Posted in Album of the Month, podcast

AOTM – October – Hot Chip: Freakout / Release

For anyone that’s ever seen me at a Hot Chip gig (yes, even that one) and just how excited I get by that band, it’s probably about as much of a surprise as hearing I picked Metronomy’s Small World for Episode 21. But however much Hot Chip’s 8th studio album, Freakout/Release, felt like an obvious pick for me, it’s not the slamdunk that it might seem. For starters, it presented me with a quandry for the podcast: I’m an unashamed Hot Chip nerd, a lover of the band since their first album in 2004, so how objective could I be and frame this as a discussion that gave the subject its due without letting personal feelings overbear it? Also, there were other choices in play, not least the amazing Cheat Codes from pod favourites Dangermouse and Black Thought. It’s such a dazzling album with all the vintage feels, oddball samples galore, and conscious, layered flow (not to mention some amazing guests) that it’s a 2022 Top 10 shoe-in. But does anyone want to listen to 4 guys agreeing how good something is for an hour? I wasn’t so sure.

So Hot Chip wasn’t just a lazy pick, and the more I listened, the more it raised a lot of questions that are relevant to my music DNA, and why we do the podcast: how we grow up with bands (and them with us), how artists develop over the years, how and why we connect with them and the effects on music of the inevitable march of time. After all, when I’ve listened to every one of the band’s albums dozens and dozens of times (and for this album, all 8 in one day, just for research purposes!) and seen them tour every one of them since The Warning, I am probably reasonably qualified to consider those questions. To me there’s been subtle but noticeable changes in tone and lyrics that bring me back to those queries each time. For me – if we’re putting it out there – there’s 3 ‘acts’ of Hot Chip: the spiky, jolting first two albums, then an almost impeccable run from Made In The Dark, via One Life Stand, to In Our Heads, and then further shift from Why Make Sense? to the current day. From oddball nerds (a press label as much as anything, and one they probably hate) to underground darlings to a British institution with a dedicated global following. All of this despite only one UK top 10 single (Ready For The Floor) and album (Made In the Dark). Enter their first new album in 3 years, do things feel different? It’s a cliché to say lots has changed since their previous album, A Bath Full Of Ecstacy, arrived, but lockdown and the pandemic has put an indelible mark on society, so it’s not a surprise to hear the band talk about its influence on Freakout/Release and how that made them strive to search for a sound that they wanted to play live.

I probably should admit there’s part of me that connected with the band back in the mid-00s as I saw them as not trying to be cool, just doing their thing, looking like a strange collection of ‘guys with synths’ and making some amazing music, but without any real ego. I was never (am never, will never be) one of the cool kids, a perennial fan of music, DJs, art, clubs, gigs, festivals that wanted to get on the inside but was always peering (metaphorically and literally, sometimes) over the fence at the action, trying to get behind the rope. Hot Chip were one of the first bands I’d seen that looked both totally normal but also really cool, but much more like me and people we knew. I doubt they liked the ‘nerd’ tag (who would?) but against all of that, managed to cultivate a furrow that was very much their own, musically and beyond. Yes, they’ve done themes and colourschemes for some tours and albums, but a lot they’ve done just by being themselves. And how can you not be cool by playing every festival out there, DJing in all the good clubs, and seemingly getting to do it your way throughout? It’s the dream, right? (and disclosure, I’ve meet a few of them in a musical and fan capacity, and guess what? They’re lovely, sound people, so do meet your heroes, at least sometimes).

So what do we know about the album? Like its predecessor, it’s an album where the Alexis Taylor, Joe Goddard, Al Doyle, Felix Martin and Owen Clarke have allowed external producers into the inner sanctum, and like A Bath Full, it’s yielded interesting results that aren’t always visible at first glance. While Bath Full was lauded as positive statement on connection, joy and music’s ability to foster both of these things, (with the late Cassius and production wizard Phillipe Zdar‘s influence writ large and hailed by the band, alongside xx producer Rodiadh MacDonald) the new album feels, at first listens, as a bleaker affair. Where Bath Full wrapped up the listener in a cloud of positive warmth and gentle, existential questions, the backdrop to Freakout/Release’s creation seems to have tipped the band over into far a more introspective, fraught and anxious headspace (if the track titles were your first entry point, then you may baulk at ‘Down‘, ‘Broken‘, ‘Not Alone‘, ‘Guilty‘ and ‘The Evil That Men Do‘). But as with most of Hot Chip’s work, it’s never as binary as this, and while heartbreak preceded its recording – with long-time live addition Rob Smoughton’s near-death illness and Zdar’s passing – and global turmoil surrounded it, hearing the band talk about its making would bely the obvious assumptions that this is a bleak, lockdown album. It’s also interesting hearing Goddard and Taylor talk about the influence of live cover Sabotage over its making, something played out in both the rawer feel of some tracks and also the distorted, dry vocals used, which feels far out of the Hot Chip comfort zone.

Because while Goddard and Taylor have been open about how much the shadow of lockdown loomed over it, a two-pronged narrative emerged: the desire to make songs that they wanted to play in front of festival crowds, even if they didn’t know when that would happen, and a search for connection in music when isolation ruled our lives. Elemental stuff, and very much in tune with how I want to experience music (perhaps a big reason I have always chimed with their work). And on wading in, there are a few things that don’t feel like classic Hot Chip to me immediately: Down’s leaning closely on a sample – 1:42 into the Universal Togetherness Band’s More Than Enough – the isn’t unique (Why Make Sense’s Flutes is the obvious previous nod) to the band but having it on a lead single seems a departure when it’s so core to the song’s feel, which is as disco as they’ve ever got, and as full of Doyle’s guitar licks that it could be a different band to the likes of Shake A Fist’s jagged electronics (even though when you relisten, guitars come up a lot more than I remember across their catalogue). The title track also feels much more raw and messy than their polished, electronic pop sound, with the band passing the unfinished track through the brains of legendary duo Soulwax to get the right vibe. It’s a raucous, scuzzy, almost punky track, that seems very much at odds with the band’s sound, and, as it turns out, a real outlier. You’re left feeling it could’ve been so much more interesting to hear more of this, but would it dilute Hot Chip’s ethos so much they risk alienating the core of devoted fans that have been with them for so much of the journey? We’ll never know. But it’s a step into the unknown somewhat. And I like it.

There’s also a question about how much Goddard and Taylor’s hegemony has been loosened and how much solo and other band projects can and have influenced the band’s own output? Al Doyle’s ‘other band’ being LCD Soundsystem and the influence he’s now had on James Murphy’s outfit (writing a clutch of songs for their last album) has – to me – markedly led to his guitars and a ‘rockier’ sound come more into Hot Chip’s world in recent albums. When LCD split, Doyle and university friend Felix Martin formed New Build and scratched another musical itch. Taylor has released many keyboard and piano-based solo work and Goddard’s work as 2 Bears, and a solo album has solidified his own musical identity away from this outfit. Has a more egalitarian approach meant a richer tapestry for Hot Chip’s work, or diluted some of the magic that earlier albums found? Does the recording of Freakout/Release in Doyle’s new studio (‘Relax and Enjoy’) mean the band is more content to experiment or is that just a factor of being together for so long? This ‘third act’, from Why Make Sense certainly feels like something has changed. The question is where this leaves the band itself, and how those that buy the music feel about it.

So for this album, all isn’t quite fallen into place, for me. The problem perhaps with the programming of the album from here is that with second single Eleanor – a straight up PSB-style shimmering pop banger and earworm about love and loss – sandwiched between the two other ‘radio tracks’, it leaves the album with a challenge to maintain the momentum after 3 singles grab all the attention at the start. And perhaps this is where others have struggled with it, too. When I’ve dived in, I already know the 3 tracks off by heart so I either want to get past them to connect with the rest of the album, or when I have gone from track 1, it’s like a ‘before’ and ‘after’ between the opening stanza and the rest. It feels a particularly odd thing to do, and while it’d be reductive to wonder if there was a worry about the album’s staying power had led to this track order, I find it hard to entirely shake. And that’s a real shame, as there truly is a lot to like from Freakout/Release, but it’s hard to manoeuvre around this music ‘speed bump’ for a long while.

Broken’ is a beautiful song that talks about how to reach out and help someone, Taylor’s wistful vocals intertwining with the leads, and mined from real-life experience of feeling helpless at others’ suffering. It’s definitely a good example of where the band is: talking about emotion, heartache, wrapped up in lush, layered instrumentation. They’ve always done this heart-on-sleeve well, and it’s particularly well-twinned with Taylor’s vocals, but in recent albums, it’s more overt and none more so than this one. They seem ever more confident perhaps after years of doing this, to be upfront with such subject matter, even if it’s at odds with the tracks’ musical feel. This dissonance – to me – is brave, but often effective for the band (think ‘No God‘ on the previous album or ‘One Life Stand’). As a result, ‘Broken‘ isn’t a song that you’d feel would be in their early work, but there’s still a lineage back to the 80s synths that inspire them. With every album, there’s still nods to their touchstones: Prince, Kraftwerk, Robert Wyatt, Prefab Sprout or hip-hop and r’n’b from the 90s. It’s just that with maturity and age their sound is much more layered and complex than the austere, almost angular feel of Coming On Strong or The Warning. I have hugely enjoyed this progression (however subtle) but I also feel that some of that pure dancefloor energy has ebbed away as a result. But at 47, it’s not as big an issue as it may be for trying to hold the attention of the kids, coming up from behind.

Not Alone’ is a great example of Goddard and Taylor’s lyrics and vocals in motion together. Ever since they started making music together at school, there’s a certain alchemy that feels very much theirs. I can’t think of another band in the UK that employs two male vocals that operate mainly in falsetto or high ranges they way they do, and it’s one reason that – despite so many claiming others sound like them – they still sound so unique to me, inhabiting their own musical space so effectively over 20 years as others come and go around them. I get that it’s also a reason that some find them grating; if it’s not a style you can get on with, it’s going to be hard to love them (like I do, at least). It’s also another track that feels quite introspective and, well, sad. And perhaps this strain through much of the record is why it may be beautiful, and may envelop in the headphones as fantastically-constructed electronic pop music, but may ultimately not quite have the propulsive zip of previous albums.

Hard To Be Funky’ is a track definitely I wasn’t sure of at the outset: the lyrics jarred a bit and it’s ‘Alexis’ slow one’ (think White Wine and Fried Chicken, Slush, Look After Me, In The Privacy Of Our Love) but as you get past the pace, it’s an interesting question about the meaning of ‘funk’ – music that’s so core to what Hot Chip do, and that is so associated with sex and sleaze, and how this means so many different things to so many people. I also really like how Lou Hayter comes in as a point of difference, and it’s a collaboration that just works and brings something different. I always enjoy how any band opens up to this (look at how effective Porridge Radio’s appearance on Small World worked for Metronomy). ‘Time’ is about as ‘dancefloor’ as the album gets, which is – at least partly – a shame, but I’m glad it’s on the album. It does pick up the pace where the album starts to feel a bit out of gas. Similarly, its segue with ‘Miss The Bliss‘ is needed to keep this up. It’s actually a really lyrically simple track that speaks to supporting others – again borne out of the solitude of lockdown – and feels much closer to Goddard’s own solo work than anything else on the album, even featuring Goddard’s brother and various family members in the group for the choral vocal. It’s an uplifting and sweetly personal moment.

Perhaps I can’t entirely get on board with the programming – and am unable to think exactly how I’d change it – but I do salute individual tracks. ‘The Evil That Men Do‘ is another outlier for Hot Chip: an overtly ‘political’ song about toxic masculinity and male privilege that starts as a light call-response between Alexis and Joe ‘beg for forgiveness / bear witness / be humble‘, before opening up with piano and a lovely bridge that drops into Cadence Weapon’s flow, which is another welcome collaboration. A nod back to Posdnous’ much loved verse (by me, at least) on Love Is The Future‘, from Why Make Sense? With a band that’s so steeped in hip-hop as influences it’s great to see it literally land on an album, and makes me wish there was more of it in their catalogue. It’s also another example of really dry, effected vocals (with the title track) where it’s an attempt to strip back the angelic tones of Taylor past the halfway mark as the track almost splits in two as Cadence’s flow leaps in. The contrast is so strong it’s almost jolting, but it really works for me.

The album closes with two of the stronger tracks: ‘Guilty‘, which feels like a live classic already. It leapt out on first listen and still sticks out. Musing on the difference between dream and waking consciousness, it’s playful and fun lyrically ‘when you see a finish line / does it end up your nose‘? There’s a real 80s funk feel to this, and it carries into the uplifting closer, ‘Out Of My Depth‘. Hot Chip do have a thing for statement closing tracks (Why Make Sense, or Bath Full’s No God, not to mention One Life Stand’s Take It In) and it’s an attempt to perhaps take the darker subject matter of Freakout and land on a more hopeful note, that sadness and emotion is not to be avoided but you can come out the other side intact: “Then I’m in my darkest room / But I’m careful not to enjoy it / All too much, but as I leave / It will be helpful to have endured it.” In many ways it’s one of the biggest nods to this being a far more ‘grown up’ album than their early work, and god knows we love ‘grown up pop’ ™.

So what to make of it this against their canon and – more importantly – the rest of music in 2022? It’s left me feeling slightly adrift of where I’d expect to be. Is this the first album I haven’t fallen for yet from the band? Will I eventually do that? Does every band have a finite shelf life and is this where we are finally heading here? Locking into the themes of how the band themselves can keep making music that has meaning to them – and to us – it genuinely feels strange not to have fallen for a Hot Chip album after a few listens for the first time. Even uncomfortable. I question myself, as much as I do the music. Does it say more about me or the band? Is this just a really good album but sits in comparison to other fresher, more inventive albums this year? It can’t hold a candle to Steve Lacey or Joy Crookes, or the power of Kendrick? But does that matter? Doesn’t it just really matter if it connects and I like it? And life life in general, am I just overthinking it?

For me, music has always been about feelings and connection. Every album before this from the band has had tracks that I feel deeply about. Some of them for reasons I can’t even put my finger on. Brothers is a track I can’t help but well up when I listen to. Written by Joe about this brother, I can’t obviously help but reference my own twin and how much he means to me. Or Night And Day’s little ‘Iknowyou’rethinkingaboutme’ line makes me want to jump out of my chair (and their videos? I could write a whole other blog about their genius). Or Let Me Be Him (from In Our Heads) chokes me up. And Melody Of Love cannot fail to moisten my eyes. Forget logic, it just subconsciously works. I cannot tell you how and it does not matter. Music is about connection for me, so to listen to Freakout/Release and think ‘this is lovely’ for a good chunk of it, doesn’t quite feel enough.

And there’s another, bigger, more important factor at play here: the band is older, lives have changed, families and other responsibilities, as for all of us, emerge. How much of that feeds into the music directly and how much of it is osmosis? It must surely permeate. None of us are in clubs like we used to be, and yet I miss their really big dancefloor bangers (as I also understand that it’d be odd for nothing to change). Think One Life Stand, or Hold On, or perhaps Shake A Fist, No Fit State or Huarache Lights. And I don’t really see that vibe here, for all the musical lushness and inventiveness. Again, does that matter? I still love dance music, and clubs – even if I’m rarely in them – and so having a Hot Chip album that doesn’t quite bang as much as others feels, well, sad. But perhaps it’s another facet of developing as a band, getting older, shifting subtly into areas that feel more removed from where you were ten years ago. Who am I to tell the band it’s not their right to do that, but is there a point where it starts to depart from me, personally? Because I know that even if this album never quite gives me the feels I’ve had before, I know when I see them live, it’ll be as good as it’s ever been with all their catalogue behind them. Because, they are a fantastic live band. It’s often overlooked but to me they are one of the best live bands around, an expanded 7 piece (with Smoughton and drummer Leo Taylor) that can recreate anything from the studio with added vigour and snap on tour. Where will I be? Down the front, singing, shouting, and crying, and I’d never have it any other way.

I worried when I first heard this album and read the press it hit me that perhaps this could be their last album? Maybe it was a reaction to some of the lyrics “Music used to be escape / Now I can’t escape it” (on the title track) and talk of the difficulty that surrounded making it, and perhaps leapt unguardedly to the wrong conclusion, because these things are never to be taken as read, as Taylor has talked about this time around. I don’t think that’s the case any more (especially given their packed touring schedule) and I sincerely hope they are around for a long time yet, but it’s hard not to worry about myself and my taste here as much as the band’s output and wonder where this will all end up. Because I’ve fallen in and out of love with bands before, but this is the first time my adult life coincided with a band I’ve loved from the start (I was ‘only’ 29 when The Warning arrived, and it’s been almost 20 years now since) where I’ve still never seen that desire wane. When that’s finally loomed, even if it’s not how it’ll play out, it shakes you and who you are.

So while Freakout/Release may not have left the mark on me of some of the other Hot Chip albums of the past, I’ve come to appreciate it far more lately than I’d first expected. It’s also made me think about how our relationships with bands and their music evolves, and perhaps accept that nothing lasts forever. That if things do change, I’ll always have a huge catalogue of tracks to pick from and revel in that still hold their lustre to me. I don’t get even half the number of albums I love from this band with many others, so it’s also given me some welcome perspective about great it is to love a band for as long as this. And that’s why I’m going to take the album at face value, enjoy it for what it is, stay in the moment for as long as I can, and look forward to the day when I see them live on their next tour. I’ve been lucky to have them around.

Hot Chip – Freakout/Release
Posted in Album of the Month

March AOTM – Holy Fuck – Deleter

 

New year, new music. And this is a story of one song, that lead me to an album, and how something that simple can bring such reward. I have been aware of the gloriously named Holy Fuck for a while, from their pleasingly daft videos, their excellent remixes, and the fact that they REALLY sounded like they should be on DFA. Their music – four guys, a bit of a rotating cast of synths, guitars, drums and a bunch of hardware – felt like something I should really be into but never quite did.

Then I heard Luxe on 6Music (of course) and I realised they may have finally got into my head for good. Yes, it has Alexis Taylor of my fanboy crush Hot Chip on it, but it’s much more that it’s an incredible track. Because even his idiosyncratic vocals are only somewhere in the morass, distorted in feedback and muffled in the mid-range as the track first wobbles around an odd sub-bassline and crisp drums, piano stabs, teasing with its destination for way longer than it should be possible to do, before it falls into structure, and then emerges into the sunlight, a percussive cut of modern, shimmering pop music. It’s quite the opener, and that’s possibly the main criticism of the album: where do you go from there?

The answer is, more of the same. And it just about hangs on to get away with it. Because it’s mining some of the best things about that oft-overdone, tired indie-dance hybrid that I’ve heard in a while. And while there’s echoes of all sorts of things in there, it also sounds like their own sound. The title track has shades of LCD – a vein that runs through all their music’s DNA – but there’s a lot of the Reflektor-era James Murphy-reworked Arcade Fire in there too, all scuzzy, submerged vocals, heavy drums, bleepy leads and jangling guitars and ooh-wee-ooh chorus. Endless bucks the trend, much more a guitar track, which to me comes much closer to previous AOTM and personal favourite Hookworms, with its edging into psych-rock and almost operatic stylings.

And what Holy Fuck lack in a singular vocal frontman – think their own Murphy, or Taylor – they make up in clever use of layering, distortion and harmonies. Free Gloss nails this perfectly with its soaring chorus that blends vocals, feedback and guitars, complete with a rocking, solo that makes me want to go and jump around a little club (only to find out their Manchester gig is sold out). There’s elements of the Chemical Brothers too, with Moment’s relentless drum-driven intro, and No Error is a brave sub-3 minute funk-smeared wobbler. What they may lack in perfectly balanced songcraft, they make up for in sheer exuberance and brio – San Sebastian is an almost angry, shouty, 90s throwback that sounds a bit like a discarded Blur b-side from before they went twee and irritating, with nods to Tame Impala, while Ruby doesn’t let up the pace, flowering at the death with a lovely, unexpected melody that fades into the ether as the distorted chords disappear. I also find myself thinking about 2020 uber-release Caribou at more than one juncture. This is a good thing. Yet for all their jangly, energetic energy, there’s more nuance than you’d first think, and a few listens in, the album takes on a much more three-dimensional shape.

In fact, for a band who’ve been around for so long (fourteen years and five albums) I’m surprised it’s taken me this long to properly seek them out. Perhaps this album is a that much of a step up. Because it’s certainly a coherent whole, and refreshing that, at 41 minutes, there’s not much filler in here. Yes, everyone’s buying Caribou, but that’s almost a given it’ll be loved. This is much more of a gamble, and one I think that’s handsomely paid off.

Posted in Album of the Month

JULY – Joe Goddard – Electric Lines

 

So, I don’t think I need any disclosure here: this feels a little obvious as a ‘Guy Album Of The Month’.  Yes, I love Hot Chip (and LCD, and Joe and Al and Felix and Owen and Alexis and New Build and 2 Bears and…) as much as any other band that’s been around in the last two decades, but this doesn’t make it a throwaway choice. In fact, it’s one of the most listenable albums of the year so far for me, but it’s also much more than ‘oh, that bloke from Hot Chip’s made a solo album of dancefloor bangers’. It’s actually pleasingly more subtle than that, and it’s an LP that you should give a chance, because in many ways, it talks about what music means to me and tries to grab bits of all those *moments* that you have, whether it’s in a club, on the way to work, at a festival, at a gig. It may be ‘dancey’, but it’s not just a dance album. Stick with it and hopefully you’ll end up as rewarded as I do.

Joe’s a proper, unashamed, music geek. He loves disco and Salsoul (more of that later), but also dancehall and dub (just look at The 2 Bears influences). He loves techno and rave, and he loves pop music. But until now, his songs have often been twinned with others – Alexis Taylor in Hot Chip, Raf Rundell in The 2 Bears, as well as his Greco-Roman collective (label and releases-wise) – but while the solo stuff he’s done goes back to 2009, and there’s been some memorable stuff, this feels like a long time coming, and a bit of a new chapter for Goddard. He’s spoken about having a load of new kit, and wanting to make a record that  gets the most out of it, and to push himself in a way that perhaps he doesn’t get when operating within the strictures of a band. But even with the newer sounds he’s created, what his music always sounds is joyous, vibrant, and throbbingly alive. And it takes someone with a cold heart to feel there’s nothing in Electric Lines for them.

So, what’s it like? There’s a myriad of influences, but instead of wrapping them in knowing subtlety, they’re out there front and centre, whether it’s the famous Celeda sample in tribute-heavy and vibes-laden Music Is The Answer, or the Salsoul sample – Brainstorm’s We’re On Our Way Home – in the paen to late-night wobbly post-club treks Home (with its brilliant Pete Fowler cartoons), Joe’s celebrating the music that is important to him, framed in his own template. The album flits around, from Ordinary Madness’ restrained modern soul openings, to shimmering, wide-angle pain of Human Heart, via balls-out 6am sweatbox Lasers, but there is a traceable line, and changes in tempo and feel that works across the length. You don’t make half a dozen albums without knowing how to structure an LP. Above all though, sonically and stylistically, the album shouts ‘HAVE FUN’, and it’s hard not to just let it wash over you and bounce down the road. It’s definitely made for summer and shades.

And with Al’s away with LCD, and Alexis releases piano-based albums, it’s a deserved chance for Joe to get some more limelight. No, it’s not a huge departure from other work he’s done, but why need it be? Alexis joins on the title track to sublime and familiar effect, and there’s some shades of Hot Chip around a few turns, particularly the cascading synth lines of Truth Is Light. But it’s very much Joe’s own project, and an album that shows that solo work doesn’t have to be any more complicated than putting together a load of music that shows who you are, and if that’s about good times, then where’s the evil in that? Despite being the wrong side of 35, he’s not a man that appears to be growing respectable with age (his comments about simply tearing out into Shangri-La and hanging on for the next 4 days made me chuckle), and if you saw his Glastonbury set on the Sunday, it’s a pretty impressive knowing what he probably got up to before that point!

Sometimes albums that are instantly accessible fade quickly, and feel disposable, but this isn’t one. Also, it’s hard to say what you’ll connect with in music. Even something you think you’ll like, it just doesn’t happen. But I’ve listened to it a couple of dozen times, and all I’ve done is feel it speaks to me and those moments you have when you’re out (we’ve all been in that fuzzy cab ride home). And you feel the connection was there from the start. I can’t make you like it, but I can make you listen, and just hope you do.

Posted in New Tunes, Uncategorized

Shit Robot – End Of The Trail (DFA)

 

New Shit Robot album incoming after 3 years, and it’s been worth the wait. I’m a big big fan, and after We Got A Love, which was bouncy, but a bit overproduced and ‘big’, this is a sharp turn 90 degrees. It’s apparently produced entirely on hardware and not massively reworked, but lots of live takes. It’s a much more ‘studio’ album, but sounds like proper dance music, and yet it’s still packed full of emotion.

This is the opening single, with frequent collaborator Alexis Taylor and it’s all pads and wistful lyrics. I love it. And the video isn’t bad either.

Posted in Album of the Month

May: Hot Chip – Why Make Sense?

It’s a bit late this month, but I hope it’s worth the wait, Brothers. And before we get started, there’s a disclaimer here: I’m an unashamed Hot Chip fan. Since I heard The Warning back in 2006 I’ve been hooked. Back then they were a different proposition: new kids on the block, making music that didn’t really sound like anything else I’d listened to (and even more so on Coming On Strong, their 2004 debut, which I consumed the same year) and the antithesis of both the rock and electronic ‘bands’ I listened to as well. They didn’t look like pop stars, they didn’t sound like pop stars, (jesus, comparing them to Radiohead or Arcade Fire seemed odd, still does in some ways) but Over And Over clicked with something in me that I didn’t expect.

Once I got into the album, it’s clear they offered something more than everyone else: a sound that went between full-on dancefloor banger (Over And Over, No Fit State) r’n’b-tinged love songs (Boy From School, Colours) sprinkled with lovely oddities that just seemed like they weren’t trying to be anything at all other than a band just recording what they wanted (Don’t Dance, The Warning, Careful). I saw them at Lovebox that year, they were a strange experience. Playing ridiculously early on the main stage, they were a nervous-looking cadre of nerdy synth geeks, almost not engaging at all with the crowd but making a decent fist of studio-produced songs that didn’t always crossover to the live arena.

Nine years later comes their sixth album, and maybe their best yet – Why Make Sense – and in some ways they’re completely different and yet hardly removed from the collective that endeared me all those years ago. Where have they changed? Well, despite their great hooks and quirky album tracks The Warning, breakthrough that it was, felt like a band still finding their feet a little, and as a live proposition they were still green. Now, they are the finished product: one of the most inventive bands around, making records that are catchy, but intelligent, poppy but heartfelt and emotional, and somehow still sounding, well, like Hot Chip, even though in any album they’ll cross through five different genres. And live, they’re one of my favourite bands ever. Part of this is down to their development as a live act, whether it’s coming out of their shells as frontman/men, becoming more confident of their sound, honing their work from the studio to the stage much more coherently, and now crossing the tricky rubicon from making an album with synths, drum machines and all sorts, and making that sound heavy live. More of that later.

In reality, they’ve taken a step forward at each album’s release, but Made In The Dark was a watershed: they didn’t succumb to temptation to try and make hits, they just did what they did, with a few more touches, a few different synths, but never moved away from making music they wanted to. That album had more standout tracks – One Pure Thought, Ready For The Floor and Shake A Fist – all the while not treating their fans (old and new) like fools, and making repeated listens bear fruit each time. And One Life Stand was as fully-formed as they’ve got up to now. I love each album and track in their own right, but until Why Make Sense I didn’t know if they’d better it, however much I loved In Our Heads.

But Why Make Sense is a revelation. It’s Hot Chip, undoubtedly, but it just feels like another leap forward. There’s reasons for this – admitted and assumed – but for a band that’s been making records for over a decade, and in that ever-changing electronic/pop arena it’s hard enough to stay relevant and keep fresh. I think Hot Chip have managed it as they’ve never been interested in doing anything ‘cool’, and so they never have to beat anything but their own expectations. But the band’s ever-growing side projects – Al and Felix’s brilliant New Build, Joe and Raf’s 2 Bears, Alexis’ About Group, B&O, Atomic Bomb Band – have clearly let them scratch an in-between-album itch that means each new album means they’re fully focused and also more relaxed at the same time. For a band that have been going so long, (in modern terms for non-rock) they seem still to be the best of friends, and while Alexis and Joe are the hub of the band’s music and lyrics, there’s a gentle creep to a more collaborative ethos that can only be positive. But above all, they still manage to put their finger on the themes that have kept them bubbling from the start – love, friendship, the world they live in, growing old – that they manage to convey in such rich, listenable ways. Why Make Sense combines all of these brilliantly.

Musically, it’s as close to an actual band as they’ve ever been. If that seems throwaway, it’s not. But touring and their transformation into a mighty stage entity, means they wanted to make an album that could translate most directly to a live experience as they ever have. No 5 synth parts, two 909s, three guitars. With regular drummer Sarah Jones and multi-instrumentalist Rob Smoughton (The Grosnvenor) in tow on tour they are able to realise anything in their back catalogue, and their ‘warm-up’ tour this month, which I caught at Oval Space in London, was the best gig I’ve ever seen of them, and I’m well into double figures. Musically, and live, they are on the up, something that’s a rare path when you’ve been making music as long as they have.

There’s so much to love about Why Make Sense, which – to a Hot Chip first timer – would encapsulate everything they’re about as a band. Huarache Lights is an absolute banger of an opener. And all honed around fat leads (and a vocal phrase that can’t but help make me smile about the Happy Mondays’ Hallelujah, was it meant? who cares?) and lyrics that exalt getting ready, and putting on your Nikes. “Machines are great but, best when they come to life, you can’t put your finger on the pulse of the night” comes out of the second verse and is just lyrically as punchy as ever. Yet straight away they’re questioning their place in the world in their 30s, are they still relevant? “Replace us with the things that do the job better”. This song alone makes a mockery of that, but the fact they’ll openly bear such an obvious insecurity in their opening song to a new album just endears them to me even more.

There really isn’t a weak song on the entire album. Every one feels considered, meant, and all fizz with life, energy, emotion and intelligence. Love Is The Future’s staccato beats hark back to their early days, jaunty and lush, with careworn lyrics, until De La Soul’s Posdnous leaps out. Not afraid to get a few friends enlisted if it works. It doesn’t feel frivolous, and it’s a song that Green Gartside’s skills are lent to the string arrangement. Cry For You feels like a cover of a nervous r’n’b record mixed with house music – so much of their roots are in the genre, something that’s always felt obvious and therefore unique to them – but the lyrical and music interplay of Goddard and Taylor’s vocals is wonderful, with the arpeggiated synths and blocky percussive hits proving there’s nothing as simple as a Hot Chip album track.

Started Right is a surefire future single. Flipping from shuffling percussion and funk bass/notes into a mighty string-led hook it’s pure pop, impossible not to sing along to or smile while you’re doing it. But just as they’re wandering into all killer territory comes White Wine And Fried Chicken: a song that no one else could make as well. The title, the sampled vocals, the balladry wrapped up in a modern-day love song. Dark Night follows, arguably another standout track. Where five years ago you’d have had another banger, this is a guitar-led (Doyle’s influence growing as it has done over the past three albums) gem. One of the best tracks I think they’ve written, and leaning to so many of their influences, painted with their own palette. The chorus and walking bassline is sublime, as is a rare lead for Joe’s vocals. It sounds like a slice of electronic, Eno-produced pop that would’ve graced the top ten in 1986, combining their ability to write a great tune, stand with one foot in the past and the present, and write lyrics that invite you in and make you think.

Easy To Get sounds great live (much more vibrant and raucous than this slick love song) – Doyle’s licks to the fore again – and again the vocal interplay between Joe and Alexis is wonderful, at first stripped out, then – much like Started Right – lush layers added on the bridge and chorus. “Why don’t you take a rest, talking something we’ve outgrown”, again taking aim at their perceived age and place in the musical landscape. Need You Now is more proof of the polymorphic nature of their songcraft. I’d listened to it with the brilliant video a few times thinking it was a song about an imagined break-up, but it’s more resonant than that: it’s about terrorism, war, the world that’s just, well fucked up. “Never dreamed I could belong to a state that don’t see right from wrong”. It’s startlingly relevant to the next five years (did they have a bet on the election? it’s not hard to understand given Al’s recent appearance on the World At One, but they are never overt about their themes and the hammer is always in a silk glove) and shows them as a band with a conscience, not just a heart.

So Much Further To Go is as close to something that feels a little unplaced, but its lovely harmonies are a wistful sounding (isn’t that just Alexis’ voice, whatever he sings?) entree to the album’s title track. Why Make Sense – like so many late-album belters before it (think Hold On, No Fit State, Take It In, Ends Of The Earth) – is a tour de force. Distorted guitars and reverbed percussion with Alexis’ voice dual-tracked and strong, it feels as much rock as they’ve done anywhere recently. It lifted the roof off Oval Space, (many of their songs are purposely beefed-up live, and to startling effect) and is almost a mission statement of their career: “Why make sense when the world around refuses? A winner lost is one who always chooses”. Hot Chip have always gone their own way, and if anything Why Make Sense shows they’ve been right from the start. They may never play Wembley Stadium, but you also know they’ve never aspired to that. They are a great festival band without the need to play the biggest arenas, and whatever the setting, there’s an intimacy to their music and lyrics that feels like it needs walls around it to truly resonate (which is why they always seem to blow away Brixton).

This is a triumphant record by a band both aware of and comfortable in their surroundings more than ever before. They may be older, but they’ve matured. They may seem like an outlier, but they’ve always been there, knocking on the mainstream’s door. And they’ve never sounded as good as this. That isn’t a negative on their previous work, it’s a description of just how good Why Make Sense is. It’s rewarding from the off, and I know I’ll still love it in ten years. I can’t wait to see what they’re making then.