[4 January 2006]
I suppose we can blame the Beta Band. Although the ‘90s were notable for the ease with which genres were crossed and spliced, the Beta Band rose to initial success on a more holistic eclecticism than that practiced by the likes of Beck. It didn’t always work, which was certainly a contributing factor in the Band’s recent break-up, but when it did it was magnificent. Little did we know at the time that the sound the Betas pioneered at the fin de siecle would become one of the defining sounds of the new decade. Unfortunately, the Betas would have little to do with the success of their own template beyond the initial success of their Three EPs record.
But here we are in the waning days of 2005, and the previously inviolate boundaries between disparate genres such as acoustic folk and electronic dance have basically become meaningless. Before Bright Eyes had even recorded an electronic album (and a pretty good one, too), groups like the Junior Boys and the Postal Service, in addition to hip-hop oriented acts like Atmosphere and Sage Francis, had broken down the borders and rose to prominence on the strength of distinctive cross-genre exploration. The fact that these groups are hardly considered experimental or outré is a testament to the fact that we’ve essentially entered an era where genre distinctions have become meaningless. Blame Beck, blame the Betas, blame motherfucking Kid Rock—it’s a post-modern world, we just live in it.
All of which is a roundabout way of approaching Hot Chip’s Coming on Strong. Which is to say, it’s a difficult album to approach. The Beta Band comparison seems quite accurate, however, in light of the fact that the Beta’s unique melange didn’t work easily as often as it did. Hot Chip have a number of influences on their minds, but unfortunately they don’t seem to gel very well at all. I wish I could say that it was a weakness in conception, but unfortunately more often than not it seems to be a weakness in execution.
To put it bluntly, Coming on Strong does nothing of the sort. Beginning with “Take Care”, the group lays on a mixture of lurching, awkwardly off-kilter computer beats set against odd melodic elements, including processed acoustic guitars, cheesy synthesizers and kazoos (there’s a kazoo coda on “Keep Fallin’”). As much as you want the mixture to work, to see the various elements to come together into something more inspiring, it just never does.
A lot of the blame can probably be laid at the feet of the uninspired vocals. Alexis Taylor (male, despite the name) sings in a delicate falsetto reminiscent of later Paul McCartney, while Joe Goddard’s baritone speak-singing rarely rises above the level of faux-ironic bathos. Take “Playboy”, in which Taylor’s fragile, love-lorn lead vocal is juxtaposed against Goddard’s absurd Nate Dogg-by-way-of-Goldie Lookin’ Chain chorus:
“Driving in my Peugeot, yay-ay,
Twenty-inch rims with the chrome now, yay-ay,
Blazing out Yo La Tengo, yay-ay,
Driving ‘round Putley with the top down, yay-ay.
The group relies on a mixture of odd synthesizer sounds and weird samples to convey depth-of-field. The problem is that this type of multi-layered effect is difficult to pull off, otherwise everyone would have been able to produce a Pet Sounds by now. As it is, most of the album sounds sparse, and when it tries to build into something bigger it seems slightly forced, as if disparate elements were being unsuccessfully mated. It gives the impression of being slightly out-of-tune, even when it isn’t.
The Beta Band comparison was by no means a random association. There’s a unique mixture of authentic pathos and ironic, slightly silly detachment that comes across in pieces like “Shining Escalade” that is definitely cut from the same cloth as the Betas’ more cheeky moments. Appropriating outré hip-hop imagery in the service of ostensibly romantic ballads is an old trick. Is there a law somewhere mandating that cross-generic postmodern songwriters must also posses an ironic sense of humor?
At its best, Coming on Strong sounds like a lukewarm Postal Service, and at its worst it sounds like Goldie Lookin’ Chain (whom I like, but of whom it must be said that one is enough). The problem is that while neither of these touchstones are necessarily bad, you get the feeling Hot Chip thinks they’ve got a lot more going on than they actually do. The material on display here is really remarkably thin—more like a demo, as opposed to a major release from one of the country’s leading semi-independent music labels. There’s a modicum of potential here, but extracting the diamonds from the rough might require a much stronger guiding hand than is evident.