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Don Caballero is always breaking up. Each of the last three D.C. appearances by the Pittsburgh-based band has been billed as its last, and its records are always touted as swan songs. With each disbanding, the group’s members have gone out into the worldas Storm & Stress, Thee Speaking Canaries, Six Horse, and Hurland come back to completely reinvent the original beast.
Breaking up has become part of Don Cab’s shtick: Periodically dissolving is a way of cleaning house, of escaping the labels that fans and critics have had to invent to describe each new incarnation of the band.
Don Cab is the band, after all, that gets nebulous descriptions like “angular rock,” “post-hardcore,” and “math rock” thrown at it with no discernible irony or satire, yet always spectacularly ducks such terms. And these are the indie-rock guysmaybe the only oneswho really listen to as much jazz as they say, who fully understand the fundamentals of avant-garde composition, who really count out everything they do as if the rhythmic structure of a song were some complex equation. They are also the guysagain, maybe the only oneswith the good sense and aesthetic to disregard everything they know in the name of rocking out with reckless abandon.
Singles Breaking Up (Vol. 1), therefore, constitutes something of an inside joke; it’s the career trajectory of a band as disjointed as its music.
The general idea behind all Don Cab songs seems to be to devise a complex but rigid rhythmic scheme that gives each musician room to play around inside the structure. Drummer Damon Che is nearly always up to the challenge, but for the first half of this collection, his bandmates occasionally struggle to keep up. The initial choice to exist solely as an instrumental band is pivotal to the structure of the songs, and the absence of a front man is most notable in the band’s earlier songs, before it worked out the kinks of performing without one. From behind the drum kit, the ever-capable Che often tried to lead the group into territory it wasn’t always ready for.
On early singles like “Lucky Father Brown” and “Unresolved Karma,” the bass and guitars get louder and muddier over the course of the song to compensate while Che bugs out on the drums, and it hurts: The term “math rock” has become a cliché in the seven years since Don Cab’s been at it, largely because most of the genre’s practitioners have never quite gotten a handle on the improvisational part of the process.
That said, Don Cab’s imperfections are the real beauty of its music. The band lets its musical experiments unfold in clear progressions, never hiding its mistakes behind blankets of excessive distortion. As a whole, the collection makes an intriguing illustration of Don Cab’s evolution as an improvisational unit. By the third of Don Cab’s 7-inch releases (roughly this collection’s midpoint), the band’s artistry dwarfed the confines of its formulas. Comparisons to bands like Slint that might have been warranted for early songs like “Shoe Shine” lose all meaning by the time the historiography reaches “My Ten Year Old Lady Is Giving It Away” and “Our Caballero.”
Over time, and after weathering several breakups, the band came together by moving apart: Toward the end of this collection, on songs like “Trey Dog’s Acid” and “Room Temperature Lounge,” Che is able to relax a little as his bandmates grow more comfortable with improv. Each instrument begins to take on its own distinctive voice within the band’s larger conversation, which is already happening at an antsy, breakneck pace within the strictures of rather odd time signatures.
As the band matured and reached farther with its musical experiments, the songs almost became more appropriate to discuss in the language of jazz and avant-garde composition than as rock. If this is math rock, then Don Cab’s triumph is to wrangle fuzzy logic and chaos theory into musical composition where other bands get mired in counting out everything obsessively. Don Cab’s later music remains abrasive enough for the group to keep its head above prog-rock muck, but otherwise, little remains of its grounding in punk and hardcore.
“No More Peace and Quiet for the Warlike” is the only previously unreleased track on this collection and is perhaps the least accessible of all the band’s singles. It’s an interesting segue to the three most recent singles, which are the clearest precursors to What Burns Never Returns, the band’s latest and most fully realized album to date. Musical ideas first set forth in the song “If You’ve Read Dr. Adder Then You Know What I Want” are developed and elaborated on What Burns.
Over the course of these singles, Don Caballero ceased being a hardcore band toying with the kernel of a good idea and developed into a startling, unpredictable innovator. Instability has served its music well; we can live with the false epitaphs if the band breaks up enough times in the future to inspire a second volume of its fallout.CP