Toward the middle of Caramel, Connan Mockasin poses two song-title questions to you: “Do I Make You Feel Shy?” and “Why Are You Crying?” The New Zealander has every right to believe that things are going to get a little awkward and discomforting for the listener on the follow-up to his 2011 debut Forever Dolphin Love. Whereas the kaleidoscopic, tropical-hued Dolphin presented Mockasin as part acid casualty, part space oddity and total Kiwi oddball, Caramel is cohesive, earthy and carnal, drawing attention to the sticky, oozing, mahogany nature of its titular candy. There he lies on the album cover, presumably wrapped up in clean white sheets he’s looking to muss up a little (or a lot) and the music takes all of the mystery out of his intentions.
First single “I’m The Man, That Will Find You” (note the comma) plays Sly Stone records at 45 rpm and “It’s Your Body” is a five-part guitar instrumental played over wayward samples. Between those two poles, Mockasin explores a range of genres bearing an eerie, unsettling veneer — quiet storm R&B, smooth jazz, cocaine-addled pop-rock. Every sound on Caramel is defiled in some aspect — taking cues from subversives like Ariel Pink and Ween, his vocals are pitch-shifted, guitars are given a glassy, glazed tone and reverb gives Mockasin a sonic and metaphysical distance from the proceedings. Occasionally, this approach undermines Caramel, which lacks Forever‘s wide-eyed experimentalism and simplified pop smarts. The field of soft-pop perverts isn’t getting any less crowded, either. Still, Caramel feels like a transitional work from a curious artist who’ll move to the next groove if the audience doesn’t answer his questions to his liking.