Hot Chip set up an irresistible dance floor with influences from classic house to Daisy Age hip-hop to Prince.By Dave Faulkner.
Hot Chip’s ’Why Make Sense?’
Machines are great, but / best when they come to life.
On their latest album, Why Make Sense?, irrepressible British band Hot Chip promise to give the listener “something for your mind, your body and your soul”. On each of those objectives, I am happy to report, the mission is accomplished. Hot Chip have always exhibited a split musical personality, with sophisticated pop songs, audacious dance grooves and quirky musical experiments often competing with each other for attention, however, on Why Make Sense? their eclectic mix of influences combines perfectly. Throughout their career Hot Chip have appeared to be incapable of making a bad or uninteresting album and Why Make Sense? doesn’t break that cycle. In fact, it easily ranks with their best.
“Huarache Lights” is the opening track and a mighty beginning it is, too. A synth percolates while a robotic voice intones the song’s title before a casual dance groove kicks in. Featuring a blend of programmed and live drums, over the next five-plus minutes the song ruminates on club culture, the ageing process and the dehumanising effects of technology, referencing the band’s favourite footwear from the ’90s along the way (Nike’s Huarache Light trainers). This epic song sounds to me like it inherited some of its DNA from “Can You Feel It” by The Jacksons, which I intend as a huge compliment. For most artists a show stopper like this one would overshadow everything else around it, but Hot Chip are only just getting started.
Soul music is where they have always found their greatest inspiration and as house music aficionados they have frequently paid homage to the genre’s innovators. “Something for your mind, your body and your soul”, a refrain in “Huarache Lights”, was sampled from First Choice’s 1977 gay club hit “Let No Man Put Asunder”, one of the most sampled and remixed tracks in house music history. On a previous album, One Life Stand, Hot Chip collaborated with Trinidadian steel drummer Fimber Bravo. Bravo holds a special place in music history because his 20th Century Steel Band song from 1975, “Heaven & Hell Is on Earth”, is reputedly the most sampled song in history and one of the pillars of hip-hop.
Track two, the bouncy “Love Is the Future”, features another illustrious hip-hop reference, this time in the person of Posdnuos from hip-hop/house music pioneers De La Soul. Pos contributes a flippant rap verse in the middle of the song, adding a touch of carnal devil-may-care to the band’s paean to joyful love. As the song climaxes it resolves from its pensive minor key to major and reaches full bloom with a gorgeous, technicolour melody.
This is the sixth studio album by the dance-floor-friendly act, following their terrific album from 2012, In Our Heads. It shares many of the best qualities of that album but it is also apparent the band must have recently undergone a creative growth spurt. Hot Chip’s music has always sounded confident and self-aware but the insouciant electronic wunderkinds have never before sounded so natural and relaxed. That may be partly due to the trust that has developed between the band and their noted engineer, Mark Ralph, who this time is also their co-producer. I spoke to Hot Chip’s singer Alexis Taylor about it by phone. “We handed over a little bit more of a creative role to Mark on this record,” he explains. “He helped choose the studio that we went to, and he did a lot of editing that historically would have been more Joe’s [Goddard] role. There are places where he’s more involved than we’ve ever let anyone else be.”
For a band so closely associated with modern dance music, Hot Chip feel quite alienated from their peers. A pensive Taylor says: “I’m not somebody who exists totally within club culture and I don’t ever think of Hot Chip as an electronic outfit, per se. I tend to think of Hot Chip more like a band that could play any style of music that we’re interested in, but we … crossover with our interests and end up making things that are quite, sort of, hybrid.”
Few who have been following their career could argue with that. Their 2004 debut album, Coming On Strong, was a cheeky, idiosyncratic tabletop slice of electronica, wilfully ragged and bumpy. It wasn’t until their landmark second album, The Warning (2006), that they showed their true house music leanings, and the album’s confident swagger and state-of-the-art production was a revelation. The Warning was nominated for Britain’s Mercury Prize and it remains a high-water mark in modern dance music. Its superb follow-up, Made in the Dark (2008), was equally club-ready, though some of the band’s recent converts lamented its darker tone. It is obvious now that Made in the Dark was the necessary Yang to The Warning’s commercial Yin. Though 2010’s One Life Stand was lighter in tone with even more crowd-pleasing dance-floor fillers, in many ways it marked a return to the artsy adventurism of their debut, feeling slightly inconsistent as a result. Although a very strong album, for Hot Chip it served more as necessary refocus of their vision – and their best was yet to come.
For a band that has been so closely identified with cutting-edge digital technology, they are equally attached to analog sounds and the rough-and-ready accidents that often occur in “the real world”. Taylor tells me he’s barely competent with modern gear: “I don’t really know how to quantise, so that means I have to just kind of ‘get it right’, because if I start shifting things about everything goes a bit wrong.” And I’m surprised when Taylor, a man known for his up-tempo dance music, admits that the songs he begins alone are usually at around a leisurely 70 beats a minute.
Why Make Sense? continues with what would for some artists be an unlikely trio of songs, first with “Cry for You”, an urgent, slightly paranoid track that will keep clubbers happily sweating. That’s followed by the poppy “Started Right”, which evokes “Superstition”-era Stevie Wonder via its synth-treated clavinet. Completing the trio is the laconic “White Wine and Fried Chicken”. The three songs taken together are a perfect demonstration of the diversity Hot Chip exemplify.
“Some of them I’ve written knowing that I want it to be a kind of dance track,” Taylor says of his songwriting, “so I might make a very kind of crude version of a beat to write the song to. And other times I write a song where it’s not interested in that world, or Joe [Goddard] might have already made a bass line and some drums … and I just fit in around that with the chords and the melodies. But it depends on the song. “Started Right” – I wrote the song whilst I was in the room with Joe and he responded to the riffs I was playing ... by making a drum machine pattern as I was writing it … Actually I wrote it at a faster tempo, so that’s a rare occasion of Joe slowing me down.”
“White Wine and Fried Chicken” started out as a homage to Prince, as channelled by D’Angelo on his hit single from 2000, “Untitled (How Does It Feel)”. Hot Chip have often rhapsodised about Prince in interviews, even writing the sly tribute “Down with Prince” on their debut album. And why would they not? Prince is exactly the kind of hybrid artist that Hot Chip consider themselves to be. As Taylor puts it, Prince is “somebody who is taking in influence from all over the place and making something new but soulful with it. That’s kind of what I’m drawn towards rather than cold, digital-sounding, faceless dance music.”
There’s nothing cold or faceless about either “Dark Night” or “Need You Now”, two extraordinary dance anthems from the second half of the album. The former harks back to classic Philly Soul from the early ’70s, while the latter samples Sinnamon’s obscure 1983 track “I Need You Now”. If these two songs don’t get your blood moving then, my friends, you need to seek medical advice. For my money, “Need You Now” rivals “Huarache Lights” as the standout song on this record.
There are several more songs I could talk about, including the malevolent, ceremonial title track, but I’ll leave you to discover those for yourself. However, I do want to mention the bonus four-song Separate EP that comes with the album. It features “Burning Up”, a song I rate as highly as any other from the record and that to me is an indispensable addition to Hot Chip’s canon. The other three songs are cracking, too. If you buy the album in any form, whether as a download from iTunes or in its CD or vinyl editions, then you will get this EP included, but if you only stream it on Spotify you’ll be plum out of luck.
These new songs display all the usual fecundity of melody and clever wordplay Hot Chip fans have come to expect, along with the buoyant rhythms and monumental riffs that have endeared them to clubbers and festivalgoers for more than a decade. But there is a breadth of styles and influences on Why Make Sense? that distinguishes it from their previous work. This is the most ambitious and accomplished album of Hot Chip’s career.
On “Huarache Lights”, Taylor sings, “Replace us with the things that do the job better”. On present form, that isn’t going to be happening any time soon.
• LITERATURE Sydney Writers’ Festival
Various venues, Sydney, May 18-24
• VISUAL ART Go East
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, until July 26
• THEATRE The Shoe-Horn Sonata
Ensemble Theatre, Sydney, until June 28
• VISUAL ART Ryan Trecartin: Re’Search Wait’S
NGV International, Melbourne, until September 13
• SPOKEN WORD TEDxSydney 2015 and [email protected]
Sydney Opera House, May 21
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 16, 2015 as "Hits and chips". Subscribe here.