Friday, February 01, 2008

Subversion In The Night

Hot Chip - Made In The Dark (DFA/EMI, 2008)

Hot Chip’s third album, and their first to be released to a palpable sense of anticipation, is paradoxically both their most accessible and most confounding. It’s accessible in its sheer energy and playful zest, and also in its preponderance for deceptively sugary melodies. For all their reliance on the traits of R&B and dance music, first single ‘Ready For The Floor’ actually most closely resembles the infectious pop of Erasure or early Depeche Mode. On the other hand, the album is confounding in the sheer glee it takes in subverting expectations, deconstructing conventional song structures and restlessly flitting between genres and styles. It’s an album that, appropriately as it turns out, requires a bit of wrestling and confrontation.

Whilst Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard’s bedroom recording ethos has mercifully been sustained here, there’s also a greater sense of ambition, a number of tracks having been recorded in a studio with the whole group. It’s therefore the first Hot Chip record to capture the thrill and insistence of their live shows. If there’s a downside to this, it’s that the beats sometimes rely far more heavily on the basic four-to-the-floor house template, with any intricacy left to additional percussion parts.

Yet there’s much more to this slippery record than simply a relentless party spirit. It’s intriguing that whilst comparisons often rest on the group’s enthusiasm for American R&B, Robert Wyatt has recently recognised them as kindred spirits and a collection of ‘English eccentrics’. This is perhaps best elucidated in Alexis Taylor’s thoughtful, elusive lyrics, which often capture a mood but leave precise meaning somewhat ambiguous. Alongside this is an increased tendency to veer away from the tired conventions of pop songwriting. Sometimes this results in songs that sound like several different pieces only loosely strung together – I’ve yet to get to grips with the mechanistic ‘Don’t Dance’. At other times, it has results that are both unpredictable and striking, particularly on ‘Hold On’, ‘Touch Too Much’ and ‘One Pure Thought’.

I’m baffled that some critics have suggested that ‘Made In The Dark’ is too rigorous – overly tight and ‘sexless’ (any album that features a song called ‘In The Privacy of Our Love’ cannot be entirely sexless!). Much of it has the intentionally ragged edges that have always characterised the group’s sound. It’s machine music with a human heart and a restless mind. I also detect a more aggressive, muscular approach here, particularly evident in the strident, unpredictable ‘Out At The Pictures’ or the irresistible ‘Hold On’ (which features Alexis, it’s safe to say not the stockiest man in the world, singing ‘I’ve a good mind to take you outside!’). Best of all is the amazing ‘One Pure Thought’ which neatly juxtaposes the spirit of New Order with the melodic African excursions of Paul Simon.

All of these bold, uncompromising and insistent tracks benefit from the increased vocal presence of Joe Goddard, who had seemed a little diminutive on much of ‘The Warning’. Here the group are again making brilliant use of the marked contrast between his inspired quasi-rapping and Alexis’ sweeter tones and bright melodies. This is particularly effective on the quirky, invigorating ‘Bendable Poseable’. ‘Shake A Fist’ is a trickier beast though, it’s enjoyably wide-ranging melody suddenly disintegrating into a wilfully irritating Todd Rundgren sample and mess of pitch-bending synths. It reminds me of the infuriating ending to ‘Baby Said’, otherwise one of the most direct and affecting moments on ‘Coming On Strong’.

Amidst all this riotous energy, the album comes to life in its quieter places. I know he won’t thank me for this comparison, but Alexis shares something with Damon Albarn in his comfortable mastery of the ballad form, something evidenced here by the exquisite and beautiful title track and the haunting and candid ‘In The Privacy Of Our Love’. There’s also the gospel tinged ‘We Are Looking For A Lot Of Love’, which sounds like a great R Kelly single with vulnerability replacing the bravado. It sounds a little like a superior update of an early Hot Chip track, ‘Making Tracks’, which appeared on the group’s San Frandisco EP. Whereas ‘The Warning’ really only had one song like this in the form of ‘Look After Me’, ‘Made In The Dark’ stands apart through increasing the quota.

It will take a while of living with this album before I can really decide if it coheres well, or is more a ragbag collection of audacious creative ideas. Either way, they are mostly brilliant ideas. There’s so much originality and personality here – but none of it outweighs Alexis and Joe’s supreme understanding of musical history and the songwriting tradition, which is more clearly elucidated here than on either of its predecessors. From the dark, the light creeps out.

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