ragedy and comedy: they're more than just two masks adorning a Mötley Crüe album cover. They’re also alternate aspects of the same human emotional impulse. Sometimes we laugh, sometimes we cry, but the rapid beat of the heart remains; our breath gets shorter; salty tears form in the corners of our eyes. It's like this with many parts of the psyche—our inclination towards the divine is but a flicker away from our animal instincts, the urge to think comes in constant friction with the desire to act; the banal forever kicking the sublime in its ass. Hot Chip are a band that make brilliant, mostly electronic pop music that lingers in this tense, electric region of the human consciousness. It's similar to the places that Prince (God vs. gonads), Abba (spirit vs. style), and New Order (innocence vs. experience) have all taken us—the better to slap us in the face with our own humanity. Throughout The Warning, their second album, Hot Chip work up a sweltering cauldron of beauty and ugliness, sublimity and banality, tender touches and sucker punches.
The intro track, "Careful," is your actual warning. Warm verging-on-ambient synths abruptly knocked-up by huddle-formation beats and an incongruously longing chorus of "every year, about this time of year / I am with you as if you are here" both of which drop out periodically to reveal delicate ahhhs and tickling xylophone-esque synths. "And I Was a Boy from School" continues the swerving around your expectations—a clipped disco beat demanding you to dance to the narrator's vague romantic memories, broken up by the smooth, sustained melancholy of a mis-shape's recollection ("We tried, but we didn't have long / We tried, but we don't belong"). "Colours" is even more wistful ("I only wanted for to see / There's nothing in this heart but me / And everything we want is not free"), but the twee sentiment rides on a slowly building motorik-style beat that turns loneliness into a dating-game mantra ("I'm everything a girl could need"). The first single, "Over and Over," released late last year, wields a maddening techno-hop bass-and-drum motif like a weapon, insisting you "lay back" while the "spell of repetition" pulls you into doing anything but, heavy wigged-out synths and distorted guitar in tandem beating all thoughts of relaxation from your mind. "Just Like We (Breakdown)," which benefits little from the DFA remix tacked on, is another strong dance track—a thick, thunking drum pattern beefed-up with melodic key stabs and an irrefutable Zen koan ("all in the name of what we're not sure") hidden in its pants. It pulls at the heartstrings like a deep house anthem, then leaves you standing outside the rave waiting to be frisked.
If the first half of The Warning establishes the method to Hot Chip's madness, the second is where they see how far the formula can be spread—generally with good, though sometimes jarring, results. "Tchaparian" is the closest thing to the goofier material found on Coming on Strong—the mood is truly silly throughout, evoking Lewis Carroll by way of Philosophy 101 ("What can be drunk in a dream / What can be dreamt in a drink"). The title track is more flippant still, but right in the face of a heartfelt vacancy ("Excuse me sir, I'm lost / I'm looking for a place where I can get lost / I'm looking for a hope for my malfunctioning being / I'm looking for the mechanical music museum")—then of course it turns into "Hot Chip will break your legs / Snap off your head," and we're given the best dose we'll get of their full-on prankster mode. But from there, we go right into "Look After Me," the most unflinchingly and unselfconsciously lovely song they've written so far, even going so far as to swipe a line from Bacharach & David's "Walk on By." I mark it as the moment where the band lets their guard down and aims for nothing more complex than sweet vulnerability. After this highlight, most anything would feel a letdown, but "Look After Me" is followed by "Arrest Yourself" and "So Glad to See You," which I would enjoy as b-sides, but which seem superfluous once we've reached the 35 minute mark. Without these two songs, The Warning would be rubbing shoulders with Off the Wall, Beauty and the Beat, and Different Class, and there is no higher praise I can give an album. Thankfully the final track, "No Fit State," is another triumph—a compressed funk back-beat billowing along on warm analog synths that hearken back to the album’s beginning and featuring both Chip mainmen Alexis Taylor (the faux falsetto, yearning one) and Joe Goddard (the laddish, half-rapping one) on vocals. It adds a charmingly epic and weighty feel to the end of a record that seems equally divided in its desires to be both sardonic and your savior.
The fact that Hot Chip can take all these conflicting moods, string them together, and make of them a satisfying whole is testament to their understanding of the classic rubric of the pop album—an identifiable, unique sound that has enough room to allow for variety and enough consistency to keep the listener's attention. It's astonishing, then, that a band so very easy to listen to has been afforded such a stilted reception. Much has been made of whether or not Hot Chip should be taken "seriously." Seriousness, as you ought to know, is an epidemic that afflicts the rock community like scurvy does stranded sailors. Humor is the purview of those free of this dreadful affliction, and we're told never the twain shall meet. But with Hot Chip, they get together often, go out for drinks, and spend the night awkwardly groping each others' private parts. Taking a match to the balsa wood tower of popular music's inflated sense of "meaningfulness," the embers left after Hot Chip's conflagration burn with a profundity that eludes the po-faced masses.
Reviewed by: Mallory O’Donnell
Reviewed on: 2006-05-23