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Hot Chip: In Our Heads

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  • Britain's smartest pop act enter worryingly guileless territory on their fifth album.
  • published
    11 Jun 2012
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    Domino
    Hot Chip
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Available on: Domino LP

With their 2004 debut, Coming On Strong, Hot Chip were the answer to all our prayers, seemingly beamed directly from that sweet spot between post-punk and new pop, c. 1981/82. Like Scritti before them, and building on the ideas set down by Junior Boys’ Birthday EP, they both subverted and homaged the black pop of their era, setting Timbaland-pop and Prince-ian sex-jams against vocalist Alexis Taylor’s spayed middle class melancholy. It was smart pop music made from pure concept, or at least one very good one.

Ever since second album The Warning, however, this quality – let’s call it aesthetic potency – has gradually waned. First apparent on the unfocussed One Life Stand and more so on this, their fifth LP, the problem has been an on-going drift towards a non-specific kind of dance-pop. Wittily crafted tunes replaced with something guileless, as if Britain’s smartest pop group forget how to think.

By this point, it’s hard to define what the Hot Chip style is. What’s the thinking behind anonymous opener ‘Motion Sickness’, for instance, with its half-dance tempo and retro synth-brass? Or ‘How Do You Do’, with its awkward marriage of Chip irony (wilfully chintzy synths) and an un-ironic nod to house – complete with deep bouncy bassline. Next to Metronomy’s last album, the British summertime-evoking The English Rivera, In Our Heads seems acutely lacking in personality, meaning or the ability to evoke, in your head, anything other than a vague urge to dance.

Which, reportedly, is what Hot Chip intended for In Our Heads – mindlessness. Or to put it another way – an excuse not to think, but just dance: the house gospel. “We tried to make something joyful and alive, and that’s it really”, Goddard tells us on the press sheet. “It’s cheesy in some way – [but] for me, I want to listen to [hang-up-free] records like ‘Never Too Much’ by Luther Vandross”.

From Klaxons to Primal Scream, and right the way back to mutant disco, its a classic indie epiphany: sensitive introverts tired of living in their own heads and who, besides anything, suspect that what ever poignancy they gleaned from meaningful lyrics and talking about feelings, will never be quite as true or pure as wordless expressions: dancing and the nirvana of losing yourself on the floor. In case we didn’t get the message, on girl / DJ love-ode ‘How Do I Do’ Alexis drives it home with sledgehammer subtlety: “A church is not for praying, it’s for celebrating the life that bleeds through the pain / A heart is not for breaking, it’s for beating out all the life it needs.” Joe Goddard has been pimping the same line for a few years now with side project The 2 Bears, but while The 2 Bears commit to a single idea, house, before honing it into something euphoria inducing, In Your Heads only scrapes the surface, and at its worst, confuses mindlessness with inanity.

‘Ends Of The Earth’ is a beige, nondescript creation, again sporting an inconsequential combination of ‘80s synthpop (one finger keyboarding and sequenced voice samples) and ‘90s house – the pallid kind that is: located at an ill-conceived middle ground between Xpress 2 and mid-tempo eurohouse. ‘Flutes’ is equally facile. After a promising intro featuring a mysterious vocal hook and a darkly insistent bassline, the drive flounders in Alexis’s indie pop choruses and a long stretch of fair-weather house, replete with basic drum programming and obvious tricks – off-beat key stabs, building synths. Elsewhere, the electrofunk ‘Don’t Deny Your Heart’ provides the low point. A mess of signifiers and musical ideologies, new wave clashes against synth-metal keytar and Soca house, making for a Frankenstein’s monster of dance-y ad-lib.

Granted, the cheap thrills are as abundant here as on any Hot Chip album. ‘These Chains’ is a summer gem: Washed Out-style balearic but less faded, elucidated by guitar, and Taylor and Alexis’s gorgeously forlorn harmonies: John Talabot via Arthur Russell. The following ‘Night and Day’ meanwhile, is Goddard’s house remake of ‘One Life Stand’, featuring a dynamite synth-hook, compulsive enough to resist the drag of a naff electro breakdown. Punchy and memorable, it stands out like a sore thumb here. But the highlight is ‘Let Me Be Him’, nailing some of that ‘joyousness’ they’ve been on about, but achieved through completely different methods (the key line: “Lend me your ideas / but not too fully formed”.) In Our Heads’ least busy, least hectoring track, the soft blend of ambient house pop and soul-stirring calls, unfurled over a steady eight minutes, is moving precisely because of its simplicity. That, right there, is the band’s heart peeking out. Unfortunately, its head is dusty with neglect.

John Calvert

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