Sunday, February 3, 2008

Record Review: Hot Chip: Made In the Dark

Hot Chip follow up their fantastic The Warning with a heavier, more gut-wrenching record, one that often plays more like Justice than the band's previous material. Clearly, someone wasn't kidding when they threatened "to break our legs."

Rating: 3.5/5

Making a DFA record (hell, making a dance rock record in general) became a bit harder after last year. Whether fair or not, we now almost have to measure such albums against LCD Soundsystem’s incredible Sound of Silver, the masterwork that redefined what it means to blend rock and electronic music. Hot Chip’s latest exhibits no such brilliance, but does in fact find the band often shifting their sound to the “faster and rockier” nature proclaimed by the album’s initial press release.

Much of Made In the Dark is more aggressive, intense, and relentlessly guitar-oriented than anything Hot Chip have ever recorded, very much recalling the heavy metal-tinged fury of Justice’s Cross. Certainly, there are softer moments here as well, but as a whole, Made In the Dark showcases the Hot Chip that threatened to “break your legs” coming around to actually do it.

Opener “Out at the Pictures” instantly sets Dark’s more aggressive tone, replacing the lighter-than-air, grandiose synths of The Warning opener “Careful” with rumbling, kick-in-the-balls guitar and a dense pile-on of keyboards, cowbell, and drums. “Shake a Fist” immediately follows suit, volcanically erupting into delirious synths two minutes in, packing jackhammer-like force without seeming too abrupt or throwing the song into chaos. Even a better exercise in Hot Chip’s newfound musical rage is “Bendable Poseable,” matching the force and frenzy of “Pictures” and “Shake” while seamlessly tossing in a slightly malicious, oddball piano line that would have felt at home on Battles’ brilliantly twisted Mirrored. These early successes, balanced out nicely by the new wave anthem “Ready For the Floor” and the Warning-like ballad “We’re Looking For a Lot of Love,” show the band expanding their sonic palette without losing their impeccable pop sensibilities. Hot Chip may have a little Justice-fever, but they certainly know what they’re doing.

However, we’ve still got eight more tracks to go, and things don’t always pan out. While the adrenaline-fueled start of Dark plays well, the flip side of Hot Chip’s musical progression, the replacement of the slick, chill electro ballads of the band’s previous effort with a slew of sparse piano numbers, stands as the album’s glaring weakness. The skeletal backdrops of these songs (namely, the title track, “Whistle for Will,” and “In the Privacy of Our Love”) creates a deeply schizophrenic listen, for one thing, but even so, I could tolerate the record’s sudden turns if the songs were, when isolated, good songs.

Though it may seem a bit paradoxical, the idea of a DFA piano ballad isn’t ridiculous; in fact, certain artists on (or formerly on) the label fleshed the idea out to great ends. Two come to mind immediately: “Open Up Your Mind,” off of The Rapture’s excellent Echoes, and “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down,” the closer to LCD Soundsystem’s aforementioned Sound of Silver. Furthermore, The Warning showcased a knack for balladry superior to that of these two bands, even if “The Warning” and “Look After Me” weren’t of the piano-driven mold of Dark’s quieter moments. Hot Chip proved they could create songs not musically overpowering or densely arranged, but, rather, intricately designed, each element subtly building off the others to create a perfect balance of energy and gentle elegance.

Here, however, where the more maximalist tracks succeed, the bare ballads wander aimlessly, lacking any dynamic whatsoever and carrying little emotional weight, the almost nonexistent musical arrangements drawing attention to Alexis Taylor’s lyrical shortcomings: “Since we fell apart I’ve been nothing but blue/Longing for a night-time to bring back my youth/Every night in motion, together, apart/Apart from the moments so dear to my heart.” Not terrible lyrics by any means, but generic and bland nonetheless, and far from enough to breathe life into the flat backdrop.

Nonetheless, skip the ballads, and you’ll find yourself with a pretty nice remainder of the album. “Touch Too Much” and “Hold On” are solid up-tempo rockers if nothing else, despite the excessive length and lyrical clunkers (“I’m only going to heaven/If it feels like hell/I’m only going to heaven/If it tastes like caramel”) of the latter. Then, of course, we’ve got “One Pure Thought,” an absolutely fantastic slice of synth-pop that easily ranks among the band’s best (and grandest) songs and may rank among my favorite tracks of 2008 come year’s end. Frustrating as parts of Dark may be, highlights like this make this an album worth seeking out. Yeah, it’s not Sound of Silver. Not even close. But Hot Chip are as loveable as ever, and honestly, I can’t emphasize enough how good “One Pure Thought” is:

Hot Chip - One Pure Thought

Buy: Amazon

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