Monday, April 12, 2010

Hot Chip: One Life Stand (2010)



Oh man, I'm excited about this album; having just listened to it again, I'm not sure if I can do it justice, but I'll try. It was either "No Fit State" or "One Pure Thought" that initially hooked me on the UK techno-pop fivesome Hot Chip a couple of years ago. These are essentially disco songs which capture that inexplicable euphoric feeling of flipping off somewhere into oblivion. Being a nearly-lifelong synthpop convert (as captured in the last two entries here), I was thoroughly knocked out by what this group was doing, pounding ahead with confidence and no fear of body or mind. "One Pure Thought" is, for me, one of the five greatest singles of the 2000s. Although I loved The Warning and Made in the Dark, I was a casual enough fan that I didn't even know until recently that the band actually had an earlier album (Coming On Strong). But One Life Stand has changed all that forever now; whatever Hot Chip does from now on, I'll be paying attention.

I don't know why this record feels so different to me from the wildly ambitious, gem-filled earlier albums; early reports of it being darker and less beat-driven turned out to be grossly exaggerated. But there was a certain kind of song on those older LPs, and "One Pure Thought" and "Boy from School" are good examples, on which Hot Chip would take some left turn onto a groove that would just feel impossbly right, and time could almost just stop. It took me a long time to realize that those songs were special and stood out because if you took every bell and whistle away from them, they would be manificently written pop music. They are cathartic by sheer force of melody, and often lyrics (Neil Tennant with a paranoid streak). Some critics have said it feels like One Life Stand doesn't have any really tight, balls-out singles to offer; to me, this could be a greatest hits collection. It's just that the songs themselves are unified, restrained, complete. Production, good as it is, is only a secondary asset.

The songs on One Life Stand hang together through a contradiction, and contradiction is the secret of great pop music. They share an assured vulnerability. Though it's a lyrical conceit, it invades everything. The first notes of track one, "Thieves in the Night," could hook anyone with even the most remote attachment to disco or synthpop. Alexis Taylor's coolheaded but subtly frayed voice comes aboard and starts spilling out some paranoid cautions then slips into an album of confused, sweet, sentimental, occasionally laughably domesticated love songs. Who knows what it really means, but every time his voice shakes on these songs, I feel more like these songs, beats, and lyrics have enough detail to continue revealing themselves for years. This isn't an album for 2010, this is an album you'll be keeping around for comfort, and it isn't often that's so abundantly clear so quickly.

The first record of the 2-LP set offers four powerfully propulsive killers in a row; "Thieves in the Night," the shattering "Hand Me Down Your Love," and the irresistible "I Feel Better" build up to a phantasmagorically thrilling climax with the title track. Then, a left turn: the amazingly delicate and emotional "Brothers," a song that completely fails to question its own near-banal honesty ("I can play Xbox with my brothers"), and is all the more impressive for it, in the process proving Hot Chip's alarming melodic chops. They could have been a power-pop outfit just as easily as they became electropop, and they'd be a blast either way.

But it's a mistake to believe they only know one way to make an electropop song: The immediate explosion and onward to fadeout is not a rigid formula here. "Alley Cats" begins as a reflective, quiet dirge and builds to beautiful chillout with an unstoppable rhythm; Taylor and Joe Goddard's voices bounce off each other to glorious effect, and Hot Chip places all their electric trickery well into the background, giving their own opinion of what's most important. (And this makes it harder to ignore that the song is brilliantly composed and quietly touching.) The breezy but potent "Keep Quiet" amps up the potential for the New Order comparisons I'm sure plenty of people have made, backing up its skittering beats and hushed, persuasive vocals with a wonderfully incongrous string section, post-punk with a knockout beat.

The riskiest, most uncommercial cut is the highly proficient modern doo wop "Slush," which opens the second record. I'm sure dance purists are more than a bit put off by the song itself and its perverse positioning, but if perversity represents a diverse expression, is there anything wrong with perversity, particularly with a band this adventurous? And "Slush" doesn't deserve to die on some b-side or iTunes exclusive someplace. The menace and desperation (but of course, detached desperation!) that color its final two minutes make for what is among the most special moments of the record.

Side Four features some of Hot Chip's purest dance music so far. "We Have Love" is completely convincing disco-soul, with just the perfect Pet Shop Boys tinge of regret to make it linger in the mind long after its monstrous big beat has flattened you. "Take It In" moves to industrial and Music for the Masses for its inspiration but explodes in a rainbow of sound and harmony for its widescreen chorus, becoming a melting pot of dance history to attain nirvana for anyone who spends their life getting their kicks this way, the increasingly weird and misfit set that never thought disco had died. The song is beautiful enough to be loved by any pop music audience, but apart from that it's best described, like so much of One Life Stand, as sounding like a culmination, a fulfilling of potential. Something like this garden of love and delight, specifically that captured by "Take It In" and "One Life Stand," is ultimately why we have dance music, and why it has endured.

Not one of the ten cuts here is too long, or inessential. None of the slow ones get stuck in a spot where it kills the party momentum, and I don't have an issue with seeing this exceptional album as party music. Just as easily as you can fall in love with this music on headphones, you can find a million places in it to escape to bright lights and body movement. To hear this record is to celebrate the sheer timelessness of rock & roll in all its durability, for living room shaking or dancefloor communion or sad reminiscing or private consolation, never tempering its intelligence and soul. And if you love the indescribable feeling of the best dance music as much as I do, trust me, this is full of the transcendent moments you spend long nights looking for. Let's keep Hot Chip at this magical state of simultaneous vulnerability and confidence for at least another couple of albums. Then they're allowed to evolve. But the only problem with this album is it's too short. More ASAP.

This is terrific on vinyl! Buy it! (But be aware that it doesn't come with a download, and oddly transposes two tracks.) If you don't know Hot Chip, download the two songs provided below; I selected the two most "immediate" rather than my favorites this time. I truly believe this is their best album thus far (although the songs I've recently sampled from their debut really impressed me, I must say), so if you like these, pick up the record and keep an eye on Hot Chip, who are growing to be one of my favorite current bands. (In case you're wondering, I think my two favorites are "Hand Me Down Your Love" and "Alley Cats." For now, at least.)

One Life Stand
We Have Love

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