guitar, is built on a titular conceit and lyrics that are the polar opposite of an instant singalong.
“If you make something personal, almost by definition, just as it takes time to get to know somebody, it’s going to require a certain amount of effort to bond with it,” Kentoff says. “You remember when a record would come out and you would get it, and it was like having a crush or being in love? You would be glowing for weeks. You couldn’t wait to get home and put that record on. It really was a relationship. That’s the ideal. You just make something that you feel close to and believe in.”
A great sense of ease also courses through the songs. They are relaxed and unhurried. The same can be said of the band’s creative journey. The band members aren’t simply grownups but full-fledged adults. All three are married. (Guitarist Dave Jones’s nuptials occurred somewhat famously on the day after 2010’s enormous blizzard.) Drummer Matthew Byars has two children. Kentoff, 46, is a civil litigator, which some people might call his “real” job. Kentoff is not one of those people.
“If you have a serious career, the people who aren’t in your art world say, ‘Wow, that’s really nice that you do that. What a great outlet!’ ” Kentoff lingers disdainfully on that last word. He calls it “the O word.”
“No, it’s not an outlet — it’s my job that pays [expletive].”
But Kentoff says there’s equal pushback on the other end of the spectrum, from those in the art world who think that having a more traditional career makes your art somehow less meaningful.
“I didn’t want to not be taken seriously at my job,” he says, “and I also didn’t want to not be taken seriously as an artist.”
The struggle came to a head last winter when Kentoff was working on an extremely complicated case at work and putting the finishing touches on the album.
He had a nervous breakdown.
“I didn’t have any way of dealing with that heightened pressure in one part and living as me for the rest of the time,” he says.
In fitting fashion, it wasn’t an incredibly dramatic incident with fits of screaming and lots of flying objects. Like one of his songs, it unfolded slowly and had to be revisited to get a clearer picture.
During February 2010’s historic snowstorms, Kentoff felt paralyzed and said he barely got out of bed for four days. His wife eventually convinced him to get out of the house, but a simple trip to the grocery store became a nerve-wracking and dissociative experience. It was only after seeing a therapist that he fully understood what had happened.
But Kentoff doesn’t dwell on the issues that led to his breakdown. He mentions a friend who was thinking of going to law school and complained that he might not have time to play music.
“If music is important to you, you will find the time to do it,” Kentoff says he told him. “The point is, it does test you. And if you’re still doing it and you’re still pushing and you’re still committed to it — guess what? You’re an artist.”
“Artists in Exile,” the de facto centerpiece of “Discontinued Perfume,” investigates this quandary of a double life. “The man next door don’t work in no used book store / In fact you might drive past his condo at the eastern shore,” Kentoff sings. It might seem like a rare moment of self-reflection, but he insists that the song “isn’t necessarily autobiographical” before offering what could be the Caribbean’s motto:
“It’s much more interesting to explore the world through what you do than explore yourself.”
Friday at U Street Music Hall, 1115 U St. NW. Show starts at 7 p.m.
Tickets: 202-588-1880. www.ustreetmusichall.com. $5.
The Download: For a sampling of the Caribbean’s music, check out:
“Artists in Exile”
“The Truth Hurts Jamie Green”
“I Thee Wed”