Hot Chip – Made In The Dark

Hot Chip – Made In The Dark (released February 5, 2008; EMI/DFA/Astralwerks Records)

Long-time readers of The Musicologists may remember me naming Hot Chip‘s last album, The Warning, as my #13 album of 2006. Here’s the link to that review. Being the unapologetic Anglophile that I am, I’ve been listening to Made In The Dark for the last month since its leak on British P2P services and speaking highly of them to anyone who’ll listen. Trying to coax my room-mate to get down with them, I explained that they’re like Postal Service with a set of huge balls on four hits of strong microdot. Sometimes I miss LSD.

Perfectly mixing minimalist trip-hop and a heavier, dance-punk sound has been Hot Chip‘s forte three albums into the game. Hot Chip caught my attention in early 2006 after hearing Coming On Strong. The album is sprinkled with an assortment of name-checks: Gene and Dean Ween, Stevie Wonder, Yo La Tengo, James Joyce‘s Ulysses, Peugeot cars (the car I learned to drive in!), crappy Kraft dinners, Prince and pimped-out Escalades. I’m a sucker for hilarious and random mentions of pop-culture, as they can help point out a frame of reference and then relate it to what’s going on in my own life.

Wondering what direction they’d go on here, they pretty much went everywhere; expanding their style further in both directions and interchanging the two as they please. Stylistically, Hot Chip are masters of getting the most layers of sound out of the least amount of instrumentation by recording live, rather than multi-tracking and over-dubbing the shit out of their music; they go on the fly and work it out later on the mix board. I’d love to see more bands producing their own records, who better knows your sound than you?

Hot Chip‘s core of Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard have been able to mature their sound without cheesing it up, as many artists tend to do as they rise. But critical acclaim doesn’t always mean “cool”, as part of the Chip‘s allure is their geeky love for ancient Moog synths, laptop-based looping software and old-school video game sounds. Playing Taylor‘s tender croon against Goddard‘s droll delivery marks Hot Chip‘s mastery of soulful electronica, and they can pretty much stand alone at the top of that genre.

The album opens with four straight party punches: Out At The Pictures, Shake A Fist, Ready For The Floor and Bendable Poseable. Track 1 gets things going with an ambient organ layered over a squonky synth pattern that speeds up until it crashes headfirst into the drums, playing together with one-on-one staccato blasts. Then the jam gets thick, working itself into a pseudo Austin Powers‘ theme meets original dance-punkers Josef K at Tony Wilson‘s famed Manchester club The Hacienda, circa 1989.

Legendary producer Todd Rundgren makes a cameo on Shake A Fist‘s middle section, imploring the listener to grab some headphones and “get ’em cranked up, cuz they’re really gonna help you!” Apparently the collaboration with Rundgren was inspired by Goddard smoking a huge hit of salvia backstage at the Glastonbury Festival and Taylor writing down what he saw in his mind’s eye over the course of the “trip”. Sweet! Ready For The Floor has some endearing and nostalgic 8-bit Atari bleeps, and Bendable Poseable‘s ambiguous lyrics about a relationship stuck in a bad pop-and-lock routine. Only after the full-frontal assault of the opening quartet of songs does the band bring it low for the lovers. Going ballad on We’re Looking For A Lot Of Love, the band furthers their stellar down-tempo skills seen on The Warning with Look After Me. Not being shy about wearing his heart on his sleeve, Taylor offers up these lyrics: “Every time that we walk the streets/ I try my best to keep up with the beat/ You’re everything that I never could keep/ I hear the sound and it starts to repeat…”

Returning to the electro-pop goodness with just a hint of wry darkness, Touch Too Much is about the walk home after the split. Thematically, it’s the counterpart to the previous song, placed next to each other as parts one and two of the break-up story. Musically, they couldn’t be more of polar opposites but that’s why this album is just so damn good. The title track is another excellent ballad, solidifying the Chip‘s foothold in the genre of neo-soul. It’s the hangover after that break-up, phrases like “fell apart”, “longing for” and “what’s fixed as one breaks in two…” are peppered throughout the song, giving it a rawness and emotionality that’s far from previous dance-hall bangers like England’s favorite music magazine NME‘s 2006 song of the year, Over And Over.

Speaking of dance-hall riddim, listening to the drum machine pattern on One Pure Thought, I’m reminded of the computer-driven rhythms in the heyday of Jamaican music from the early 80s, without the oppresive bass lines that usually accompany the bashment of Cutty Ranks and Yellowman‘s tunes. Hold On is another banger, sure to get the dance floor hotter than July on the Equator. “I’m only going to heaven/ if it feels like hell/ I’m only going to heaven/ if it tastes like caramel…” Cribbing some style from label-mates !!!, there’s a bit of that space-funk going on here, with clipped guitar lines and a really nice bongo breakdown in the middle section of the song.

“It’s me versus you in love…” croons Taylor to start the next track, Wrestlers, using imagery from pro wrestling including all the terms you’d associate with it; drop kick, full nelson, suplex, elbow drop, cage match, grudge match… Weathering emotional abuse in a relationship is pretty tough, and the Chip compares a nasty fight with a lover to being body slammed. I should also mention there’s some really nice, albeit reserved piano work here. Ironically, the next song is called Don’t Dance, but I’d be hard pressed to find anyone within earshot of this song actually doing that once this song hits the two-and-a-half minute mark, containing elements of UK progressive house msuic, it’s a jam to be reckoned with.

Whistle For Will is a short piano and vocal ballad, quite subdued in nature. The album closes with another ballad, In The Privacy Of Our Love, short and very sweet, playing out to a synth-harpsichord pattern into deafening silence.

As for the future of Hot Chip, I can’t wait to hear remixes of this album. If anyone from DFA or the dudes from Simian Mobile Disco stumble onto this blog, please please please get to work immediately on these tracks!

Made in the Dark

Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend

Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend (released January 29, 2008; XL Recordings)

There are an infinite number of bands that sound like other bands yet still have enough originality to distance themselves from their heroes; that’s the mark of a good band. Reinterpreting the past without straight-up ripping it off, Vampire Weekend‘s self-titled full-length debut sounds as if it’s been culled from a myriad of influences. Extracting their musical direction from Peter Gabriel’s early solo catalog, King Sunny Ade’s Nigerian juju polyrhythms, Paul Simon’s Graceland, not to mention English post-punk (I hear some of The Police and The Cure in here as well as the decidedly un-English post-punk Talking Heads), this foursome from New York City couldn’t have made a finer album, it’s actually the first great record of 2008.

I was trying to pigeon-hole this band into a genre, but I really can’t. And the closest thing I could find to a press release on them is from their own website, where they offer up this little parcel of info: “We are specialists in the following styles: “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa”, “Upper West Side Soweto”, “Campus”, and “Oxford Comma Riddim.” Infusing styles from far and near, their self-fashioned classification would have you believe they’ve been all around this world. There’s a nod to Beantown (via the Congo) and NYC (by way of southern Africa). There’s also the whole UB40-meets-Gang Of Four reggae-tinged dub, with a hint of an Ivy League education, namely, Columbia University (where these lads all met each other).

Lead singer Ezra Koenig’s voice is a pseudo-cockney inflected styling reminiscent of a young Sting’s emotive yelpings, cross-pollenated with the Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner’s sonant vocalizations. That’s pretty good company to be compared to. But it’s the everyman songwriting that’s got me impressed.

The album opens with staccato-organ blasts and into the jaunty Mansard Roof, both an ode to Victorian architecture and a retelling of the defeat of the once powerful Argentine navy. It’s a heady sentiment, with two opposing viewpoints in the same song, it’s as if it’s a conversation. On one side, a proper English gent content to look out over Olde London Town above the roofs and industrial pollution, the second, a once-proud admiral watching his ships sink off the coast of South America. The most accessible song on the album is the stellar Oxford Comma, with both tongue-in-cheek lyrics and a name-check of Lil Jon (and a reference to his lyrics; “to the window, to the wall”). Also, there’s a nod to the Dalai Lama in this track, calling attention to pop culture’s over-reaching accessibility over the last few years. Nothing is sacred except pop itself.

A-Punk has a nice walking bass line, sounding as it if it’s been lent from The Cure‘s early discography. Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa‘s lyrics act like a roll-call of New England prep school elitism; rhyming Louis Vuitton with reggaeton and Bennetton and an homage to Peter Gabriel‘s unnatural obsession with world music, perhaps triggering Vampire Weekend‘s interest in said phenomena. With its harpsichords and strings, M79 becomes part of a classical theme that’s revisited again on the latter part of the album, as strings show up in the tracks Bryn, I Stand Corrected, Walcott and then used again to near-perfection on the album’s closer, The Kids Don’t Stand A Chance.

Campus is the quintessential college-break-up song, with these lovely little lyrics:Then I see you/ You’re walking cross the campus/ Cruel professor/ Studying romances/ How am I supposed to pretend/ I never want to see you again?” I often wonder (usually aloud), “has there been more songs about falling in love OR falling out of love? The next track, Bryn, is a falling in love song, yet, there’s a unrequited tone to it, a summer love ode with the line: Wait for the season to come back to me…” And the following track, One (Blake’s Got A New Face) is as “island” as it gets, acting an updated Caribbean calypso for the hipster set.

The triplet of closing tracks, I Stand Corrected, Walcott and The Kids Don’t Stand A Chance are as good as any album closer I’m sure to hear this year, making this album a complete success front to back. Walcott is the “we gotta get outta here before we die” jam that all young artists write, filled with that suffocating agony of “home”. However, the trip is to New Jersey (of all places!). I can relate a wee bit; I’ve spent almost every summer of my youth on the over-crowded beaches of Jersey, and one on the beach of Cape Cod’s Orleans township. I’d be as well to reverse the lyrics to fit my own bullshit teen angst; getting out of NJ to reach the quaint flexed muscle of the Cape, reaching out into the northern Atlantic like a fist, daring the English to come back and take what was once theirs.

But alas, the final ode warns the “kids” that indeed, you don’t stand a snowball’s chance in Hades. Could it be that the shattered dreams of our generation rest solely on our parent’s shoulders? There’s no doubt that the preceding generation has left us with all of their problems, an all-encompassing, all-too-heavy burden that we have to figure out what to do with these; global warming, over-population, over-reliance on pharmaceutical cures for our perceived ills, polluted seas, food shortages, political corruption, racism, etc. Not to mention a serious oil addiction that seems a lot like the inner city crack-fest of the late 80s.

Before this review turns into a sociology paper, I’ll leave you with this: the simple facts remain that this record is full of gorgeous pop melodies, laden with super catchy and hooky choruses, rife with wonderful west-African guitar riffs, and Caribbean calypso stylings. I’m doing away with the rating system, but if this was a paper and I was a professor, Vampire Weekend‘s self-titled debut would be the best of the new year. It’s totally wrecking the curve; other bands are going to need to do some extra-credit work to catch up…

Vampire Weekend