Over the past half-decade, Hot Chip have transformed from a folktronic duo with a caustic wit to a fully-fledged band with a slightly more serious demeanor. Their tongues are still firmly planted in their cheeks: new song “Wrestlers”, a wry, R&B-styled croon that uses wrestling moves as metaphors for relationships, is a perfect case in point. But the sound the English five-piece makes today is more mature and muscular than the songs of old. Listening to their three albums in succession, you become firmly aware of the trajectory they’ve taken, one that has led them from the furtive burrows of their bedroom recordings to a sold-out show at Philadelphia’s Starlight Ballroom.
As a musical entity, it’s tough to pigeonhole Hot Chip. This is a band, after all, who sang about 20-inch rims and Yo La Tengo with an equal amount of zeal (and in the same sentence) on their debut album. On their latest record, straightforward dance-floor stomps sit next to sumptuous ballads, while melancholic melodies mesh with harsh instrumentation. The crowd is just as disparate as the band’s influences. Ravers and rockers co-mingle, as do the young and the old. A family sits on a sofa, the dad coercing his daughter to dance, while a young son sleeps on his mother’s lap, oblivious to the booming bass in the background.
10 Apr 2008: The Starlight Ballroom Philadelphia, PA
Before the band appears, a burly and bearded roadie opens a recently purchased pink yoga mat from Target and places it under a speaker. To solve some sound issues, I guess. Over on the other side of the stage, a stage hand is trying to waft smoke from the smoke machine out and across the stage, rather than straight up in the air. It’s this kind of cut-and-paste effect, making things work when they shouldn’t, using human hands to fix mechanical problems, that propels Hot Chip forward. Felix Martin’s programmed beats are often accentuated by real percussion that takes away the sharp edge and replaces it with a warm, tribal effect. The hardness of the mainly electronic music is also offset by frontman Alexis Taylor’s sweet croon, giving their synthetic sound a human and humane touch.
While their records definitely mix things up stylistically, live they take things a step further, using the songs as a basis for exploration and interpretation. The already hyper-rhythmic “Shake a Fist”, which opens the show, is given a percussive makeover. A grimy, dirty-south style bass line adds to the primal effect as Taylor pounds on a truncated drum kit, singing at the same time. The most obvious transformation occurs on “And I Was a Boy from School”, which morphs from a melancholic and meditative song into a sped-up act of defiant disco. To add to the contradictions, they even open the song with Taylor crooning the opening couplet from Big Star’s sappy but sublime “Thirteen”. Other songs are stretched out: middle eights are extended; rhythmic interludes turn into tribal assaults that our feet find it hard to keep pace with. Best of all is “Over and Over”, which the band stretches out to impossible lengths, repeating the song’s pre-chorus “laid back” line until there’s enough friction on the dance floor to start a fire.
Despite the fevered reinterpretations of their tunes, Hot Chip don’t totally forgo their feelings—but it takes five songs and the slowed-down middle-eight of “Touch Too Much” for them to show their sensitive side. It’s a side that the fans clearly aren’t here to see. Later, when they open the encore with the title track of their latest album (a slight and subtle ballad), the fans seem perplexed. Most don’t know what to do. Others stare at their feet. Some check cell phone messages missed during the main set, while idle chatter drowns out the song towards the back of the venue. You get the feeling, though, that it’s something the band is aware of. For the most part, the set list is fully of heavy hitters that they make even heavier. The extremity is reached on “Bendable Opposable”, as Taylor joins Al Doyle on guitar, adding a twin-pronged six-string attack to the repetitive tune, giving it an almost heavy metal overtone.
While Taylor is undoubtedly the leader—he’s front and center and sings most of the songs—it’s Al Doyle who is the natural star. The guitarist grabs the mic between songs and seems to shadow his bandmates, often playing on their shoulders as if he’s constantly giving them words of encouragement. When Taylor takes off his shirt to reveal a vest emblazoned with the Wendy’s logo, Doyle decides to go one better, removing his shirt to reveal a bare chest. Compared to the rest of the band, though, it’s not difficult for him to stand out. Next to them, Joe Goddard is emotive but effectively stays hidden behind his synthesizer. Meanwhile, Owen Clarke seems more invested in the music and his various instruments than any interplay, while Felix Martin, who rounds out the group, stands at the back like a mad scientist, rolling out the beats that the band plays atop of.
The band’s dynamics, like their disparate influences, work. By the time they finish, the dance floor is saturated with sweat-drenched bodies. It’s difficult to imagine a similar scene several years ago, when the band was just starting and had a somewhat subtler sound. Tonight Hot Chip laid down a set that was evidence enough of their evolution into one of today’s most evocative, emotive, and entertaining bands. Having made it from the bedroom to the ballroom, they’re sure to take us someplace even more interesting next.