This past Saturday, as a sellout crowd waited for Hot Chip to begin playing, a DJ at the Highline Ballroom played an a cappella version of Marvin Gaye singing “Sexual Healing.” Unadorned by dripping, quiet-storm keyboards and honeyed percussion, Gaye’s voice held the venue in thrall for a stirring few minutes, and those massed and awaiting the show quieted, some singing along, others just taking it in.
By mid-set, Hot Chip’s aural assault hit its frenetic peak and the crowd, singing along again (they seemed to know all the words even though the album comes out today), was a rollicking mass, smiles everywhere and totally freaking out. Yet deep below the volume and density of the band’s sound lay some of the same elements that made that Marvin Gaye vocal, all by itself, so powerful: the sway and heart-tug that we sometimes call soul.
On the surface this sounds insane. Marvin Gaye built a career lending his honeyed voice and emotional tornado to ever-smoother exhortations of love. One of the best tracks on Hot Chip’s latest album, Made In the Dark uses the language of pro wrestling on a seductive R. Kelly sound-alike called “Wrestlers” (sample lyric: “Don’t fight dirty, don’t hit me with the chair!”) Yet wrapped inside all of Hot Chip’s tracks, even the giddily eccentric tunes like “Wrestlers,” are the synthesis of dance music’s propulsive intensity, rock’s hook-derived addictiveness, and the alluring physicality of soul and R&B. Add to that lyrics at turns sweet and economical and verbosely enigmatic and you’ve got an exciting proposition. Of course the proposition can turn sour (Midnite Vultures springs to mind), but a certain alchemy Hot Chip has been lucky enough to maintain through three albums has made for rich results.
All that variety is tied together and blended artfully, buzzing electropop giving way to weepy piano ballads only to turn again to thumping techno and squiggling computer love. There are shades of Devo, the B-52s, New Order and Pet Shop Boys in Hot Chip, but perhaps they come closest to Prince in terms of complexity, soul, and sheer pop joy. Like Prince Hot Chip understands that albums don’t have to behave as a flat monochromatic palette, one song much like the next only slower, faster, louder, or quieter. Bands like Interpol or Arcade Fire challenge fans to find the delight in the details, but with Hot Chip, the details seem to multiply faster than they can be identified.
The band’s debut, Coming On Strong, offered a more juvenile version of this mix, with sounds composed mainly of shabby synth arrangements around lilting, gorgeous melodies. At that time the band was just Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard making tunes at home, but already there was a will to generate a new kind of soul, and a new kind of dance music. That album and the two since was recorded at home (two of the new albums most complex-sounding tracks were recorded as live takes, a testament to the band’s skill and its ability to bring the goods on stage), but the band’s aesthetic would be concretized on its next effort, 2006’s The Warning. Just as intimate and emotionally viable as the debut, this album was confidence writ large, its ballads more aching and sonically rounded while its dance numbers were infused with immense energy and a host of elements taken from 2 step garage to house to rave, all reconfigured as a stuttering, insistent call to arms, and filled too with lyrical witticisms. Its hit was “Over and Over,” a boasting paean to repetition and surrendering to the beat. The album went gold in the UK (their current single is at #6 on the UK pop charts) and was nominated for a Mercury prize. The band had also grown from two to five, with the addition of Al Doyle and Owen Clarke on guitars and keyboards, Felix Martin handling programming and loftier electronic elements.
The band has learned about dance floor strategy, and added to that on their latest, Made In The Dark, is a seemingly encyclopedic sense of the sounds that produce joy. The album is the most rock and roll Hot Chip has sounded thus far, though it also employs, without apology, the kind of glitchy electronica usually reserved for more esoteric house music. Behind a battery of keyboards, pedals and bongos, the band is arranged for the live show more or less in a row at the front of the stage (Felix is set back in a sort of cage of monitors, laptops and electronics). There are strobe lights, twin disco balls, and band members busting moves onstage. Yet unlike purely electronic acts, who often fiddle with boxes, switches and laptops to the general chagrin of anyone wanting to witness something resembling work, the band is a blur of motion, switching instruments, moving between keyboard and guitar, pulling out chimes and wood blocks and, yes, even cowbells.
The yield is a crowded, insistent sound, the pounding dance tunes rarely pausing for silence or introspection (key change transitions were abundant at the show), and the album rarely takes moments to breathe easy. “Out At the Pictures” goes through a full minute of wheezing, flat tones before a jittery percussion calls the album to attention and, suddenly, a Big Beat propulsion kicks off, then a call-and-response shakes things up again, threatening to dislodge the tune until it’s all saved by a cruising guitar/keyboard line zings everything into some kind of surf-rock ecstasy. And suddenly, thirty seconds on, we’re back into the Big Beat rollick. “Bendable Poseable” inserts a kind of Kraftwerkian obsession with robotic musical and vocal language, while “Ready For the Floor,” heir to “Over and Over,” revels in the glories of repetition and overextension, Taylor’s yearning pleas taking the place of the diva: “I’m hoping with chance / you might take this dance” while choppy, densely layered rhythms swell. “Shake a Fist” seems to pick apart a bunch of rave music clichés, rearranging them in a kind of goofy, persistent beat-collage where one moment it’s New Order, the next Daft Punk, the next 808 State, but it’s all part of a rocking groove, so who could complain (and the Todd Rundgren sample ain’t bad)? “One Pure Thought” begins with a guitar progression Coldplay wouldn’t turn away from, but kicks in with a flapping, unceasing beat and vocal, reminiscent of dancehall riddims.
But it’s the more soulful numbers, while less obviously energizing, that take the show on this album. “We’re Looking For a Lot of Love” recalls Berlin as much as Curtis Mayfield, if that sounds remotely plausible in text form, with gently echoing guitar plinks backed by spare digital claps and rousing, rising “A-whoa-ha-ha-ho-oh”s keeping the tune’s love alive. “Touch Too Much” is a ballad on the pedestal of a buzzy church organ line, broken by hollow stick-on-stick-like beats and meandering guitars. The title track is genuinely quiet, with a gentle, downward-turning guitar line, brushed drums, and the slightest shadow of a keyboard hum, slowly rising and falling with the enigmatic, affecting chorus “we were made in the dark,” alluding to the blindness of conception as well as self-invention. “Whistle For Will” exhibits the most longing, as piano chords build on each other and a slow beat leads on and up.
Later on in the Saturday night performace, once the band had finished its encores, the DJ played a Nina Simone cover of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord,” a cut recorded live and pinballing from mournful lament to rousing shimmy as Simone built up and broke down the song for twenty minutes. It was another great reflection of the band that played that night, finding enlightenment through joyous, thundering rhythm and keening, minimal bursts of pure passion, and working it all together for as long as the people can handle it.