When you are in an indie dance pop band and you are feeling a bit free-form and experimental, what you do? Or, when you are a veteran of a cult experimental band and you are looking for some, erm, pop songs to play, what do you do? Well, you join forces with the other guy and form an experimental indie pop band, of course! And that’s just what Hot Chip singer/multi-instrumentalist Alexis Taylor and former This Heat drummer Charles Hayward did. About Group, as they came to call themselves, was rounded out by guitarist John Coxon of Spiritualized and Spring Heel Jack, and avant-jazz keyboardist Pat Thomas.
About Group sound pretty much like you would imagine them sounding. They have two kinds of recordings, which are indie-pop with a free jazz, experimental bent, and experimental music with a free jazz bent. Taylor writes the proper songs, but takes care to make sure the recordings are extemporaneous.
Between the Walls, the quartet’s third album (and last with Hayward, who has since left the group), is of a piece with its predecessors. It’s a deliberately ramshackle melding of sounds, played by musicians whose talent is readily evident despite the chronic lack of anything that equals the sum of the band’s parts. Holding it all together loosely, cacophonic interludes notwithstanding, is Taylor’s voice. Earnest and vulnerable, like a more supple George Harrison, it works well on the slow-grooving, Al Green-like “All Is Not Lost” and smooth, ‘80s-style smooth funk of “Words”. It’s just too bad Taylor’s words don’t cut any deeper than “Love is a losing game / A game which we all must play”.
After a relatively dynamic start, the album contains a preponderance of improvisations and barely-there ballads that tend to blur together. Not even a funereal reading of Willie Nelson’s “Nightlife” manages to distinguish itself. A bit of light is let in by “I Never Lock That Door”, a folksy, almost whimsical singalong that provides a much-appreciated moment of clarity.
Still, there’s not enough clarity, structure, or songwriting prowess to sustain Between the Walls. You wonder if the band’s ad-hoc working method may actually be working against them. You know when you see a movie that is just okay, but looks like it must have been great fun to make? Between the Walls is kind of like that, only it does not seem like it was much fun to make after all because the band were too busy being self-serious. What is the point of an indie version of “Walk On By” using Isaac Hayes’ immortal, proto-trip hop rendition as a starting point, without the addition of the least bit of playfulness or levity? Even on the more lively, soulful tracks, the random keyboard and guitar skronking sounds more superfluous than integral.
Between the Walls is not without its moments. Cleanly recorded and mixed, it serves as a nice palate-cleanser between courses of alt. Americana, folk, and neo-new wave. It’s exactly what the term “side project” was coined for.