You can justifiably call them unserious, kitschy, and too reverent of their mutual inspirations, but one thing is clear in regards to the combined efforts of Messieurs Dave 1 and P-Thugg: irony is not the driving force in Chromeo’s music. I admit, I was initially wary of the group’s artistic intentions when its second album, Fancy Footwork (2007), became a college radio sensation out of fears that the Canadian retro-electro-funk duo was appropriating a genre of music I hold dear in my soul (uptempo ‘80s R&B) in an arch, ironic hipster manner instead of out of genuine affection. Ah, but that’s all in the past, as Dave 1 and P-Thugg have repeatedly asserted their sincere adoration of their source material in interviews, while infectious tunes like “Bonafied Lovin’” and “Needy Girl” have proven after repeated listens to be slamming jams in their own right. Now comes along Chromeo’s long-gestating third album, Business Casual, another ace assemblage of time-displaced R&B that recalls the best aspects of the days when jheri curls ruled the world.
Chromeo still won’t win any points for originally or distinctiveness; like its predecessors, Business Casual is thoroughly disinterested in inundating its listeners with anything not already a club hit between 1981 and 1986. As usual, Chromeo’s music is overstuffed with endless glistening keyboard riffs, sputtering synthesized basslines, robotic beats that still manage to groove naturally, and backing vocals delivered liberally via talk box. Given how deft it is in replicating the sound and spirit of its retro fascinations (it may be paint-by-numbers, but hell if isn’t pulled off exquisitely), Chromeo’s only real crime is that its approach is so authentically rooted (the duo frequently uses the same instrument equipment models utilized in hits from nearly 30 years ago) and all-encompassing, the band becomes pretty faceless if you drop its music in the middle of an “old school R&B” radio playlist.
The upshot of trawling through the past for reference points is the ability to fashion an aesthetic from the highlights. For the majority of its runtime, Business Casual booms with the allure of a greatest hits collection, and actually stands as a more consistent work than the full-length efforts of many of Chromeo’s influences. Those who downloaded the stellar lead single “Night by Night” (which kicks off with a strident, anthemic intro that sounds for all the world like Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger”) as a giveaway months ago will be pleased to discover that new cuts like “Hot Mess” and “Don’t Turn the Lights On” have just as much slick bounce. Do note that the record is not populated exclusively by pulsating synths: Dave 1’s guitar work remains the duo’s secret weapon, and listening to him rip up a storm on the solo to “Night by Night” is a keen reminder of the days when the R&B radiowaves were filled by people in bands.
Let me also take the time to comment upon Dave 1’s vocal stylings. He’s certainly no El DeBarge, but Dave 1 deals with limits of his vocal range by instead focusing on crafting a cool, understated delivery that is deft and smooth. As such, he’s able to partake in the grand modern R&B art of busting out frankly ridiculous come-ons (sample: “I’m not contagious / But I’ve got the kind of love that knocks you down”) in such a way that they become utterly convincing.
All is well and good on Business Casual until the record reaches the final three tracks, where Chromeo has deigned to conspicuously relegate its lesser material. The French language ballad “J’ai Claque la Porte” is a laudable failed experiment that finds Chromeo toying with swelling synth strings and acoustic guitar against a backdrop that vaguely recalls Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing”. Less defensible are “The Right Type” (Chromeo trades out ‘80s R&B for bland ‘80s MOR pop) and the closer “Grow Up” (where the pair crafts a rickety Billy Joel-style shuffle using the most annoying sounding instruments possible).
Personally, I can forgive Chromeo for fumbling near the end zone since the rest of Business Casual unfolds so strongly. At the end of the day, you really can’t blame the duo for impressing the hell out of a generation of hipsters too young and/or musically ignorant to know their Zapp from their Roger. It’s all been heard before, sure, but rarely with the focus and cheeky fun that Chromeo always brings to the party. By the way, do you know who I really feel sorry for? The poor bastard who tries to seal the deal with this record playing in the background (which will happen, because if Chromeo’s music is suited for any specific time of day, it’s love-making time). Everything’s all nice and sexy for the first half-hour, and then something that sounds like a rejected demo version of “It’s Still Rock ‘n Roll to Me” emerges from the speakers to kill the vibe. Don’t fret, bro, you can always just skip back to the start of the CD.