If Wikipedia’s to be believed, two things about Montreal electro-funk outfit Chromeo are intriguing. Both concern the guitarist/singer, Dave Macklovitch. One is that he’s the younger brother of A-Trak. The other’s that he is currently studying for a PhD in French literature at Columbia University. The dual hip/intelligent genetics thing’s a neat explicator for Chromeo, a group that, even though they might be extremely fun to dance around to, can never quite be taken seriously.
With dance branching out to include areas of rock and indie music, this ironic look back at ’80s disco isn’t new. The group hit essentially the same note on its 2004 debut, She’s in Control. However, the same material has been dealt with both ironically (Tiga, though he’s generally not as successful as these guys) and straight (groups like YACHT, or Young Love) a number of times over the past few years. Meanwhile, commercial-minded dance acts are packing CDs-worth of hits in different styles: Justice’s electro-soul or Digitalism’s electro-sleaze, for example. In the midst of all this clutter, Chromeo can be refreshingly self-aware, or annoyingly attitudinal, depending on your perspective.
They’ve got the whole irony thing down. From the opening “Intro”, with its solemn chants of “Chromeo”, it’s clear the group’s more interested in fun-making than lasting artistic statements. You could probably glean this from the band’s comical self-portrayal: Dave 1, the nerdy, glasses-wearing guitarist/vocalist, and P-Thugg, the blinged-out MC. But their songs also convey this hyper-aware sense. On “Momma’s Boy”, an unexpectedly light ballad, the protagonist only likes the girl because she looks like his mom. On “Call Me Up”, Dave 1 asks the clichéd question “How can I explain it?” but goes right on to answer “I never got enough attention as a child”. That song also has a pretty funny dissertation on long-distance relationships and the mechanics of calling overseas: “These 14 numbers never felt so right.” The only problem is, are we still enthralled by irony? This, a world that has wholeheartedly embraced the uber-un-irony of… MIKA?? On second thoughts, maybe that’s another reason to love these guys.
The music, again, is unabashedly ’80s (my roommate, walking in on me while I was listening to “Outta Sight”, said, “Why are you listening to this ’80s music? I thought you liked new music….” That song, incidentally, sounds like the original Ghostbusters theme, so maybe she’s justified). Other groups have taken Prince’s soul backbone and made it into more attractive, longer-lasting dance music (I’m thinking of Hot Chip here), but Chromeo totally own those 808s, none can argue. “Tenderoni”, the band’s first single, is better in Sinden’s harder-edged remix, but still pings with the tight arrangement of a hit: its use of “Tenderoni”, the late ’90s sobriquet for some unfortunate romance, can hardly be serious, but you’ll be chanting in time just the same.
At the end of “My Girl Is Calling Me (a Liar)”, one of the most consistent songs on the album, the character has a conversation with a robot over the phone. It’s fun, and in keeping with the track’s sleaze-funk vibe. But listening to it just reminded me of “The Humans Are Dead”, a funnier and altogether more clever take on the genre from Flight of the Conchords. Which begs the still-unanswered question: is Chromeo a novelty band?
In the end, since the funky electro lines are wound so tightly around each of these songs, we realise there’s much more going on than the ironic vocals and little jokes Chromeo throw at us. Like Digitalism, the group has a schtick but use that only as a hook. What ultimately keeps the listener interested in Fancy Footwork (and Idealism) is the consistently enjoyable electro backbone. You may not love them “100%”, but throw a song or two into your next party playlist and see how it goes down.