Somewhere over the course of the last ten years refined electronic pop music has become something that people admire again. Of course, in the 60′s and 70′s it was a given that great music could come from lush synth arrangements and heartfelt lyrics. Bowie, David Byrne, Freddie Mercury. These guys were not just regarded as pop stars, but rather as exemplary purveyors of a “cool” musical form. Over the next twenty years, however, a marked divide started to expand between the independent scene and synth-driven pop music. People that were into Slint or Silver Jews probably weren’t waiting with baited breath for the new Whitney Houston album. And rightfully so. I don’t think that fans of independent music would have shunned thoughtful electronic pop (Stereolab arguably fall under that category), there just wasn’t as much of it. Thankfully, a whole host of talented contemporary artists have decided that a poppy synth line is something they need to explore. Of this camp, Hot Chip are one of the most interesting practitioners.
Their newest album, In Our Heads, continues the evolution started on 2010′s One Life Stand: they have taken the quirky, idiosyncratic experimentations of their early career and distilled them into groovy, heartfelt dance songs. When asked about this shift in tone, Joe Goddard (founding member along with Alexis Taylor) said that “we didn’t sit down and have a band meeting, and say we wanted to write an album about love, but with hindsight those kinds of things have definitely been affecting us. We’re feeling quite settled and happy and it’s coming through on the songs we’re writing.” In a way, Hot Chip’s songs have always been affectionate. Their love for music always shined through however it was often obscured by snarky wit and lines like “I’m sick of motherfuckers trying to tell me that they are down with Prince.” In Our Heads makes no effort to be coy. The emotion comes full force along with the careful arrangements, which draw freely from R&B, pop, and dance.
The album opens with the sophisticated dance floor number “Motion Sickness.” Everything about the song begs for it to be played in the club scene of a Nicolas Refn movie. The pounding layers of synths and continuous talk of “spinning” and “sickness” is as close as I’ve come to aural inebriation. I expect once actually inebriated it will be even more enjoyable. Thankfully, the album consistently returns to the opening’s vibrant pulse, making for one of the more danceable Hot Chip releases yet. “These Chains”, “Night and Day”, “Flutes” and “Ends of the Earth” may not be as ruthlessly catchy as “Over and Over” but they draw on some of Hot Chip’s indie-dance elements to great effect. “These Chains” is particularly groovy. The lyrics are right out of a boy band (which may or may not be one of the band’s obsessions, considering the video for “I Feel Better” and their stated love of Destiny’s Child) but they seem right at home over the warm, pulsing rhythms.
On “How Do You Do?” Alexis Taylor sings “a heart is not for breaking it’s for beating out all the life it needs to give.” This sentimentality informs the outright R&B slow jams “Look at Where You Are” and “Now There is Nothing.” The former might as well be a Mariah Carey cover. Taylor’s eery falsetto belts out “look at where we are/ remember where we started out/ never gonna be without each other’s love again.” It’s a gorgeous little tune; but the album is really at its most epic on expansive tracks like “Flutes” and “Let Me Be Him.” The opening to “Flutes” is patient and dark, employing unintelligible samples and icy synths. This makes it all the more startling when Taylor’s voice enters piercingly and propels the song forward into a complex, twisted dance track.
When faced with the question of why some era’s of pop have been more successful Taylor said that what’s important is “the motivation of the people who are actually the pop stars, loving records and making records because of that.” He makes the seemingly obvious statement that “if people have a fascination with the sounds of records” then their music will be better. Well, sure. It isn’t easy to argue with that. But it is also an important observation in that it highlights the most fundamental difference between pop musicians that are regarded as “musicians” and those that are simply “performers.” The former will toil for years trying to find that just right sound because they know that their favorite musicians did the exact same thing. One could say its hard work, but I (a person who has made very little music and thus has no authority on the matter) would say it’s really just living – living the only way a passionate musician knows how. As Taylor says, “it’s a weird dream world when you’re making music. You’re just exploring things that are of interest to you. Why would that be something to take seriously?”