[15 May 2014]
White Women is Chromeo’s fourth full-length, and their third to have co-conspirators Dave 1 and P-Thugg upstaged on its cover by at least one pair of luscious lady legs. Only this time around those legs are attached to a legible human being, albeit obscured by a wedding veil. A sign of growing up? Not likely, considering the bride’s improbably high hemline, to say nothing of the motel parking lot behind them, the implied ménage à trois, or the punny provocation of the Helmut Newton-aping title.
Ditto the music, thankfully. The Quebecois duo’s pitch-perfect take on Reagan-era electro-funk shows no sign of slowing down. “Jealous (I Ain’t With It)” leads off with a brisk BPM, compressed 4/4, and major chord licks fit for any festival-ready EDM setlist, to allay any fear of ‘mature album’ asininity.
But what would a ‘mature’ Chromeo even sound like? David Macklovitch and Patrick Gemayel hit their stride following 2004’s lead-footed She’s in Control by taking ‘80s cheese at face value and making credible pop out of it. Their corpus has a soft spot for the always-already dated: think Michael MacDonald, Fleetwood Mac, Hall & Oates, and any number of R&B-cum-disco acts such as the Temptations and the Whispers, whose switch to pricy synths marked late-career claims to relevance. Chromeo, in short, thrives in a time loop. It isn’t surprising then that they sing in the key of irony, which tends to get mistaken for mockery. But instead of playing down to their material, Macklovitch and Gemayel perform smarmy moose-knuckled machismo as thinly-veiled anxiety.
Hence the cover art. Stressed stems in stilettos may be some of the male gaze’s more evergreen fetishes, but they also signify women at their most terrifyingly unavailable: poised, confident, and, perhaps most importantly, tall -– certainly taller than either half of Chromeo, anyway. Dave 1 spends “Sexy Socialite” trying to cut one such lady down to size, faint-praising her as “so young and full of promise”, warning of other guys’ intentions, and promising, “I can be your boyfriend and your counselor” if only she’d so much as look at him. On “Over Your Shoulder”, he lectures his lover on loving the one she’s with while wasting no time outpacing her wandering eye with his own. “Old 45s” meanwhile revisits the abjection of Fancy Footwork’s “Momma’s Boy” when Dave 1 asks his coquettish inamorata, “Why can’t we be more like Mom and Dad?”
For every track that mines neurotic hetero-masculinity for laughs, however, another is more charitable, which is to say more sentimental. This isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker. “Lost on the Way Home”, an indirect sequel to Business Casual’s “When the Night Falls”, enlists Solange a second time around for an unusually disarming breakup duet. Yet within the earlier song’s forlorn plea for love were piecemeal signs of the protag’s less-than-loving aims, rendering comic a song that seemed otherwise uncomplicatedly sincere. White Women’s “Lost on the Way Home”, “Hard to Say No”, “Come Alive”, and “Play the Fool” range from pretty good to pretty great, but they lack that duplicitous edge, a nuance Chromeo rarely if ever gets credit for.
What they do get credit for is their spotlessly on-the-nose songwriting and musicianship, and White Women doesn’t disappoint. Gemayel’s production, an amalgam of the vintage disco, New Romantic, quiet storm, and yacht rock they so carefully curated for their DJ-Kicks mixtape, would be an embarrassment of riches if it weren’t so assiduously, airtightly reined in. Finale “Fall Back 2u”, the finest track, softens miniKORG stabs with ecstatic disco strings over a deceptively shy bassline à la Chic. A sax solo takes over at the midpoint, and segues seamlessly into a sing-song interlude from P-Thugg, whose vocoder superego to Dave 1’s id has been woefully absent post-Fancy Footwork.
It’s a fitting finish for the 11 cuts here (12 if you count the pointless Ezra Koenig interlude): impossibly catchy, shamelessly referential, sonically lavish, and if lyrically underwhelming, still distinguished by flashes of wordplay and wit. The unambiguous Prince homage “Frequent Flyer” in particular has fun with corny Mile High Club innuendo, asking, “Can you move at my velocity?” In the same spirit, may I suggest that the Chromeo sound has legs for days?