Sometimes an album of the month is a leap in the dark (some work, some don’t, like N.E.R.D., yikes) and sometimes you have one that you desperately want to do but the timing is wrong, and when it comes to your shot, someone’s bloody bought it. NOT THIS TIME. So I’m rather chuffed to be able to still present Tracey Thorn’s new solo album: Record.
There’s a lot to say here, and a lot of history for me, so I’ll try and be brief, but probably fail. While never being a properly committed EBTG fan (more fool me), Tracey Thorn’s solo work has found a way into my heart ever since her first recent album, Into The Woods, back in 2007 (technically her second, but A Distant Shore was released in 1982!). She’d obviously found me via work where her vocals (Massive Attack) or her songwriting (Missing) made it onto the dancefloor, but seeing a solo album was still a bit of surprise, especially away from her work with husband Ben Watt.
But it wasn’t just good: Out Of The Woods was outstanding. Pop hooks and electronic tinges that became less of a surprise when you realise that it was produced by Ewan Pearson, but this wasn’t another set of dance tracks with Thorn’s ethereal vocals ghosting over them, but a series of wonderful, sparky songs that drew on Thorn’s own life, loves and experiences, and that leapt out from the page. A career renaissance, of sorts perhaps, or a new chapter that I loved from the start. To state this by example, Grand Canyon is still one of my favourite electronic pop records of the last two decades. And there were some amazing remixes too, of course.
Come 2010 and its follow-up Love And Its Opposite, was, while less of the surprise of its forebear, is still a earnestly beautiful album. Less sparky, more mournful, tracking love and loss in middle age with elan and panache. Sorrow never too deep, joy never false, confirming Thorn as a brilliant songwriter and musician all over again. Of course, Pearson made sure it sounded as fantastic as Out Of The Woods. There was even a quirky but utterly lovely Christmas album – Tinsel and Lights – in 2012 that captured the reality (good and bad, laid bare) of what the festive period means in this modern age, and is the only recent Christmas effort that I ever play. Joy still makes me shed a tear on a regular basis.
Fast forward to 2018, and a lot, it’s fair to say, has changed since 1982, even 2007. Because while Thorn’s still writing music, there’s much more to her than simply a musical renaissance woman and borderline national treasure. A column for the New Statesman, feminist activist, author and campaigner: even following her introspective Twitter feed doesn’t really cover everything, but it’s through this wider persona that I developed a bona fide intellectual crush on her. Her brilliant memoir, Bedsit Disco Queen, dovetailed wonderfully with Watt’s own poignant books on his own near-death and illustrious parents, and marked her out as much more than just a pop memoirist, but a woman with something to say. And in the era of #MeToo, it’s arguable to say that Record has arrived at an almost perfect confluence of so many parts of the last few decades of her life. The fact that I’m a 43-year old that grew up not log after Thorn’s generation makes all of the subjects and reference points seem all the more close to home, but really, it’s a statement, almost a manifesto for living in the modern world.
Put simply, I think it’s one of the best pop records of the last decade. And it’s much more than simply an album. Thorn’s openly confronted the misogyny of being lazily labelled a ‘quirky’ (and that is the the lightest in a grim litany of terminology she faces on a weekly basis) woman, and given many great interviews that explains the context of making it. Described as ‘feminist bangers’, it’s the best way to summarise the album’s spirit. From Queen’s opening, bleepy, breezy laments, through first single Sister‘s feminist call (“And I fight like a girl”) to arms, it’s an utterly modern palette of beautiful pop music, seen through the eyes of a woman who’s seen many of life’s highs and lows (the steely and world-weary “What year is it? The same old shit”) but come out determinedly swinging. I’m only a new parent now, but listening to Go is a punch in the heart delivered in a velvet glove. And while the songs – sprinkled with Pearson’s disco stardust again – are musically polished and melodically gorgeous, its the lyrics that are arguably the strong point here. Its also is no surprise there’s been gigantic remixes already that are a must for house fans, but they’re an added bonus to the whole experience.
Let none of that take away from the fact that there’s few albums around this decade that have combined great songwriting, fantastic tunesmithery and political and social relevance like this one. I can only hope you can get what I have out of it.
This is dead good. In fact all their stuff is. Check out Power Dance too. But then you’d expect that when it’s Luke Solomon, Nick Mauer (of Greenskeepers fame) and a certain Al Doyle amongst others.
Like Disco: like Powerdance.
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.
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.
A bit obvious maybe, and not a huge rework, but jesus Ewan Pearson is so so good. I need this on vinyl and I need it now.
I’ve started doing a radio show on Meat Transmission, which is part of the Meat Liquor stable, in Hoxton. It’s a mate of mine, Tom Real, and me, playing just big party records, or BANGERS. It started off as a night at the Big Chill (which got WAY out of hand usually), but it’s translated as fun fun fun to the radio. It’s not serious, unless having a hilarious two hours is serious. SonOfBangers is two shows old, and on every other week in 2014, and it’s just 120 minutes of us playing a loosely thrown-together mix of hip-hop, house, d’n’b, rave, funk, soul, disco. You name it.
Have a listen, hope you enjoy it.