Hot Chip is growing up nicely — how about you?
By Peter Galvin
MUSIC There's a civil war afoot in the Hot Chip camp. Caught between tongue-in-cheek club-fillers and more melodic balladry, the U.K. electro-pop act continues to divide its audience by refusing to choose a definitive side and sound.
Duo and long-time friends, Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard have been plagued by the impression that they are largely a singles band, earmarking playlist-ready tracks like "Boy From School" and "Ready For The Floor" from otherwise uneven albums. Such is the scarlet letter left by Coming On Strong, their initial 2004 release with DFA Records, whose name is indelibly linked to a number of playlist-ready remixes. Following the band's subsequent jump to EMI Records, around the 2008 release of their third album Made in the Dark, it became clear that the pair were ready to take a step away from the ephemeral nature that plagues not only their band's first two releases, but much of modern dance music. Made in the Dark saw the band begin to experiment with more personal narratives, such as in the standout "We're Looking For a Lot of Love." Still, the collection of songs was more suggestive of growing pains than graduation.
After Dark's mixed advances, the release of One Life Stand represents the important moment in every successful band's career, the point where it finally decides whether it's going to continue rehashing a fruitful formula or take a risk, commit to something new and hope that the audience will stick around. As album opener "Thieves in the Night" comes over the speakers with the lyrics "happiness is what we all want," it's tough to find traces of the Hot Chip that was "sick of motherfuckers trying to tell me that they're down with Prince." The album title itself announces a band seeking something more real and permanent than an album that college kids bump at their summer parties.
Perhaps fearful that long-time fans might initially be turned off by the new direction, Taylor and Goddard make sure to hit you with the bangers right off the bat, four songs that recall their previous work in tempo if not content. But even these songs are free of the band's trademark irony. They explore love and yearning rather than ride high on the repetition of goofy catch-phrases. In addition to a distinct lyrical maturity, the new songs are also increasingly densely layered. While they imply an enormous backdrop of influences, you get the impression Hot Chip has moved past paying homage, instead simply wishing to explore new territory in an accessible way.
Past this initial burst of bluster, One Life Stand introduces what may well be the new sound of Hot Chip — ballads. Deeply personal and largely humorless, songs like "Brothers," "Alley Cats," and "Slush" show that the band wants to connect with its audience on a more profound level — and they're willing to drop the irony to do it. "Brothers" is candidly about Taylor loving his friends like brothers, a sentiment that might have embarrassed him had it appeared on Coming Up Strong. Hot Chip has matured, moved beyond posturing and caring what people think, making the album a refreshing reintroduction to a band that some dismissed as a couple of smart alecks.
It can be bittersweet watching a band grow up and define itself. Though One Life Stand is not without its missteps, I'm glad Hot Chip is doing what it wants rather than pandering to the expectations of an established audience. They like dancing and they like ballads, why should they have to choose? As lines are being drawn regarding the band's inevitable shift away from sardonic dance music, it's hard not to wonder whether Hot Chip even cares. If it does, it probably feels that its listeners are the ones having a hard time growing up.