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Album Review: Hot Chip – In Our Heads [Domino]

One of the greatest challenges about the dance music genre is how easily things can become stale. If dance artists aren’t consistently evolving from record to record, they’re prone to stagnation and may fizzle out. Don’t ever let the beat drop or let your audience get bored. James Murphy as LCD Soundsystem played his cards almost exactly right, crafting three of the best dance records so far this decade, each one building off the previous one, before calling it quits at the top of his game. Not every attempt at reinvention works out though, as best evidenced by Justice’s most recent effort Audio, Video, Disco, which boldly sought to bring bits of 70’s prog-rock into their club-heavy, pop single sound. Nice thought, but the end result was far weaker than it could have been.

Hot Chip probably fall towards the middle of the pack when it comes to building a successful career in dance music. Their 2005 debut album Coming On Strong was filled with smarmy bedroom pop, the kind that needed work instrumentally but was quite funny lyrically. Building off that, 2006’s The Warning hit almost all the right notes and generated hits like “Boy From School” and “Over and Over.” That trend continued on 2008’s Made in the Dark, though it peppered in more mature themes and slower balladry to calm the waters a bit. Such an adjustment suggested they were growing up, but the end results were more mixed and off-balance, like a teen going through puberty. 2010’s One Life Stand was the band’s full-on attempt at maturity and adulthood. It was a skillfully moderated meditation on love and settling down and the pleasure one could derive from that, and many loved how well it balanced the band’s celebratory and fun side with something calmer and more mature. Others balked under the impression that a more domesticated and ballad-dominant version of Hot Chip wasn’t what they signed up for based on their earlier material. In the time since that last record, band members took time out to work on some side projects. About Group, The 2 Bears and New Build were the three results, and while each carved their own distinct paths musically, they all had one thing in common: an upbeat and playful demeanor.

Thankfully, that seems to be where the members of Hot Chip’s heads are on their new album In Our Heads. This past March, Joe Goddard said in an interview that they intended for the album to exude “positivity.” That means an increase in tempos and moods and a return to some of the dance-addled style their first couple records played up so well. This time though, the band isn’t retreating so much as they are refining. The lessons learned in One Life Stand are not lost, but incorporated into the album both lyrically and in how some of the songs are structured. The electro-funk of “How Do You Do?” might function as the best distillation of what the entire record is about, with a chorus that includes the line, “You make me want to live again.” “Dont Deny Your Heart” smartly lays out a case for why a partner should “say yes” to love, using an 80’s-style synth pop base to make it that much more memorable.

Perhaps the greatest moments on In Our Heads come from the longest songs. It’s not because they’re long that makes them good, it just so happens to work out that way. The seven minutes of “Flutes” makes for one of the darkest yet most exciting tracks on the album. It’s a swirling techno beast that morphs into this shining dance party pillar before you can fully grasp what’s going on. Hot Chip have never made a song quite like it before, and it speaks exceptionally well towards their continuing evolution as a band. The same can be said for “Let Me Be Him,” which brilliantly skirts the line between ballad and dance track by placing a soft rock melody atop skittering beats. The longer it glides, the more beautiful it becomes, eventually breaking down into bird chirps and spaced out electric guitars that will make you salivate with sheer passion. Joe Goddard and Alexis Taylor’s vocals swim in these fertile waters and set the right tone thanks to a line like, “My soul, my love is running away with me.” Played differently, the song could very well have fallen into the realm of excess or even poorly concocted parody. Its escape from such a fate only makes it stronger.

For those that prefer their Hot Chip funky and loud, as on a past single like “Ready for the Floor,” In Our Heads has “Night & Day” for your enjoyment. The groove is built around a wobbly bass line, and the chorus splits open with some laser-guided synths that send things into the stratosphere. Hot Chip’s trademark humor is well in place too, and if the video for the song doesn’t cause you to crack a smile, hopefully the deadpan faux rapping during the bridge will. “These Chains” also does excellent work by playing the darker cousin of “Boy From School,” quietly pulsating as Taylor and Goddard trade verses and harmonize with one another. It’s one of the record’s more subtle numbers, but pay close enough attention and you’ll find it sticking with you far longer than expected.

The greatest thing about In Our Heads is how ecstatic and joyful Hot Chip sound from start to finish. As One Life Stand could be a bit of a drag for those seeking the band that churns out dance hit after dance hit, that album remains a necessary step in their continued growth. Finally reaching maturity and adulthood doesn’t always mean putting away childish things though. In fact, maintaining a positive attitude and staying active can help keep you young. That seems to be the lesson the band is trying to teach us with this record. Even as they sing about love and holding onto the key relationships in your life, they’re still compelled to craft melodies that bring a euphoria of a different sort. Whether that pleasure lasts a minute or a lifetime, Hot Chip seem intent on spreading and sharing it with us. We should consider ourselves lucky.

Hot Chip – Night And Day

Hot Chip – Don’t Deny Your Heart

Buy In Our Heads from Amazon

Live Friday: 10-29-10

Largely in honor of the stellar double billed show of LCD Soundsystem and Hot Chip I was able to catch on Monday (show review), I thought now was as good of a time as any to feature Hot Chip in a Live Friday session. A couple days before their Chicago show, the band spent a little time at Minnesota Public Radio to do an interview and play a couple songs. Not only is Hot Chip pretty excellent in a live setting, but they’re also pretty hilarious in interviews. So the guys played three songs off their latest record “One Life Stand” and then chatted about their current tour, how some of their new material is more designed for a non-club environment, and whether or not they’re secretly making pop culture references in their lyrics. Everything is handled with smart, self-effacing humor. You can stream the interview by clicking the link below, and of course the tracks are fully downloadable which is something I encourage you to do.

Hot Chip, Live on MPR 10-21-10:
Hot Chip – Take It In (Live on MPR)
Hot Chip – Alley Cats (Live on MPR)
Hot Chip – Hand Me Down Your Love (Live on MPR)

Stream the entire interview/session

Buy “One Life Stand” from Amazon

Show Review: LCD Soundsystem + Hot Chip [Aragon Ballroom; Chicago; 10/25/10]

Three albums apiece, each of which is critically acclaimed. Two bands, both strongly representative of everything that’s right in modern dance music. One night, with one mirrored disco ball hanging overhead. This is the setup for one of the biggest double bills of the year, and if you’ve caught Hot Chip and LCD Soundsystem on this tour prior to now, consider yourselves very lucky. They made their way to the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago on Monday night for a show that sold out so fast they added a second date tonight at the smaller Riviera (for which a limited number of tickets are still available). Both artists had already stopped in the Windy City earlier this year, with LCD Soundsystem headlining a night of the Pitchfork Music Festival and Hot Chip putting on an early evening set at Lollapalooza, but naturally, the thought of seeing these bands outside of an outdoor festival setting was more than enough to draw plenty of people in. So on a surprisingly balmy October evening that many might regard as the “calm before the storm” given the severe weather that has now struck the city, a massive crowd strapped on their dancing shoes ready for a hot and sweaty party.

As the opening band, Hot Chip was only given an hour for their set, which apparently had to be carefully timed due to somewhat strict curfew laws regarding weeknight 18+ shows. It’s a good thing they made the most of that time, blasting through songs at a remarkably fast pace while working to maximize the BPMs and keep bodies moving. Starting with “And I Was A Boy From School” was a smart move given it’s one of the strongest songs in their catalogue and is just barely quick enough to rev up the crowd for what’s to come. As one might expect, the set leaned heavily on their latest album “One Life Stand”, and about half the songs they played were from it. Earlier this year I lamented the lack of dance floor hits on that record, but the band brought new life to those songs and proved they can work just as well as the older material. So when the song “One Life Stand” was surrounded by “One Pure Thought” and “Over and Over”, there wasn’t a noticeable difference in quality, and the same goes for the 1-2-3 punch of “Shake A Fist”, “I Feel Better” and “Ready for the Floor” to close things out. It’s been three years and two albums since I last saw Hot Chip perform, and in that time they’ve only improved as a live act. The songs are tighter than ever and there’s rarely a moment when somebody doesn’t have an instrument in hand, be it a guitar, keyboard or tambourine. If that wasn’t enough to get feet shuffling, there was also Alex Taylor’s odd dancing on stage, which tends to look a lot like he’s jogging in place. He’s not exactly your stereotypical rock star, but then again neither is James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem.

So with the crowd completely warmed up both figuratively and literally, a plaid-clad, scruffy-looking Murphy came out with his band as they launched straight into “This Is Happening” opener “Dance Yrself Clean”. The song itself is a carefully considered exercise in restraint, slowly bubbling up under more intense heat until finally exploding under the pressure. As soon as that dam burst open, the entire Aragon went nuts in the best way possible. Limbs flailed, fists pumped, and the stage lighting added an extra dose of bliss to the entire thing. Moving from that into the single “Drunk Girls” only slammed things harder and everyone that knew the words sang along at the top of their lungs. If those early highlights weren’t enough, the rendition of “Get Innocuous” built to a startlingly intense conclusion that had Murphy attacking a pair of snare drums like they had just threatened his life. The guy has taken less of a role on stage fiddling around with instruments and electronic elements in order to focus on his vocals, but it was moments like when he went nuts on the drums that really stood out in a show filled with stand out moments. The triple combo of “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House”, “I Can Change” and “All My Friends” works well together, which is seemingly why they’re on every set list that way. It was during “All My Friends” though that the notoriously poor sound at the Aragon actually struck for a couple minutes, as the song headed towards its conclusion the mix got progressively muddier to the point where the entire thing was one big white noise mess, vocals included. There was only one other moment like that during the set, and that was for the intensely loud “Movement”, where the guitars rip through the head banging chorus. Outside of those two briefly annoying audio blunders, the rest of the show was surprisingly glitch-free. LCD Soundsystem chose to close their set with “Yeah”, another slow burner that builds until Murphy is screaming at the top of his lungs in dramatic and exciting fashion. And because the lyrics basically consist of repeating the song title over and over again, everyone started to yell in between jumping around like crazy. It was a pretty perfect way to wrap up the night, and had there not been an encore most everyone would have walked away satisfied. Not that the encore took away the intense feeling of satisfaction, but the band did play three songs that aren’t the most dance intensive in their catalogue. Still, songs like “Someone Great” and “Losing My Edge” are classics, so it remains a delight each time they’re played. And as a bit of a change up, the band is choosing to close out most encores on this tour with the song “Home” rather than the previous staple “New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down”. The positive to that is that “Home” is a more upbeat song with a relatively healthy beat that may not inspire dancing but feels less like the band is going gently into the night. So as each band member exited the stage with a wave or a bow, the stage lights shut down one by one until just the mirrored disco ball overhead spun and the last few beats of the song faded away.

James Murphy has gone on record saying that he plans to “retire” the LCD Soundsystem moniker once he’s done touring to support the latest album “This Is Happening”. Well, that doesn’t necessarily mean there won’t be another LCD Soundsystem album or a handful of singles, really for all intensive purposes he means that he doesn’t want to have to tour anymore. Depending on who you talk to, that means this Aragon show could have been one of the band’s final two dates in Chicago. Of course since this isn’t being billed as a “farewell tour” and there’s talk of the band playing dates until next summer before officially calling it quits, there’s a high likelihood LCD Soundsystem will be back through at least once more in 2011. That is a great thing, because for a supposed “old man” and non-rock star, Murphy and his band put on a show that’s not only top notch, but seems to get better with age. The jumps in live show quality between 2007 and earlier this summer when the band headlined the Pitchfork Music Festival were huge, and even in the 3 months since then they’ve strengthened even further. If you love this music, along with an occasional dance party, you owe it to yourself to see LCD Soundsystem at least one more time before it’s all over. Given that they’re currently touring with Hot Chip that’s an added incentive to go see the show. Together they make up what’s probably the best double bill of 2010 with what just might be the best live show of 2010 as well. To my fellow Chicagoans, if you’re reading this in time, drop your plans for tonight and go see these two bands at the Riviera. Everyone else, I wish you the best of luck with tickets to a show near you if there is one. The main purpose of going to see these bands might very well be to have a great time dancing and rubbing up against other hot and sweaty bodies, but it’s also important to note that there’s a deep well of emotion hiding just beneath the music’s glossy surface and intense light show. Even if you’re the kind of laid back person that refuses to do anything more than simply tap a toe to the beat, this show has more than its fair share of wonderful moments for you as well. Let’s hope this whole retirement thing is just a momentary lapse in judgment.

Buy Hot Chip’s “One Life Stand” from Amazon
Buy LCD Soundsystem’s “This Is Happening” from Amazon

LCD Soundsystem Set List:
Dance Yrself Clean
Drunk Girls
Get Innocuous
Daft Punk Is Playing At My House
I Can Change
All My Friends
You Wanted A Hit
Someone Great
Losing My Edge

Mid-Year Review: 5 Disappointing Albums

Whether you’re new to the site or have been reading Faronheit in some form or another for a long time now, I feel that it’s worth mentioning today is the site’s official 4th anniversary. Yes, Faronheit has been around since July 1, 2006, and while the first 3.5 years were spent over at Blogspot, at this point I couldn’t be happier with the recent conversion to the dot com status. Granted, those 3.5 years worth of site archives are currently in the wind somewhere and I’m fighting to get them restored and uploaded here so all of you can have access to the complete library of reviews and the like, but for the time being we’re making good with what we have.

Faronheit was originally conceived as an outlet for me to have an open and honest discussion on a global scale with music fans looking to learn about and hear more from up-and-coming artists. Thanks to loyal readers, commenters and the multitudes that email me every day, because all of you contribute in one way or another towards making this site what it is currently. And the artists! They’re first and foremost in all this, so thanks for making music and giving us something to listen to and talk about at endless length.

Now I’ll continue with a tradition that I started with the very first post on Faronheit, which is my Mid-Year Roundup. Today and tomorrow I will highlight a few albums released in the first half of the year that have surprised me and disappointed me. Typically I choose 10 albums apiece in the surprising and disappointing categories, but despite having heard a wealth of very good and very bad music so far in 2010, not a whole lot has caught me off guard in one aspect or the other. So I chose instead to halve both lists to keep things neater, cleaner and more organized.

First up are 5 Disappointing Albums from the first half of 2010. Before we get started, I would like to clarify that the word “disappointing” is NOT intended to indicate BAD. An album can still be good and disappointing at the same time, because for all you knew the listening experience was supposed to be completely mindblowing but was instead only pretty good. Every album that made this list this year also coincidentally is by a band that has released at least two albums prior to their current one. The setup for disappointment in most of these cases is mostly failing to deliver on the promise that previous records had shown them capable of. Hopefully that makes more sense when you examine the list below, which by the way is not ranked and in alphabetical order for that exact reason. I’m also curious to know your opinions on this list, along with what albums disappointed you in the first half of the year. Let me know in the comments.

Band of Horses – Infinite Arms
It never occurred to me to find out the names of the guys in Band of Horses besides singer Ben Bridwell until I heard “Infinite Arms” for the first time. See, it turns out that unbeknownst to me, Band of Horses was pretty much Bridwell’s solo project for the first two albums and the guys he played shows with were pretty much hired hands. Well, after the last album “Cease to Begin”, Bridwell did hire some guys full time to write, record and tour with him. Band of Horses now being a full-fledged band, all the new guys contributed a bunch of stuff to “Infinite Arms”, and suddenly their mojo disappeared. The new songs are blander and aimed at the arena-sized crowds they’re starting to attract. If they got this far with more introspective and personal material, why stop now? I’m not saying that Bridwell should fire the rest of his band, but maybe for the next album they let him go back to what he does best – writing and composing songs on his own. [Buy]

The Hold Steady – Heaven Is Whenever (Download: Hurricane J)
Keyboardist Franz Nicolay left The Hold Steady before they went to record “Heaven Is Whenever”, and though a moustachioed keyboard guy is never the lynchpin that makes any band go from good to great, something does feel like it’s missing from the band’s latest offering. The advancement of The Hold Steady from “Separation Sunday” to “Boys and Girls in America” was remarkable and pushed the band into new territory that saw them make huge strides in terms of attention and popularity. Their last album “Stay Positive” largely continued on the themes that “Girls and Boys in America” had set up, and while it was slightly less effective, the band remained exciting and prolific. Where “Heaven Is Whenever” goes wrong is when the band decides to abandon the Springsteen-esque progress they’d made on their last couple records and return to the much more guitar-based sound of their early days. If only they’d attempted to take another step forwards rather than looking backwards, I think everyone would have given them a little more leeway. Instead, The Hold Steady for the first time sound creatively exhausted, and Craig Finn’s stories are starting to wear a little thin. [Buy]

Hot Chip – One Life Stand
Hot Chip established themselves as this great electro-pop band building songs that sounded amazing on the dance floor. Examining the hits for a moment, songs like “Over and Over” and “Shake A Fist” were so huge and earned them such a following because they were fun, highly creative bursts of energy you could get down to. They seem to have forgotten that on “One Life Stand”, because the number of club banger tracks has decreased significantly. Yes, you could say the approach is far more nuanced and mature, but mid-tempo pop songs and slow ballads just don’t have the same cathartic release. There are a few great things about the album though, first and foremost among them is the incredibly great video for “I Feel Better”. I’m also all kinds of in love with the closing track “Take It In”. If Hot Chip want to show their more serious side, they have every right to do so, but as LCD Soundsystem has proven time and time again, you don’t need to scale back your beats and tempos to put your emotional depth on display. Hopefully they remember that for next time. [Buy]

Spoon – Transference
Spoon has had such a spectacular run of albums in the last few years that as much as we all might like that streak to continue, we knew it couldn’t go on forever. Their last album “Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga” may have placed them at the peak of their creative powers, so unless they could continue with that same vigor and intensity, “Transference” was going to be a let down. And so it was, with Britt Daniel & Co. turning in what felt at times like a half-baked album. As the band might put it though, every song is as complete as they want it to be. A small dash of grimy lo-fi here, a purposely missed or incompletely sung lyric there, and a splash of unfocused energy and things sound a little topsy-turvy in Spoon’s world. Good for them for having the courage and spirit to throw most everybody for some sort of loop, and the majority of the songs still work well even with the added quirks. “Transference” will go down as one of the lesser albums in Spoon’s catalogue, and as disappointing as that might be, the record is still interesting and even a bit surprising…just not always in that great sort of way. [Buy]

Stars – The Five Ghosts (Download: We Don’t Want Your Body)
Blandness and repeating yourself are two big things that many long-standing bands have had to fight against. Stars have reached their fifth album, and while their dark and depressing brand of indie pop has worked more often than it hasn’t, “The Five Ghosts” leaves them sounding like they’re no longer dying but are already dead. Many of the songs on the album are downtempo or devoid of any real expression of life, and the ones that do manage to pick themselves up off the floor can’t seem to do so for long. To be clear though this isn’t an album filled with bad songs, just merely okay ones. The positive is that Amy Millan really shines across the entire album from a vocal perspective, while Torquil Campbell seems pushed into a corner where he’s not allowed to be his normal, expressive self. It’s sad in a way, because while Stars haven’t always been the most prolific of Canadian exports, memories of magic from albums like “Nightsongs” and “Set Yourself On Fire” hurt whatever haunting message the band might be trying to get across here. Between this and “In Our Bedroom After the War”, let’s hope Stars find something a little lighter and less same-y sooner rather than later. [Buy]

TOMORROW – Mid-Year Review: 5 Surprising Albums

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