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Review: Hot Chip, Why Make Sense?

Why Make Sense? is Hot Chip’s characteristically polished, generously tuneful tribute to wearing your heart on your sleeve.




Hot Chip, Why Make Sense?

“Why make sense, when the world around refuses?” begs the title track of Hot Chip’s sixth album. It’s a variation on the theme of surrender to irrational forces—instinct, nature, lust, love—common to dance music as far back as James Brown’s emphatic enjoinments to Sleezy D.’s acid classic “I’ve Lost Control.” The members of Hot Chip are, by their own admission, incorrigible music nerds, so the genre’s history and form is their bread and butter. They’ve also made a career of matching sophisticated dance-pop to tragicomically unsophisticated heartache and yearning. If making sense means hiding the shame and inconsistency of raw emotions behind politesse and rationalization, then Why Make Sense? is the electronic fivesome’s characteristically polished, generously tuneful tribute to wearing your heart on your sleeve.

Besides a spread of vintage synths that ELP would envy, Hot Chip’s music nerddom manifests artistically as an equal embrace of cool and uncool sounds of yore (Kraftwerk and Chicago house on one hand; James Taylor and art-prog on the other) that, in combination, is a trend-averse paean to the liberating power of pop. It also manifests in ironic, self-consciously smart lyrics, an infusion of intellectualism that’s drawn comparisons to Pet Shop Boys as well as accusations of holding their music at arm’s length. Maybe in response, from 2010’s One Life Stand onward, Hot Chip adopted a more overt sincerity, and on Why Make Sense? they sing of love, longing, and losing yourself on the dance floor, with knowing winks replaced by accents of self-reflexive wit.

The band’s uncertainty about their ability to keep bodies in motion is staged as a standoff between the man and machine on album opener “Huarache Lights.” When lead singer Alexis Taylor’s assurance that “every single we play tonight will make the people bathe in the light” sours into doubt, a Vocoder drone suggests, “Replace us with the things that can do the job better”—“things” suggesting automatons as much as simply a younger, hipper cohort. For Hot Chip, self-actualization is a matter of harnessing the inanimate to animate a shared humanity (“Machines are great, but best when they come to life”) without letting the machines take over; as the track progresses through a bridge and some knotty keyboard solos, drum fills restore a flesh-and-blood essence to the elephantine, metronomic Italo-disco beat, while Taylor takes over the Vocoder’s refrain. Like 2006’s “Over and Over,” “Huarache Lights” is a master class in postmodern pop songwriting, as elaborate and hook-laden as it is about being elaborate and hook-laden. Its wry central motif notwithstanding (the image of light as synthetically produced divine fulfillment, envisioned as a pair of Nikes plausibly present at a Hot Chip gig), it’s also rather poignant. Taylor and his bandmates construct a hall of mirrors not as a playful defense mechanism, but as a means of working through their nakedly exposed feelings about what they do as musicians.

Nothing else on Why Make Sense? quite reaches the bar set by “Huarache Lights” lyrically, though some tracks come close. With its elastic, electro-funk riff on playing hard to get, “Easy to Get” recalls the idiomatic wordplay and nebbish, lovesick protagonist of One Life Stand. The humble dinner combo of “White Wine and Fried Chicken” stands in for the creature comforts of a waning romance begun when “the wildest ambitions were just false alarms.” The song is a spiritual remake of 2004’s “Crap Kraft Dinner,” which also made a romantic synecdoche out of a quintessentially cheap meal. The difference reflects the band’s growth vividly: Against the spare bedroom techno of “Crap Kraft Dinner” is posed the slick, countrypolitan slow jam of “White Wine and Fried Chicken.” It’s an effective, catchy tune, but some of that early, bitter edge is missed.

Indeed, the humor is absent throughout Why Make Sense? The words are mostly hokum, just slightly askew: a litany of hearts, miracles, angels, and souls, refracted through social awkwardness. Unlike his brother-in-funny-retro-arms, Dave 1 of Chromeo, Taylor doesn’t have the suavity to sell the cheese, and he doesn’t try, opting instead for sweet vulnerability, whether lending his androgynous croon to requisite plastic soul number “So Much Further to Go” or offering a shimmering counterpoint to the sinister hook of “Cry for You.” There’s no “Boy from School,” “Colours,” or “One Life Stand,” but like Chromeo, Hot Chip are master craftsmen, so even the less profound cuts on Why Make Sense? are consistently irresistible, emotive pop. Joe Goddard’s tender, husky vocals beckon warmly over the dusky, Chromatics-style synth-pop of “Dark Nights,” and Taylor trades desperate entreaties with a Sinnamon sample on “Need You Now,” an evocative foray into deep house in the vein of Goddard’s solo work. Only the title track, a leaden attempt at TV on the Radio-style stadium fuzz-rock, doesn’t work, though De La Soul’s contribution to “Love Is the Future” is inexplicably more lifeless than the decades-old First Choice sample featured in “Huarache Lights.”

But even in its limper moments, Why Make Sense? is infectiously convivial. When the lo-fi R&B builds to improvised disco strings in the climaxes of “Love Is the Future” and “Started Right,” or when the band communally sings through the anthemic “Easy to Get” and “Dark Night,” Hot Chip transmits a lived-in, off-the-cuff joyousness. It can’t be a mistake that the title brings Talking Heads to mind, and just as Stop Making Sense documented David Byrne and company hitting their stride, Why Make Sense? presents a band comfortable in their own skin, if not necessarily at the peak of their powers. This isn’t to say Hot Chip is similarly fated to three divisive albums before calling it quits. In an interview with NME, Goddard revealed that in contrast to the more belabored composition process of previous albums, the songs of Why Make Sense? were mostly written and recorded in just a few days, so as not to “work the life and soul” out of them. If the melodic bounty here comes so intuitively and immediately to them, then it’ll still be a while before any Vocoder-voiced automatons or younger, Nike-clad upstarts can do the job better than Hot Chip.

Label: Domino Release Date: May 19, 2015 Buy: Amazon



Review: The Dandy Warhols’s Why You So Crazy Is Eclectic but Unmemorable

Neither the album’s eclecticism nor its polish can make up for its lack of memorable songs.




Why You So Crazy

The music video for “Be Alright,” the lead single from the Dandy Warhols’s Why You So Crazy, takes the viewer on an interactive 360-degree tour of the Odditorium, a city block-sized building in Portland that was purchased by the band in 2002 in order to serve as their headquarters and recording studio. On one level, it’s clever viral marketing, as the Odditorium is a commercial space, with booking information available online and a public-facing wine bar in the corner. But more importantly, it’s also a revealing glimpse at the cloistered conditions that have produced the last 15 years of the Dandys’s increasingly insular music.

Why You So Crazy unfolds in what is clearly meant to be a dizzying array of styles: from the 1930s Hollywood gloss of opening track “Fred N Ginger” (complete with an artificial 78 r.p.m. vinyl crackle), to the campfire gospel of “Sins Are Forgiven,” to the warped synth-pop of “To the Church.” Minute production details abound throughout: a stray melodica amid the tightly coiled electro of “Terraform”; a spectral, high-pitched piano line floating above the churning guitars of “Be Alright”; a general cacophony of Eno-esque electronic gurgles on the country pastiches “Highlife” and “Motor City Steel.” In short, the album sounds exactly like the product of a band with their own personal recording complex at their disposal and only the most nominal commercial pressures to fulfill.

Unfortunately, neither Why You So Crazy’s eclecticism nor its polish can make up for its lack of memorable songs. For all their stylistic diversity, most of the tracks here ride a single musical hook, like the metronomic bassline that opens “Thee Elegant Bum,” until they’ve reached an ostensibly acceptable length. It’s to the Dandys’s credit that their definition of acceptable song lengths no longer extends to the seven-, nine-, and 12-minute dirges that dominate 2005’s Odditorium, or Warlords of Mars, the album that not coincidentally put an end to their short-lived major label phase. But this is cold comfort when the four-and-a-half minutes of undulating synthesizer and droning guitar feedback that comprise “Next Thing I Know” seems to stretch into a small eternity.

Even frontman Courtney Taylor-Taylor, not exactly a high-energy singer in the first place, seems to sleepwalk through much of the album—an impression enhanced when keyboardist Zia McCabe takes the lead for “Highlife.” Not only does McCabe’s Dolly Parton-ish chirp provide a welcome respite from Taylor-Taylor’s laconic drawl, but it makes for an instructive comparison with his blasé performance on the stylistically similar “Motor City Steel.” Neither song does much with the country genre besides wallow in its clichés, but while McCabe commits to her performance, Taylor-Taylor remains distant, exaggerating his pronunciation of Paris’s “Charlie DO-gal” airport as if he’s afraid of being taken too seriously. Similarly cloying is “Small Town Girls,” a paean to provincial womanizing that would feel trite had it been recorded when Taylor-Taylor was 21, let alone his current age of 51.

Of course, aesthetic distance isn’t necessarily a sin. Just ask Bryan Ferry and Mick Jagger, to name two of the Dandys’s more obvious influences. Nor, for that matter, is self-indulgence without its artistic virtues. Jack White—another survivor of the early-2000s alt-rock scene with his own recording complex (two of them, in fact)—released an album last year that Slant’s own Jeremy Winograd described as “at times close to unlistenable,” but at least it provided the creative spark White seemed to be looking for. The Dandy Warhols, by contrast, just seem to be treading water: releasing an album because they can and, with 2019 marking their 25th anniversary as a band, because they think they should. And while there are no wrong reasons to make music, there may be no reason less compelling than obligation.

Release Date: January 25, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Cherry Glazerr’s Stuffed & Ready Rages Against a Hostile World

The L.A. trio’s third album is a cathartic expression of estrangement in a cruel world.




Stuffed & Ready

Clementine Creevy has always had a playful streak. At 15, she recorded her first songs under the name ClemButt, and her current outfit, the Los Angeles trio Cherry Glazerr, gained notoriety for a spaced-out, miniature ode to grilled cheese on their 2013 EP Papa Cremp. With Stuffed & Ready, Creevy’s signature irreverence has been transposed into scathing exasperation. The album rages against a hostile, misogynistic world, and then directs its venom inward.

That rage becomes the operating principle of Stuffed & Ready, which is Cherry Glazerr’s most mature and complex album to date. The opening track, “Ohio,” is a barometer for the ensuing ferocity, as a brief, lo-fi prelude crumbles into propulsive guitar noise. The music video for lead single “Daddi,” in which a solitary orange humanoid navigates a turbulent sea of blue creatures, captures the sense of alienation, confusion, and self-abasement that permeates the album. “Who should I fuck, Daddy? Is it you?” Creevy sneers in her characteristic falsetto. Her lyrics often vacillate between affirmation and uncertainty, probing for empowerment in a world that consistently renders her existence invalid. On “Self Explained,” she confesses, “I don’t want people to know how much time I spend alone.”

Under the direction of Carlos de la Garza, who also produced 2017’s Apocalipstick, Stuffed & Ready is Cherry Glazerr’s most sonically sophisticated effort yet. Musically, “Stupid Fish” is a gripping mash-up of the Smiths and early Sleater-Kinney, with sulking distortion interspersed with melodic bursts of Johnny-Marr-inspired guitar play. “Juicy Socks,” perhaps the album’s one moment of breathing room, finds Creevy playfully quipping over a shimmering guitar and florid bassline, “I don’t want nobody hurt/But I made an exception with him/I’m so lucky I can breathe/When the others cannot swim.”

Stuffed & Ready’s fiery denouement, “Distressor,” oscillates from an arpeggiated guitar and rolling drumbeat to a headbanging refrain. “The only faces I can see/Are the faces I pushed away from me/So I can just be,” Creevy wails, repeating the word “be” like a mantra. The album isn’t always hopeful, but it isn’t hopeless either, as it consistently provides a cathartic release for Creevy’s fury.

Label: Secretly Canadian Release Date: February 1, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Guster’s Look Alive Is the Sound of a Band Rejuvenated

Guster’s eighth album buzzes with inventiveness, charm, and youthful dynamism.




Guster, Look Alive

Guster has long been associated with “college rock,” and not without reason. Even though every member of the Boston-based band is now over 40, they still make bright, hyper-polished alt-pop tailor-made for campus radio. The band’s eighth album, Look Alive, adds synths and contemporary production flourishes to their sonic repertoire, but all the hallmarks of their sound remain: winsome melodies, soaring hooks, and tight, immaculate songcraft that combines the best of Britpop, 1960s folk, and post-grunge.

Like most Guster albums, Look Alive has a few duds, a few modest successes, and at least one showstopper—a song that makes you wonder why the band was never more successful. On 2006’s Ganging Up on the Sun, that song was “Satellite,” a shimmering power-pop masterpiece that split the difference between the Shins and Neutral Milk Hotel. Here, it’s “Hard Times,” which also happens to be the least Guster-like track on the album. Drenched in Auto-Tune, buzzing synth frequencies, and stadium-ready percussion, the song doesn’t sound anything like “Satellite,” let alone like the band’s output before 2000. Yet, true to form, it’s a remarkable piece of pop. “Sinister systems keep us satisfied/These are hard times,” Ryan Miller wails. It’s a simple statement, but it makes for a stunning chorus, and Miller’s effusive delivery renders it the most cathartic moment on the album.

On “Not for Nothing,” the band ventures into dream-rock territory, surrounding themselves with icy synth textures that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Wild Nothing track, while “Hello Mister Sun” is unabashed bubblegum pop that pays homage to whimsical Paul McCartney tracks like “Penny Lane” and “Good Day Sunshine.” Likewise, the sprightly “Overexcited” bounces along with a spoken-word verse and pounding, piano-centric chorus. While none of these tracks tackle complex themes, they’re playful, infectious, and eminently listenable.

Many of Guster’s best-known songs delve into same subject matter: newfound love, crippling heartache, the pain of being young, restless, and alone. Yet much of Look Alive is more elliptical. “Maybe we’re all criminals and this is just the scene of a crime,” Miller sings ambiguously on “Terrified,” forcing the listener to fill in the blanks. “Summertime” similarly defies easy explanation: Brimming with obscure religious imagery, whispered background vocals, and references to an unspecified war, it follows no logical narrative, instead allowing the track’s mood—a feeling of triumph over some great adversity—to tell the story.

For better and worse, Look Alive’s production mimics the spacious, ‘80s-inspired aesthetic that pervades much of contemporary indie-rock. “Don’t Go” transplants a prototypical Guster melody into a synth-soaked songscape, while the title track seems expressly engineered for Spotify’s Left of Center playlist. Still, the album never feels like the work of aging musicians struggling to stay relevant; it buzzes with inventiveness, charm, and youthful dynamism.

Label: Nettwerk Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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