Hot Chip's Joe Goddard takes a solo turn with Electric Lines.
“Music is the Answer", early single and closing number of Joe Goddard’s Electric Lines is a dance track that moves on a feeling that music can save, solve problems, and take us higher. This salvific aspect of dance music is an idea that Goddard talks about from time to time, as he did in a 2013 interview with Resident Advisor: “[W]ith people mostly not being interested in organised religion nowadays, there's a massive hole that needs filling, in terms of people feeling a sense of communion or togetherness. Dancing and singing together, as a group, has existed in human societies going back hundreds of thousands of years. That's still a need today.” From this premise, "Music is the Answer” sketches an outline of that high aim but necessarily falls short of what he says the live, communal club experience provides.
Goddard and Electric Lines exist in this conundrum; the seeming impossibility for a studio album to reach the peaks of live performances and DJ sets. His discography as a solo artist, as one-half of 2 Bears, and especially with Hot Chip contains records of undeniable power. But once you’ve seen him and his groups perform the tracks live, the album versions recede, replaced in the memory by experiences more vital, more alive. And it’s not always the case that “you had to be there", as videos of live performances often demonstrate how much more there is to these songs than the studio versions contain. Two examples of this are Hot Chip’s “I Feel Better” (featuring Steel Harmony) from Glastonbury Festival 2010 and 2 Bears’ “Heart of the Congos” performance from Club Ralph for Topman CTRL 2012. Even a shambolic live version of 2 Bears’ “Church” for a BBC Maida Vale Christmastime 2010 session embodies the song’s theme (“Hey now, hey now / Let's get up together”) to a degree the album version doesn’t touch.
So there’s no doubt that Electric Lines will be the basis for some excellent live sets. But as an album, most of these songs offer too little innovation, too little variation, and too little life. While some of this impression comes from speculation about how these songs could evolve in live forms, the major reason the album underwhelms is that much of this material already exists in original and superior forms. What Goddard likely intends as tribute lacks the distinction that should exist to motivate using well-established songs for new material. It’s DJ gone Diddy.
“Music is the Answer” borrows liberally from Celeda & Danny Tenaglia’s “Music is the Answer”, but the use isn’t transformative, just a bit more melodic and dynamically produced. That’s not to say Goddard is required to wring newness from his source, but one wonders how many 2017 listeners will ever discover the 1998 original. And if they do, will they feel it’s been replaced by this year’s model? Though fair use is not the standard to which we hold dance music, there’s something arguably more creative and motivated in the way Burial transforms sampled material so that his take never competes with the original within the music marketplace. Is what Goddard does on “Music is the Answer” as egregious as what Zomby allegedly did to Reark surrounding “Natalia’s Song” a few years back? No. But the effects might be comparable.
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“Lose Your Love", another single from Electric Lines, compares unfavorably to existing sources in a more complex way. First is the wholesale borrowing of source elements from The Emotions’ “I Don’t Wanna Lose Your Love,” a sampling situation similar to “Music is the Answer.” The secondary issue is the previous use of “I Don’t Wanna Lose Your Love” in Primal Scream’s “Loaded", an iconic song from a landmark album most dance music fans are likely to have internalized from decades of listening. Why touch that particular source after another group has so memorably woven it into a classic of their own? What’s to be gained?
The song directly following “Lose Your Love” is “Home", which repurposes Brainstorm’s “We’re on Our Way Home” in an unadventurous way, biting the phrase but losing the funk. The press kit for Electric Lines proclaims that the album produces “a panoramic portrait of [Goddard’s] musical life". If we take that to mean that his musical life includes his history of listening, then a number of other people’s songs on Electric Lines is narrowly justified. But if the goal is to walk us through his tastes and influences, the proper course of action would be to produce a DJ-Kicks installment and preserve clearer boundaries of ownership and homage.
Electric Lines doesn’t stay mired in history and sample issues for the full duration. Contemporary contexts help to highlight additional strengths and weaknesses. “Human Heart” pairs keys and synthesizers with a female voice in a mix similar to Kleerup’s self-titled album from 2007 and overall fits well into the post-Drive electronic music landscape. Though the downside is a robo-vocal outro that is impossible to hear outside of a Daft Punk framework, particularly hit “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” and underrated album Human After All.
To review the creative/career trajectory of Daft Punk is instructive in dealing with the questions Goddard faces here: of how to bridge history with innovation and the composed record with the live performance. Daft Punk’s Discovery is one of the most accomplished sample-heavy electronic music albums of all time, yet the duo transitioned toward a composition style both more original and considerably more collaborative for Random Access Memories. And the time in between those albums saw a critical reappraisal for the group occur largely because of its live performances and recordings. It’s guaranteed that a live Joe Goddard album in the tradition of Daft Punk’s Alive recordings and Vitalic’s V Live would be more exciting and indicative of his skills than Electric Lines.
To be fair, the point here is not to speculate endlessly on the albums he didn’t make, but to assess the one he did. And I'll note that the two most rewarding tracks on Electric Lines appear toward the end of the album, just before closer “Music is the Answer”. The first of these, “Nothing Moves,” is a reflective song, heading for a comedown but not conspicuously “chill-out” in its form or function. An ambient track might have been the obvious, easy choice. Here Goddard sidesteps the predictable for a song that seeks quiet and stillness from a different angle and is all the better for doing so.
The title track follows, and at first, the impression is that if nothing else, the song will extend the sweet mood of “Nothing Moves”. But there’s so much more to it than that. Alexis Taylor of Hot Chip sings the lead vocals. When combined with the tone of the song, and the likelihood that Goddard’s voice will join in, the prospect of another “We’re Looking for a Lot of Love” arises. “Electric Lines” delivers in those ways, but perhaps, more importantly, the song unfolds as a defense, or at least a statement, of good music being good enough. The lyrics of the song are skeptical of so-called innovation and progress, of constantly chasing the next breakthroughs of hardware and software and music composition. “Electric Lines” challenges me to stop over-thinking what’s happening on the album that shares the song’s name and to just enjoy the sounds of the world Goddard has created here. If only the rest of the album made that case so successfully. “Electric Lines” is Taylor/Goddard’s “Wolf Notes". To that, I say well done.