It's a marvel in itself that the four musicians that comprise About Group—Hot Chip's Alexis Taylor, This Heat drummer Charles Hayward, erstwhile Spiritualized guitarist John Coxon, and jack-of-all-trades Pat Thomas—managed to successfully record an EP in one day without having previously played together. Their 2009 effort was an intentionally loose jam, a bout of feverish experimentation that found excitement in the unscripted and the unknown rather than seeking comfort in scrupulously calculated songwriting. For their full-length follow-up, Start and Complete, the group—and particularly frontman Taylor—are tasked with channeling their free-flowing frolics into a more sleek and cohesive record.
On the album's standout tracks, the group succeeds in doing just that. "Don't Worry" is a triumph of kaleidoscopic pop, where squeaky-clean guitar noodling and swirling Hammond organs set the tone for an endlessly enchanting number. Taylor's featherlight crooning helps to embellish the song's warm refrain and fizzy verses, his voice an understated instrument that gives each line a wonderfully delicate timbre. The group sounds just as closely knit on "Lay Me Down," a similarly modest pop jaunt that works because of its solid structure. The chimes of amorphous electronic noise run through the track, and Coxon plays around with his seemingly impulsive guitar part, but the song is bridled by a verse-chorus-verse blueprint that was lacking in their previous effort. Essentially, About Group is at its best when order prevails over chaos.
And when the opposite is true, when songs almost uniformly pass by leaving little impression, Start and Complete begins to wane. "A Perspective" finds Taylor seemingly floating in and out of consciousness on a track that's far too wistful for its own good, while "A Sinking Song" spends three minutes building to a crescendo which never arrives. Of course, given that these musicians came together on the basis of ascertaining whether a footloose improvisation record could actually be done, it's a bit much to expect them to abandon the concept completely.
The sprawling 11-minute "You're No Good" works even though it conspires to completely upend my insistence that structure is key to the group's success. Somehow, with an expansive medley of guitar licks and swirling organ solos, everything clicks into place here and the band settles into an irresistible groove. Unfortunately, though, that isn't enough to stop one from hoping Taylor returns to his day job sooner rather than later.