Chew Lips. Say it. It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, does it? Still, it’s one of those names that’s so bizarre you won’t be able to help but remember it, regardless of the kind of music they make or how good they are. Depending on your mood, it could sound like a flower or it could sound like cannibalism. There’s not really any in between. Oddly, the ugly/beautiful dynamic of the trio’s chosen name is entirely opposite from that of the music they make. Their first album is called Unicorn, and as far as synthpop goes, it is utterly and completely middle-of-the-road.
There’s nothing obviously wrong with Unicorn, an album that is in fact quite enjoyable in short bursts. Opener “Eight” is a signal that, perhaps, this is not your everyday, run-of-the-mill synthpop group. They choose to worm their way into your ears rather than blast you out of the gates. “Eight” is a slow burn, starting quiet and eventually turning into something you could dance to.
What starting slow allows Chew Lips to do is introduce us right off the bat to the voice of Tigs. So many synthpop groups opt for robotic vocals that intentionally eschew emotion, while others go with vocalists who specialize in airy wisps, floating over the top of the robotics below. Tigs is different. She’s a shapeshifter, adept at redefining her approach ever so slightly whenever the situation calls for it. She carefully eases into every word as “Eight” seeps into the speakers with barely a beat behind it. She soars into the stratosphere as she plays the part of disco diva on “Karen”. She pushes out the vocal equivalent of a strut on the Franz Ferdinand-esque “Toro”. Her voice doesn’t change so much as her attitude does, and the ability to adapt to whatever Will Sanderson and James Watkins are giving her to work with makes Unicorn one of the smoothest synthpop listens in recent memory.
While listening to it is a fine experience and a good way to kill a half-hour, there just aren’t all that many melodies worth remembering. “Two Hands” is lovely synth balladry, but you just keep waiting for that transcendent moment when it surpasses your expectations by building on its chorus or changing the formula of its verse. That moment never happens, and you’re left with the curious feeling of having had your expectations merely met, when you were sure they would be surpassed. The appropriately named “Slick” has some beautifully slippery percussion, but Tigs never deviates from the melody that she establishes the first time she sings the chorus.
This is the problem throughout Unicorn. These songs all sound like they’re going to turn into something special, but only one or two actually do. Sanderson and Watkins are certainly competent programmers, and Tigs is a hell of a vocalist, but they haven’t figured out how to push their songs into the sort of territory that’s going to guarantee we remember it. “Karen”‘s huge pre-chorus will be enough to make it solid mixtape fodder, and “Seven” has enough swagger to just about carry the album, but other than that pair of five-letter standouts, it’s all pretty rote.
Unicorn is framework. It’s a band getting comfortable with itself, it’s an act of stripping songcraft down to its bare essentials. It only needs a little push to place itself amongst the greats. Unfortunately, we’re going to have to wait for at least one more album from the trio to hear that push.