Group of intellectual reprobate Brit pranksters proffer a sophomore album that values everything, is sweetly sad, rocks stoopid hard, and holds nothing sacred. Get your Ham on!"
Last night I was listening to this album in bed with my eyes closed as a prelude to sleep, and perhaps an attempt to shoehorn its messy, genre-defying form into my subconscious in order to process it for review whilst my conscious mind wandered the land of Nod. Having decided about eight tracks in that I was too tired to gain anything from further listening, I reached out with one hand and tried to turn off the discman, which is not something I usually find particularly challenging. On this occasion, though, try as I might whilst running my fingers over the familiar surfaces and angles of the wee beastie, I just couldn't find the damn button. Suffice to say that when I gave up and turned on the bedside table lamp I realised that my fingers had been approaching the gizmo at a slight angle; slight but enough to render something familiar and indeed mundane suddenly mysterious...
Yeah, I know, it's the least subtle allegory insertion ever. On the other hand, nothing better occurred to me this morning, and I had some VERY weird dreams, alright?
Besides, I'm sure the four members of The Chap (some of whom have more varied album contribution credits than Johnny Greenwood) would appreciate the everyday detail, as Ham challenges the aesthetics and appeal of stereotypical rock 'n' roll clichés as determinedly as it flattens facile genrification like... well, to paraphrase an old tune of theirs, like a pig farmer or a sumo wrestler. "Woop Woop" sums up rock celebrity with the following deadpan spoken word: "Garage rock/album launch/chart success/interview/New York/Tokyo/hotel room/loneliness/ suicide", the titular exclamations marking out just what an underwhelming deal the whole thing is these days. "I Am Oozing Emotion" piles on macho guitar riffing and the grunting lust of a musician finally inking a deal, to such an extent that the subject of derision becomes affecting in his pathetic longing; The Chap may poke fun but they've got hearts as big as their brains (hey, they're Hamming it up). Short opening dirge "Baby I'm Hurting" skewers the over-dramatised angst and woe of much modern pop music to hilarious effect over detuned guitars -- anguished massed chorus:"Baby he's HURTIN'!", deadpan solo man:"I'm hurtin'..." -- without trying to deny that modern life is tough, and frequently painful.
As such, "Long Distance Loving" traces out the isolation and dependency of long distance relationships over a scrappy bit of laptoppery that could have escaped from the last Four Tet album, with added whistled motif and slightly robotic "When you're gone/meet no-one/once you're home/telephone". Later they address the miserable place a high pressure job and its meaningless, politically correct mumbojumbo can be for someone in need of genuine emotional support on "The Premier at Last", a little glitch rub stopping guitar and strings from gently weeping undisturbed. "Clissold Park" inverts the earlier sardonic lens of irrelevence by having Claire Hope recite perfectly innocuous New Year's Resolutions in increasingly desperate tones as the backdrop builds slowly into a surging scratchy sprawl of burnt out post-rock; these are the tiny things that make up our daily lives, small yet sacred.
A further two tracks pack heavy guitars and trade mostly in fun and the underground indie scene (not actually mutually exclusive, it turns out): "Now Woel" rides a monster of a riff that oozes gasoline fumes from every pore, undaunted by a peppering of bleeps and laptop percussion, or by lyrics about catching up with restrained trombonists, and "Art Centre" tells of an encounter whereby the singer "met you at the post-glitch laptop show/.../your take on the post-parka look stood out/told you about my studio set-up" with wryly quaint restraint before the music stops being all starry and atmospheric and judders into some proper rock'n'roll, which is of course what sex is all about. "I Am Oozing Emotion" follows neatly on.
My favourite song, "Auto Where To", is a gorgeous little paean to waking up in a car the morning after a party, staring at the chilly morning mist in the car headlamps as you speed mutely you know-not-hence, surrounded by warm sleeping bodies trying to avoid the incoming hangovers; as wistful harmonies glide around a lovely little electronic melody, with guitars and shards of organ lying in wait for the momentum to build, it captures the same sense of an unknown future contentedly postponed as the closing scene of Lethem's Fortress of Solitude. The song mentioned in that scene was actually by Brian Eno, another musician who used electronics and thoughtfulness to overcome and subvert the posturing, self-parodying pomp of modern rock; if you're a fan of the latter's songs, or of Spoon -- whose rough 'n' ready way with a riff and obliquely humorous lyrics are all in the same ballpark as The Chap, even if the actual music isn't too similar -- then I heartily recommend you try and track down this sporadically fantastic little disc. It may be highly whimsical but it's got more tunes than Gimme Fiction, and you won't have to play it backwards to get the intended effect.
The Chap: too intelligent to be rock stars, too talented to remain as anonymous as their name implies they want to. Modern life and the music industry are richer and more absurd from their skewiff angle, and this album triumphs by being all the more human in its occasionally broken strangeness.