Yes, I’m late, but it’s worth it, I hope. This album is the first artist to land a second AOTM, and after the effect the first had on all of us, it seemed almost too obvious to revisit it when there’s so much other music around. However, it’s actually a choice that makes so much sense, because really, there’s a definitive break from the past, and perhaps the appearance of one of the most exciting pop music artists for a long while.
So, what did we learn from Christine And The Queens’ sparkling debut in 2016? An album that was a spring sleeper hit (two years after it surfaced in France), relaunched in a post-Brexit haze where we all needed some musical escapism. In my case, I was one of those wandering around in a teary, beery, existentialist haze at Glastonbury whose day was transformed by one of those ‘moments’ that makes the festival so magical. Christine And The Queens’ set on the Other Stage as the rain fell was one that’ll stay long in the memory. There’s no way a French artist complete with slickly choreographed dancers should’ve melted muddy hearts but Tilted, iT, Narcissus Is Back and Here were pop music of the absolute finest. Rubbery synths, crisp percussion, and beguiling vocals singing about love and loss that sounded as enticing in English as in French. A star was born. But… what next?
The answer, flippantly, would be ‘Chris’. But for Héloïse Letissier it was more than just a change of title. The relentless touring and punishing nightly dance moves had transformed her into a leaner being, and with her success came sexual conquests too, but not man or woman, more whichever took her fancy. Pansexuality, freedom and inspiration. Yet the sonic inspiration for Chris – ‘Christine’s androgynous, confident, male-world-view alter-ego – harks back to the 80s and 90s, where r’n’b was in a renaissance with Michael and Janet Jackson at the fore. You can almost hear the Jam and Lewis influence in tracks like Girlfriend and Doesn’t Matter. But it’s original, punchy hooks and oblique lyrical references that are all her own rather than borrowed from the past, as she explores pansexual conquests from the side of the male gaze.
The result is an album that feels it could only be made by a French artist, such is the ambition, and openly artistic musings that would be sniffed at in England. A staggeringly individual collection of songs where Letissier writes, performs and produces almost every single note, and that should fire her even higher into the pop firmament. Fantastique!
A classic case of ‘if only this had been out 8 weeks ago’ because I’ve been waiting for it for ages, and it’s not disappointed. I’ve long been a Tracey fan, even though for EBTG I was only a cursory listener, and only really came back to them after reading both Tracey and Ben Watt’s brilliant memoirs in recent years.
With all the #metoo movement’s focus, this album is very much 2018. Produced by Ewan Pearson – so the production is absolutely perfect – so the tracks are electronically-tinged, it’s a modern paean to feminism and being a woman. But it’s the melodies and songwriting that have got me. This is the epic highlight – Sister – 8 plus minutes of balearic, modern pop music. I couldn’t recommend it more. This track also gets some belting remixes from Andrew Weatherall, what more could you want?
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.
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.