Review | There's Always Been A Dream Of All

I wasn't sure if I would like the new Hot Chip album much. I have a high opinion of them, always have. But the last Hot Chip album was my favorite Hot Chip album since the last Hot Chip album. And the one before that, my favorite until then, too. It's turtles all the way down, and that's not a normal arc for a band this prolific. At some point, the wave is supposed to crest, and I'm supposed to run into an album that I can't really get into. In todays critical-blog culture, that seems to be the way of things unless you're a genre-king. The odds of Hot Chip topping themselves, again, seemed slim.

Hot Chip has always been a great electro pop group but with limited appeal: their beats have always lacked any strength or edginess, they tend to wander into goofy-fun lyrics ("Like a monkey with a miniature cymbal", "you peelin' potatos while we sonic alligators"), and their club appeal was modest at best. What I loved about Hot Chip was this: when they aimed for the heart, they could do so with dance beats and great melody. When they were silly, they made me laugh. That was enough for me.

On their new album, IN OUR HEADS, they have evolved into a fully serious outfit, and against all odds it suits them perfectly. The potential has been there since, say, THE WARNING, except now there are no doubts and no exceptions. Today's Hot Chip is a consistent, coherent whole and making the warmest, most accessible songs of their career. They did it by singing about love.

The difference is striking from track one, "Motion Sickness." They've perfected the layered, staggered intro several times on the album, but this track may be where they get it best. A big tuba-like synth leads into a variety of rhythms, familiar flourishes that play off dance music tropes, and lyrics about the big things:

Remember when we both first heard the wall of sound, the wall of sound?
Everything locks, everything locks to my grave.

The beats on this thing sound like Hot Chip at their maximum, seamless potential. Seamless is an important verb here: on their oldest works, they would do these big shifts in the middle of songs that may have been fun, but always disjointed and awkward. What they do a lot here is imitate a lot of trance/techno/house structure, what Alexis Taylor recalled as DJs suddenly playing some cleansing balaeric songs in the middle of a hard electro set.

Instead of adding some hard edge or gritty texture, they amplify what they've always done best: feelgood grooves and warming dance music. A song like "Don't Deny Your Heart," which shifts to different urgent tensions, was when I first realized what was going on. It was as if someone had translated disco into a modern form and suddenly, I got it. When David Byrne was working within disco for his Imelda Marcos album, it felt outdated, hokey and boring. Here, it just feels good. It feels really fucking good.

My favorite Hot Chip songs tend to be the slow, soulful ones that drop any pretense of dance, takiong after Daft Punk's powerfully out of place "Something About Us." The only song that fits this pattern is "Look At Where We Are," which trades in the layered synths for an electric guitar and a simple drum march, similar to 2006's "Look After Me." It's a yearning love song in a customized soul tradition, one that makes the head bob and body sway. Even if it stands alone on the album as the only breather, it's a whole lung full, and one of the best they've ever done.

I also have to say something about "Ends of the Earth," which, swear to god, starts off sounding like Bowser's theme in Super Mario 64. Again, it's all about the cumulative layering, which morph the song from a specifically 1980's style electro into something contemporary, fresh and completely surprising. It takes a full two minutes before you hear the real song, and it's all in the hook. Alex Taylor sings in a high register that sounds like something Michael Jackson should sing, with his flashy style and glottal stops. It would perhaps sound even fiercer coming from a strong female dance vocalist. Someone like Little Boots should cover it. The atmosphere here is all high stakes with a constant forward momentum, pop night musics for every downtown.

The morphing is everywhere. You can hear a song like "Night and Day" and assume this is going back into old Hot Chip territory, as it starts out with a big, rubbery bass synth, recalling the weirdo stuff like "Bendable, Poseable." It gives the listener an illusion of lighthearted fun, which is all just a ruse to open you up for the incoming nightmare. Just a minute in, the layers start to feel off as they build something both danceable and creepy, like EDM for zombies, or a techno version of "Monster Mash." When the chorus, shrill shouts of "Night!" and "Day!" punctuated Joe Goddard's singing, a picture of the best Halloween party flashed in my mind.

But the greatest song on a great album is the seven minute long "Flutes," which is as close to epic as Hot Chip should get. It starts out with a drumstick beat and the smallest phonemes of children singing, cut up and looped to mimic tribal chants in this weird, memetic melody. The hook is a near perfect virus, the kind where you make up your own words because you can't make out what he's singing but want in anyway. This song was allegedly built on a couple of flute samples they loved, and the finished product is a testament to how much work they've put into the studio. You can barely hear what sample they're talking about. It's hard to pick out and unrecognizable. The song is defined by the different time signatures of the drum machine and the keyboard, and whatever the genesis of this song was is now deeply embedded into the soundscape.

More than any other song, likely because of the length, "Flutes" evolves and shifts in new and exciting ways. There's the point where the rhythm section drops out for that expansive, washing-over techno interlude. But then the ramp-up for a return, the song reaches critical mass, an overpopulation of noise. These are the songs that make me wish that they played Hot Chip at clubs because it reminds me there's a potential for emotional depth to dance music. Good beats are fine. Good beats that make you feel something that you can't quite pin point? That's out of this world.

So, here we are again, my favorite Hot Chip album since the last Hot Chip album. The curse of album fatigue still hasn't tackled these dudes, and that's a ridiculous accomplishment. I can't say that my skepticism won't be around for their next album in 2014, but I'd love to be wrong again.