In a landscape dominated by dance music, Hot Chip are a bit of an anomaly because they are a band. Indie dance groups of their ilk were all the rage during those DFA-fueled mid-Aughts. In the last decade, though, disco has grown increasingly maximalist and strangely Messianic. One man—almost always a man—raises his hands above crowds of thousands that writhe and jump in ecstasy at his offerings. So the continued existence of Hot Chip—a band that composes cerebral and often understated grooves with a superlative sense of rhythm and syncopation—is a pleasing development.
With their sixth record Why Make Sense?, the members of Hot Chip dig in their heels and turn even deeper inward. They reinforce those elements that make them a band in a DJ’s world. All components of the ensemble— keyboards, drums, guitar, bass, and vocals—lock into tight precision like puzzle pieces over ten taut tracks. They trade off motifs and build off each other’s energy like jazz musicians. Why Make Sense? is stubborn in its adherence to the band’s established strengths. The band’s self-assuredness ultimately leads to a serviceable, but not particularly novel listening experience.
A number of tunes on Why Makes Sense? fall under the label of what I like to call “H&M Music.” It’s the kind of innocuous pop that dominates the intercom in mid-range priced clothing stores. “Started Right” and “Easy To Get” offer up funky whiteboy grooves to no particular climax. The strangely sorrowful “Dark Night” is a knockoff of Duran Duran’s “The Chauffeur”. It doesn’t particularly earn its five and a half minute runtime.
With such a well-established sound, Hot Chip could benefit from some stylistic variation. Accordingly, the best moments on Why Make Sense?are those that most diverge from the formula. The easy-like-Sunday-morning “White Wine and Fried Chicken” is a hilariously titled ballad that rides a woozy layer of high-hat and after-hours keyboard. The dark, closing title track mimics the famous drum line of “When the Levee Breaks”. It ends up a glitchy electroclash number that ends the record on a portentous high note. Ultimately, the band veers into more intriguing territory when it eschews the dance-floor altogether.
Hot Chip have demonstrated in the past that they are more than capable of going big. Consider pounding thrillers like “Ready for the Floor” or “One Life Stand”. In a live setting, they are peerless. Numbers like “Over and Over” can enrapture an entire festival ground with boundless energy and ribcage-rattling bass. It’s hard not to wish that amidst the characteristic understatement of Why Make Sense?, Hot Chip could have elected to go a little louder, a little bolder at times.
There are flashes of spunky brilliance. Highlight “Love Is the Future” offers a jarringly delightful hip-hop breakdown that fades into a string denouement. Opener “Huarache Lights” sets a promising mood with true subwoofer power amidst unsettling minor chord changes. Even so, these songs still seem restrained, as if the band members are so locked into their groove that they can’t break loose to a healthy extent. Hot Chip called their last album Out of Our Heads.Why Make Sense? finds the group remaining confined within them.
There’s a fear of obsolescence hanging over Why Make Sense? It's made immediately apparent in the opening refrain of “replace us with the things that do the job better.” Hot Chip were a product of their moment, a time when James Murphy retaught hipsters how to move their feet. Indie dance music takes its inspirations elsewhere now—90’s house and r&b mostly—and Hot Chip refuse to adapt. And that’s not a fair expectation. Hot Chip have a unique, intelligent sound that has produced some classics over the last decade. Yet, there are precious few surprises sprinkled among the synths on Why Make Sense? The album doesn’t take nearly enough risks. It’s far more comfortable adhering “sense” than its title would imply. C+
A version of this review was originally published on May 12, 2015.