It’s time to talk about Hot Chip‘s perpetually classy live show. Continue reading Still chipper
Two recent electronic albums adopt differing attitudes to the past. One is met with a touch of indifference; the other, a mixture of adulation and castigation. Continue reading Colour: the sixth sense
The back half of Hot Chip‘s recent fifth album, In Our Heads, bears an acknowledged debt to a very particular sound of the 1980s. Says the band’s Joe Goddard,
“I’m obsessed with maxi-12″ extended mixes from the 80s. Records from that time have such a beautiful big sound—they often are quite epic. There’s a lot of different sounds, and they’re seven or eight minutes long. I really like those records.”
You can hear that influence writ small on “Ends Of The Earth”, an uplifting, pacey track, which burbles out of a glowing arpeggiated river. Trickling along beneath the analog goodness is Al Doyle’s ever-present electric guitar, which sounds like it’s teleported in from a Chic record. There’s a glossy sheen to the song’s arrangement that’s very much from the era Goddard recalls with fondness.
But it’s actually the lyrics that really get me on “Ends Of The Earth”, and, in particular, the opening couplet:
“You promised me the ends of the earth—
But I don’t want that.
I just want you to feel the belief of a man.”
Singing atop a pristine synthesised choir, the preternaturally sighing Alexis Taylor rejects the over-reaching advances of a prospective lover. He just wants to be there for her—not to be the recipient of untold riches or crushing gestures. Immediately afterwards, there’s another witty and ambiguous put-down to Taylor’s prospective belle: “They say that love is drunk…But drunk don’t get you far”. I say ambiguous because it’s unclear whether he’s looking for something more meaningful than drunken, empty promises, or because the girl who he’s pursuing is nobler than a dancefloor hook-up. Or maybe it’s just something else drawn from his arsenal of throwaway ripostes.
As the song extends into an infinity of chugging euphoria, Taylor is distinctly more circumspect and cryptic. “I try to keep myself topped up with all that’s good and bad—don’t want to fall behind the pack”, he admits, perhaps suggesting he’s undeserving of the girl’s titular pledge. He’s not perfect, but he reckons he’ll do good enough as a crutch for her.
“Ends Of The Earth” is taken from In Our Heads by Hot Chip, released on 11th June, on Domino Records.
“One day you might realise / That you might need to open your eyes.”
We know a fair bit about Hot Chip‘s love of wonky, garage, and house. We know this from songs like “Don’t Dance”, “Bendable Poseable” and “We Have Love”, and we know this from Joe Goddard’s various side-projects, like The 2 Bears. On Hot Chip’s last album, One Life Stand, they sounded sometimes exhilarating, frequently lovestruck, and occasionally like they were sweatily getting down on the dancefloor. But they never conjured up all these moods at the same time.
Our first taste of what Hot Chip in 2012 sounds like comes via “Flutes” (see above, in a head-spinning in-studio video). At once euphoric and romantic—perhaps that’s a symptom of the cheesy cut-up vocal sample, overlaid with warm analogue bass and chords—the song builds and builds, taking on new and exciting layers of vocals, synths both arpeggiated and wailing, and pulsating percussion. It’s like a carnival, walking through a renewal of one’s marital vows.
That this marathon workout never collapses or feels like it’s treading ground is evidence of Hot Chip’s maturity as songwriters, which has progressed even further since One Life Stand. On that album, they constructed sweet pop songs with interesting production and instrumentation; on “Flutes”, they’re pushing the boundaries of pop music, with a composition that travels round the world and is still back home in time for supper. The roly-poly electric piano finale is the icing on the cake.
“All the people I love are drunk.”
Hot Chip know their way around the tragicomic, which is why “Crap Kraft Dinner” is a different kind of loser’s anthem.
The song doesn’t operate in terms of verse-chorus-verse-chorus, and if it did, it wouldn’t work. The first bit is all purported scene-setting, making the listener believe it’s the guy who’s been dumped. Over melancholy FM bells and the occasional, soothing throb of bass, Alexis Taylor sounds like a down-and-out, glued to the bar stool.
“All you can hear is my refusal,
‘Cos I haven’t got the time for a jerk-off loser.”
But then, as the song enters its second act, the tempo steps up a gear. A lonely, forlorn strum of guitar is another faux amis before the song’s true intentions are laid bare. The 808 starts hitting on the off-beat, second vocalist Joe Goddard copies Taylor’s lyrics but an octave lower, and we realise that it’s the girl, previously the recipient of the titular “crap Kraft dinner”, who’s been dumped. Before you know it, with an ironic smirk, a saxophone straight out of “Careless Whisper” enters the scene, presaging the song’s final section, wherein competing synth lines rotate and murmur over a tricksier beat. Now he’s not so much singing about leaving his girl, as rubbing salt in her wounds, pretending he’s upset and heartbroken in spite of it being his decision. There’s “no more space or time / For a last supper”—though, given his previously explicated culinary skills, maybe that’s no bad thing.
The double irony is, of course, that Hot Chip know they’re geeks, and know that they’re never really the ones doing the dumping, or the salt-rubbing, or the pimping of one’s ride. After all, in another Coming On Strong cut, “Playboy”, Goddard describes “Drivin’ in my Peugeot / 20-inch rims with the chrome now / Blazin’ out Yo La Tengo”, like a particularly sad-sack gangsta from Putney.
I have zero contextual knowledge of Gang Gang Dance. Here are some facts I know about Gang Gang Dance:
- They opened for Animal Collective at their 2009 Brixton Academy gig, which I was supposed to go to, but didn’t;
- I have, in the past, confused them for Passion Pit (reason unknown—maybe the common strand is their hyperactive vocalists?), and also Yeasayer (more easily done, given their shared membership of the worldbeat genre on Wikipedia).
Which, I suppose, means my appreciation of their newest album, Eye Contact, is totally tabula rasa. Like some of the most stunning AC moments, Eye Contact emerges from a primordial digital soup. A few painterly strokes of synth, sent from outer space. Gentle ticking of cymbals like a car cooling off on the driveway. Indecipherable, Damo Suzuki-esque chatter lurking at the back of the mix. The other reference point for “Glass Jar”, I suppose, is Tortoise’s “TNT”, which coalesces in a similar manner. Eventually the sounds take on greater form; the wisps and fragments turn into a glassy motif, and Jesse Lee’s drums do a serviceable impression of Nick Mason, in the intro to Pink Floyd’s “Time”. Then, in the final five minutes (the song is eleven minutes long), vocalist Lizzi Bougatsos steps in with her otherworldly tones, and the arrangement behind her settles into a slightly manic, trance-informed jig. “Glass Jar” is undoubtedly one of the most intense and overwhelming entry points to an album I have heard for some time.
From there on in, Eye Contact is a mesmerising. There are seven actual songs, interspersed with utterly incongruous transitional pieces. As an example, the first, “∞”, features what sounds like Orthodox Greek chanting over ambient murmurings. Its cousins, “∞∞” and “∞∞∞”, are similarly extrasensory.
Consequently, the real magic lies in the songs. Eye Contact melds South Asian melodies to sonics which alternately recall dingy clubs in Shoreditch, the tropical rainforests of Pandora, and a hunk of baile funk to boot. It’s heady stuff, and at times you’re left almost gasping for air, but, significantly, the band never lose sight of their audience, and never get stuck up their own behinds. Frequently, it sounds like what might pass for a Bollywood soundtrack in the year 3000 (imagine the nth sequel to Enthiran), or what might ensue if M.I.A. decided to embrace pop music again, rather than flirting with bursts of industrial noise. The concluding passage of “Chinese High” swaps the swampy funk of the opening part for a glossy curtain of 1980s prog, with cascades of guitar and keyboard, underpinned by Lee’s ricocheting drums. On “MindKilla”, Bougatsos’s voice is like a jet of water propelled out of a hosepipe, subtly modulating in profile as it is disturbed by external factors—in this case, the army of squelching and buzzing and cooing synthesisers.
The second half of Eye Contact is more laid-back. “Romance Layers” features a guest turn on the microphone from Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor, who gives the digitally approximated slap bass and hyperactive neo-soul a lesson in soothing seduction. Like every instrument on the album, Taylor’s voice is heavily treated, rippling out into a thousand particles at the end of each phrase. The final song, “Thru and Thru”, sees Bougatsos taking on the Kate Bush role of tormented woman of the moors, ululating above a constantly shifting instrumental backdrop, which turns from a classical Indian ditty into a carnival of funk, and then into a sparser, percussion-heavy sequence. It’s bewildering, and so far into the matrix it’s probably learnt to breathe in carbon dioxide. As all the coagulating elements recede, leaving only a mournful sarod wailing into the night, it’s not hard to feel shaken by Eye Contact’s assault on the senses.
Gang Gang Dance’s fifth album won me over, bulldozing over my initial trepidation surrounding this kind of hippy cultish, one-world music. Eye Contact is compositionally accomplished, and does not abuse its delightfully methylated production to the detriment of melody and song structure. It never pushes into proggy abandon, even as it plunges into foreign climes, and it will continue to perplex and challenge me for some time yet, I foresee. I would say that a trip to the band’s back catalogue is very much in order.
Themes of marriage and commitment work surprisingly well in music that isn’t rock. In “My Love”, Justin Timberlake asks if his girl would “date him on the regular” and refers to a “ring” that “represents his heart”, over one of the finest R&B tracks in my lifetime. More recently, Beyoncé used “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)” to implore young men to make that commitment, in order to prevent the pains of post-breakup jealousy. Conversely, in rock music, similar subjects all-too often fall flat and limp and mawkish. It’s little wonder some of my favourite music is so dark, because an awful lot of empowering music is unavoidably dull and derivative.
Hot Chip fall neatly into this marital R&B turf, boasting an array of catchy hooks and melodies that would function just as well were they not to be serviced by an arsenal of squelching synths and chart-reflecting beats. Their music veers exceptionally close to soul, and also to the idiosyncratic songwriting of Robert Wyatt and Paul McCartney, albeit with a modern instrumental bent. Following the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach taken on 2008’s Made In The Dark, the band has toured relentlessly, refocused, and emerged with a triumphantly mature new record, entitled One Life Stand. No more a bachelor, and now encumbered by the responsibilities of fatherhood, frontman Alexis Taylor has helped forge an album that is considerably more pruned down, and lacking the quirky excesses that previously plagued some of their weaker material.
One Life Stand is… solid. In places, as on the New Order-ish opener, “Thieves In The Night”, it is inspired. Elsewhere, it sees the band knuckle down and write richly melodic and warming songs about the joys of companionship and brotherhood. The album’s opening quartet of songs recall various eras of dance music – synth pop, disco, house, piano-stomping Motown. To the band’s credit, it never sounds too well-trodden, and, in the title track, they re-earn the truly great electro-pop crown previously bestowed upon “Ready For The Floor” and “Over And Over”.
Then, the band tones thing down for a middle section that some will find… slushy (sorry!), but other will cherish for its broad and smile-inducing balladry. Of particular interest is the afore-referenced “Slush”, which emerges from a bizarre vocal warm-up exercise and takes a while to get going. But when it does, it is properly good, and fashioned from a very McCartney II-esque mould. Four minutes in, a beautifully subtle brass arrangement combines with almost tear-jerking steel drum, creating a final two-and-half minutes of downbeat, melancholy yet utterly compelling music which defies genre. As the song is swallowed up by a foetal fog of atmosphere dust, you would be a cold-hearted creature not to be touched by it in some way.
The final three tracks see a return to Hot Chip’s preoccupation with electronic music. “We Have Love” is shadowy and danceable, and unfolds like a less crazy version of the last album’s “Don’t Dance”; “Keep Quiet” is sinister and rides along vaguely tropical percussion and synth glows that would not have gone amiss on the Fever Ray album. Finally, we are left with the triumphant house of “Take It In”, which performs the band’s great trick of shifting suddenly from a faintly worrying minor-key verse to an anthemic major-key chorus, with precision-honed perfection.
One Life Stand will probably bore a lot of listeners. It doesn’t radically alter the landscape of quasi-dance music; it doesn’t permit the band to indulge in their more insane electronic compositions. Instead, favouring a more subtle strategy of writing more-than-competent pop songs, the band’s new focus and concision pays great dividends. Never messy or sprawling, One Life Stand is a well-sequenced work that never outstays its welcome, and I think Hot Chip have finally created an album-lover’s album.
Much as I enjoyed Hot Chip’s third album, Made In The Dark, I’ll admit that it was a slightly cluttered, claustrophobic listen. There was a lot going on in some of the tracks – “Shake A Fist” and “Don’t Dance” in particular – and though this was offset by the sparser, more low-key numbers (the title track, for instance, was a masterpiece of concision), the overall vibe was very busy and slightly unfocused. Which is why I’m very excited by the literature surrounding the band’s forthcoming fourth album, entitled One Life Stand because a range of sources have suggested that it will be a more stripped-down and focused affair – an album’s album, if you will.
The album’s release is being preceded by a digital release of the title track which, in truncated form, occupies a radio-friendly three-and-a-half-minutes. And it’s a great pop song, in the catchy mould of “Ready For The Floor”, albeit with an added jaggedness and bite. “Tell me where you’ve been… where you’ve been staying” whispers Alexis Taylor in his most conspiratorial tone, backed by clattering steel drums and a synth line rich in overtones. After a time, synth-wizard Joe Goddard pipes in with a somewhat supernatural moan which continues throughout the chorus, followed by one of the most glorious, buzzing synth melodies I’ve heard in a long time. “One Life Stand” is foreboding and seductive; its relatively simplistic structure belies the love of pop music beating at its core. It’s a wonderful addition to the band’s catalogue of cult classics, and I really do expect it to break high into the charts.
Hot Chip – One Life Stand (embedding disabled by Parlophone, joyless souls that they are)