Review Summary: Don Caballero's magnum opus and the definitive math-rock record.
After 1997's What Burns Never Returns, Don Caballero became a household name in post-rock. Hailed as a breath of fresh air in what had started to become a stagnant, me-too genre, What Burns Never Returns effortlessly defied classification and trampled all over ideas of what an instrumental rock band could do. Now, I'm sure we're all familiar with the "one-hit wonder:" An artist releases one album to critical acclaim and massive sales, only to fail to create a worthy successor. Don Cab had already completed step one of the equation. So was the party over? Thankfully, not yet, as Don Caballero proved with the release of their 2000 masterpiece American Don.
One of American Don's greatest strengths is its immediately noticeable instrumentation. Although Ian Williams is the only guitarist in the band, he often plays three separate guitar lines in a song. While this might sound like it would encourage overcrowding and shred-wankery, a lack of distortion and the abundance of simple, intuitive progressions mean that each line rings out loud and clear. Resulting is a beautifully dense-yet-clean sound which is much greater than the sum of its parts. Even though Don Cab are wildly prone throwing dozens of different riffs into a single song, no note ever feels superfluous. That's saying a lot when considering songs like "Haven't Lived Afro Pop," which is seven-and-a-half minutes long and can't seem to sit still for more than 30 seconds. Behind the guitars, bassist Eric Emm lays down some perfect groundwork for the rest of the band. However, he does not simply content himself with fantastic background grooves; he steals the show on songs like "Ones All Over The Place," taking center stage and throwing into question all notions of what a bass can and should do. Switching seamlessly between foundation and focus, the bass lines on American Don are some of the greatest that Don Caballero has ever played. Complementing the strings is drummer Damon Che, whose prodigious skill demands attention with every beat. Songs like "Afro Pop" are playgrounds for him, where he's free to both set the stage and jump to the center of it. Whether he's taking a backseat or beating his kit into submission, each drumline works wonders with the other instruments.
American Don is meant to be heard as one large experience, but that doesn't mean that each individual piece doesn't work as its own song. "Fire Back About Your New Baby's Sex" kicks the album off in style, with Don Caballero heavily flaunting their technicality and befriending listeners with their welcoming sound. "You Drink A Lot Of Coffee For A Teenager" is one of the most odd songs on the record, blending spastic melodies with crunchy guitars and thumping drums. "Let's Face It Pal, You Didn't Need That Eye Surgery" stutters out of the starting gate in a jarring and mechanical fashion until Don Cab's trademark angular-yet-inviting guitar lines surface. "Ones" begins a little deceptively, with meandering guitars and a punchy rhythym section. Just another Don Caballero song, right? Nope. After a few minutes of build-up, Eric and Damon dismiss the guitars and deliver one of the most fun and original parts of the album. The fact that Don Caballero can remove arguably the most important instrument on the album and still retain the same amount of energy and quality is a testament to just how talented they really are.
Although American Don is stunning throughout, one song stands head-and-shoulders above the rest: "Details On How To Get ICEMAN On Your License Plate." Once again, Don Cab begins in typical Don Cab fashion, with guitars plinking and plonking their way through excellent drum and bass interplay. After a minute of standard Don Cab fare, they lay their souls out for us with some of the most heartfelt riffs they've ever written. In spite of, or perhaps because of, the lack of lyrics in the song, "ICEMAN" seems to relate to us on a much more important level than most other music. Don Cab's instruments reach deep inside and communicate on the most basic of levels. Progressing from life-affirming to despondent and sorrowful to swirling, Loveless-esque beauty, "ICEMAN" is the height of the album and one of modern music's best moments.
Unfortunately, touring for American Don came to a sudden halt after a touring van accident, and soon afterward, the band went on hiatus. Nevertheless, American Don has stood the test of time. All its pieces put in place, it's one of the most complete records ever made. Cerebral, innovative, energetic, introspective, genre-defining... The adjectives one could use to describe it are endless. American Don will continue to be remembered as the tour-de-force it is for years to come.