Hot Chip

Made in the Dark

(Astralwerks; 2008)

By Mark Abraham | 12 March 2008

Now here’s a funny situation: Hot Chip, who half the staff is simply mad over while the other half…isn’t, puts out a new album. People who like Hot Chip are excited. Many declarations of “Track X is the jam” are made. I listen to the album like once a few weeks ago; I hear there isn’t another “Boy From School”—I’m indifferent to Hot Chip, I guess, though I lurve that particular song—and am vaguely disappointed; I turn it off.

And now nobody seems to want to review it. Hmm. Could it be the tragicomedic narrative laid out in “Bendable Poseable” sounds like a bunch of indie dorks trying to pull off mid-‘70s Frank Zappa and *NSYNC’s “Pop” at the same time, or like Timbaland remixing Deerhoof featuring Little Britain’s stars on vocals? Is that too complex an obstacle to get past? If by complex I mean “messy,” which of course I do, since the track is mostly a glut of noise spinning under weird lyrics about “new slides” or “knee slides” and hands. See, here is Hot Chip playing up to that wonderful dance cliché: this music will make people who don’t like to dance dance. Except it won’t, because: seriously? Stop punching me in the face with everything but the kitchen sink. Welcome to indie-disco’s take on all your favorite ’80s Saturday morning cartoons. Everything is flashing, but nothing actually makes sense if you think about it.

Actually, it does make sense, but only in a way that’s kind of worse than not making sense. Because, back to the cliché, Alexis Taylor kind of turns it into this overly complicated and faux-artsy thing about dolls or something. And it’s not like I think dance music should be dumb, but…it’s okay that it often is, and it being so is often better than trying to milk some sense of importance from it. Take the video for lead single “Ready for the Floor” which tries to situate the band’s aesthetic somewhere in the realm of “She Blinded Me with Science”; it’s supposed to be funny, but of course, as Danny noted in his track review, the Batman references and the inability of the band to not knowingly wink or nod to the camera means they never entirely give over to the nerdiness of the thing, or rather they selectively give over. Instead of actually playing Thomas Dolby, they’re acknowledging their own place in the hierarchy of nerdiness—they’re all about the coolest parts. They’ve seen some comic book movies, I guess, and thought Transformers was boss. Which means that even if “Ready for the Floor” is some of the best shit here song-wise, band-wise it’s like having a marketing director from Mattel handing you an original Stinklor figure and saying, “it really smells! Isn’t that awesome?” and then staring at you expectantly with an unsaid, “isn’t it? Please say it is….”

The importance here is the idea that this experience is somehow different, tied into a proffered buffet (well—an ostensible buffet) of nerds jacking soul for other nerds’ pleasure. Take “Shake a Fist” as an example of everything that is right and wrong with the album. Ignoring that, according to several interviews, the track was apparently inspired by a drug experience, it starts like the soundtrack to a middle-management Jawa meeting, laying out the Prince-will-eat-himself aesthetic that helpfully renders the album bereft of any actual funk. There are brilliant moments here: the grinding bass/percussion duet that underpins the track is gorgeously ominous, even if the thing does sound like it’s wearing a tie. Those drums that enter before the ludicrous break midway are also perfect; it’s a basic riff that is made to sound far more complex than it is given the way it rubs against the initial percussion tracks. Even the vague-Middle Eastern riff is interesting, but then the track decides to get fancy, crisp distorted wave synths playing silly riffs over straightforward percussion. It’s meant to up the ante on the ominous qualities of the song’s intro. It doesn’t. At all. Especially since the band does that thing that hip hop producers stopped thinking was cool in like 1993 where they toss a meta-sample—featuring fucking Todd Rundgren, no less—about music into the mix; I swear, it’s like the only hip hop this band listens to is the Jurassic 5. But mostly it’s just that the song is made to sound ominous with all the subtlety of a five year old waving their hands in your face and screaming “boo!” Again, it’s an artsy pose that carries no weight; an attempt to make a weighty dance track like, I dunno, _Idiology_-era Mouse on Mars (2001) that falls flat.

Here’s where my suspicions about Hot Chip were confirmed. They’re a ballad band, and they kind of suck when they try to play more upbeat material. Well, maybe “ballad” is the wrong word, since the actual ballads “Made in the Dark” and “We’re Looking for a Lot of Love” also kind of suck. They’re best in the middle, I guess, and when they’re transforming a more ballad-like track into a dance track they’re often brilliant, as they did on “Boy From School,” and as they do here with “Ready for the Floor.” Similarly, “One Pure Thought” kind of works well, the jangly beat a counterpoint to the dark bass lines that creep in the background of the track and the dopey but well-arranged lyrics. The bigger problem with this track is that the corners aren’t particularly defined, so like with “Shake a Fist” isolating parts gives glimpses into genius but the whole thing screams, “get me an editor, now.” Then again, I don’t know what the band was thinking with “Touch Too Much,” but the title is weirdly self-indicting, and, sure, if they want to play with relative tempos and off-beat source samples that’s cool, but the way they do it here is laughable. Here is the kitchen sink too; several of them in fact, and every home in Putney is gonna have to call in the plumber.

Which is funny, since the band has been all, “this album is everything to everyone” (I’m paraphrasing) in recent interviews, and they certainly seem to want it that way. But it also highlights a bigger issue, which is that the band seems to want it several ways for themselves. Let’s use “Hold On” as an example. An obvious stab at an extended disco suite, the lyrics are…well, hilarious. First, apparently Taylor feels his greatest weapon is his pen—it ain’t, and randomly getting all Bob Dylan about your artistry in the middle of a disco track? What kind of band is this? Are we supposed to care about the lyrics? He asks what kind of man he is. He tells me he wants to take me outside. Why won’t straight male indie dance bands just get that investing your masculinity in your dance track is…besides the point?

Here’s a band that also has a song about James Murphy kicking their ass in wrestling (“Wrestlers”), not truly a blow to their credibility/masculinity since here physicality is conflated with scene influence. It irks, though, especially since this issue dovetails with my issue about nerdiness: just own it (if you can), because while I’m all for dancepunkwhatevers, sometimes it seems that inserting the punk back into dance has also been about inserting the het’ rock dick into dance, and fuck that shit. Not because I’m particularly concerned about the politics, even; just because: boring. Is anybody in 2008 really going to turn around and be all, “wow. Hot Chip are losers because they like Nintendo” or “wow. Hot Chip is kind of lame because they just want to play disco”? Equally pressing question: is anybody in 2008 going to defend Hot Chip on the basis that their love of Nintendo or disco is ironic? Hasn’t the Wii and Guitar Hero just made Nintendo Nintendo? (And that’s without even getting into my less charitable suspicion that straight men who play disco/house use these cues because they can’t seem to trip over themselves fast enough to assure us they aren’t gay. Dudes? Who do you think made disco great in the first place?)

It’s the confusion that is my biggest problem, even if Taylor seems to suggest in several interviews that confusing his fans is an attribute for his music. I mean, they’ve got dance clichés here, and artsy pretensions there, and Prince references everywhere, and everything is all dolled up in snarky nerd-ery and indie irony, and I still really don’t know what kind of band they want to be. If you’re a dance group who loves disco and house, that means you can have but critically don’t need random lyrics that try to highlight your artistic depth (and you probably shouldn’t have them if those lyrics and your music only make it clear you don’t have any). If you’re artsy, stop trying to tell me your music is going to make me dance. Either way, stop spending more time telling me through the press how fabulously intra-disciplinary you are in making music than actually making any music that shows a talent for mashing genres. Because this album simply isn’t good enough to have it both ways. Hell—chafe like “Don’t Dance” and “Whistle for Will” are enough to justify the low grade in the first place.

And on the back of sub-par music, see how the Hot Chip cultivated mystique really grates: nerds with guitars and laptops, oh my! It’s like they haven’t realized that they’re pretty much every kid you ever lived near who had a huge G.I. Joe or My Little Pony collection. Which is like most boys and girls, except the rest of us don’t see a mythic arc (ironic or not) in our repeated readings of David Eddings novels when we were 12. It strikes me that if this band really were the nerdy reincarnation of Prince they make themselves out to be the music would be super-awesome while their image would be actually…nerdy. Like, imagine “Raspberry Beret” about Warhammer 40k or Cabbage Patch or something. Failing on both counts just makes them seem like a band that wants the more obvious trappings of their music—the video game bleeps, the hands-in-the-air house maneuvers, the nerdiness, the vague references to soul and R&B—to reify their own sense of self-importance, which, be a dance band or don’t be, but don’t make me navigate your insecurities about it, especially when you’ve passed them off as a coherent and masterful aesthetic and they ain’t. There is nothing here but a band very awkwardly trying to have a good time, and that’s the kind of party you always leave early.