I am a robot and this robot is on overload
April 20, 2007
The laws of irony clearly state that a band of mismatched uber-awkward dorks can’t write lyrics about breaking your legs or being down with Prince without coming off like unendurable dipshits; the best they can hope for is Atom and His Package. And that’s why I didn’t initially give Hot Chip much of a chance, even after esteemed peers with high-functioning bullshit detectors (like this guy) fell all over them. But the laws of irony don’t account for the icy melancholy and the fluid twerky bounce that these guys pull off beautifully. When I finally got around to seeing the band at Webster Hall late last year, they had a couple of extra weapons behind them: a drummer and a percussionist, both smart and locked-in enough to give dizzying force to the band’s ecstatic techno buildups and Latin-disco breakdowns. I walked into Webster Hall that night looking for something to do to kill time before Todd P’s anti-CMJ across-the-river throwdown, and I walked out utterly convinced. That one show was all it took. Immediately afterward, I started hearing The Warning for what it is, a compulsively listenable pileup of party-up earworm mantras and swooningly pretty teen-movie-closing-credits ballads. Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard never let their cheesed-out jokes or their weedy voices get in the way of their songs’ sweep; if anything, they’ve turned their liabilities into assets, building up their gleaming synth-swooshes with all-too-human wounded sadness. The band fits perfectly into the grand tradition of whiteboy computer-soul, a line that encompasses Tears for Fears and Depeche Mode and, for that matter, Justin Timberlake’s FutureSex/LoveSounds. In fact, now that I think about it, Timblerlake may have learned a thing or two from the way their spazzy loverman R&B twitches even as it swoops. And, as Hot Chip’s recent remix of “In the Morning” shows, they can do the Junior Boys’ thing better than the Junior Boys themselves can, no mean feat. Ten or fifteen years from now, some crappy indie band is probably going to score a minor hit doing an acoustic cover of “Boy From School,” and Hot Chip’s place in that lineage will be official.
When the band came back to Webster Hall on Friday night, they didn’t have any drummers with them. A pair of congas sat off on the wings, Taylor kept a mounted set of bongos next to his synth-panel, and a few other members occasionally brought out cowbells, but that was it. I missed most of Tussle‘s opening set, but when I walked into the club, I saw six bike messenger-looking dudes all smashing away at various percussion instruments, almost like Hot Chip were trying to make up for their lack of drums with their choice of openers. That lack of drums made a difference; Hot Chip sounded stiffer and more brittle than they had in November. But they made up for it by structuring their set like a DJ set, easing fluidly from song to song by finding sly little segues. As a structuring device, it worked beautifully; when Alexis Taylor sang a few bars of New Order’s “Regret” as the band slid into the chorus of “No Fit State,” his own song felt even more revelatory than it usually does. This was an all-synth show, with all five members parked behind huge banks of equipment and only occasionally pulling out guitars or cowbells; it looked sort of like five supporting characters from The 40-Year-Old Virgin had formed a Kraftwerk cover band. But Taylor, who looks like a white Steve Urkel, and Goddard, who looks like a friendly cartoon bear, both have a sort of gawky charisma that the stage setup couldn’t diminish. And Hot Chip is that rare synthpop band that always sounds better live, stretching out their arrangements and allowing their songs to build incrementally from orderly, by-the-numbers synthpop to frantic, anthemic freakouts. This time, those freakouts came with laser-lights stabbing rhythmically through the air; Hot Chip doesn’t need glammy accouterments like that, but they sure know how to use them when they come along.
Nearly half of Friday night’s set was given over to new songs, and those new songs raised the tantalizing possibility that Hot Chip might still be getting better. The Warning, after all, was a huge leap past debut album Coming On Strong, and it only came out about a year afterward; this band is still honing its aggressively fey glossiness. One new song (“Time Delay”? “Tom DeLay”?) is totally robotic, pretty close to something like the Normal; another marries swishy, scratchy Nile Rogers guitars to icy Chemical Brothers synths. As twitchy as those new songs are, they still keep the band’s overriding soul-pop earnestness intact. Hot Chip isn’t a band on the verge of doing something great; they’re a band that’s already doing great things and still finding ways to push their pleasure-center sound forward. They deserve crowds as rapturous as the one last night, which went off the entire time and made me think that the balcony was about to crumble and fall when the band played synthpop club-jam “Over and Over,” a song that sounds roughly one bajillion times better live than it does on record. Hot Chip might come from London, but their New York shows are starting to feel like homecomings. Al Dowling, after all, moonlights for LCD Soundsystem, and Friday night James Murphy was up in the VIP section; I saw a security guard telling him to stop standing on chairs. For a group of people so fundamentally awkward, they’re scarily good at what they do. Very few bands could walk onstage to Curtis Mayfield’s “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Gonna Go” without looking like complete herbs. Hot Chip already do look like complete herbs, but they make it not matter, which is somehow even more impressive.
Voice review: Mike Powell on Hot Chip’s The Warning