Monthly Archives: October 2014

25 Masterworks: Hot Chip – In Our Heads

My Spin on Masterworks: 9 of 25

Hot Chip

In Our Heads

Domino, 2012

In Our HeadsEspecially since this article is dedicated to such a joyful album, I don’t want to sound maudlin in the first sentence, but putting it frankly, there’s no way I’ll live long enough to find all the recordings which have the potential to rank among my all-time favourites.

It’s an obvious point to make, but there are some existing masterpieces which I’ll never fully fall in love with, due to my own limited time and/or awareness. For all I know, there’s a band in existence at this very moment which is producing the kind of music that – if I could only hear it – would make my heart do multiple backflips and my ears wibble with delight. Sadly though, I may never discover them, either because they’ll never crack the consciousness of a wider audience, or because I’ll be too busy replaying established favourites to give time to seeking out new discoveries. And to be completely honest, I’m finding the latter to be the greater issue of the two.

As a listener, this is both a blatant flaw and a source of personal pride. A key reason as to why it takes me so long to discover a new artist is simply because I’m constantly returning to the comfort of music I already adore. It might be a slightly close-minded ethos, but because I’ve found such unflagging rewards in indulging old favourites, I feel no sadness at missing out on finding new artists to love when I can bank on a wealth of pre-discovered albums, which still serve as founts of joy after years and years of replays. And when it comes to the crunch, that’s how personal favourites are made. If I’d rather listen to Hot Chip’s In Our Heads – an album I can likely recount note-for-note – than force myself to give Bug by Dinosaur Jr. a chance to grow on me*, then that’s not a defect with my attention span. It’s just me being unable to resist the overwhelming allure of an album that I genuinely cherish to pieces. Give me enough time, and I could probably start humming along to ‘Freak Scene’, but Hot Chip plugged enough effervescence into ‘Don’t Deny Your Heart’ to give me tingles even after 67 rotations on iTunes, and it’s easily the more inviting option, even if it doesn’t end up going down in history as a stone-cold classic of the genre.

One hallmark of a great album should be that it seems impossible to tire of; a record which the listener should feel absolutely no guilt in replaying to death, even when its melodies have become as familiar as a voice of home. For me, Hot Chip’s In Our Heads typifies this appeal: it’s a record which I find so irresistible that I will consciously ignore other options in order to give it another spin, start-to-finish. It’s not perfect – it’s arguably not even worth a five-star review – but I love it. I’ve been suckered into its gravitational pull, and I haven’t strayed far from it over the last two years. Its staying power has secured it a place in my all-time list, and it hasn’t shed any of the sparkle with which it landed in 2012.

Hot Chip

Hot Chip, l-r: Alexis Taylor, Al Doyle, Owen Clarke, Felix Martin, Joe Goddard (photo: theguardian.com)

I started paying attention to this LCD-friendly five-piece on the back of 2010’s punchy (if patchy) One Life Stand, but it was with In Our Heads that Hot Chip found their heartbeat, and stole mine along for the ride. The group are at their most polished, most playful, and most comfortable – lyrically and musically – yet, investing their malleable techno with the kind of sincerity which sounds basic on the page, but pays off bigtime. Allegedly inspired by savouring the simple pleasures of domesticity and “settling down”, Alexis Taylor’s lyrics bequeath a strong sense of contentment to In Our Heads, but it’s a contentment which is tender and wide-eyed, rather than unassuming and bland. “When you wake me in the morning / That is my favourite thing,” he croons early on. “Your body is so warming /As it strikes a chord upon my skin.” Here, and at many other junctures in the album, Taylor and fellow keystone member Joe Goddard sidestep inertia by locating the wonder in the familiar, traversing long-term commitments by keeping their eyes open to the little moments that beg to be remembered.

And it all clicks, because it’s vague in the best possible way. For all its streamlines, the bubbling physicality of the music and the open-chested elation allow for an album open to the whims of the listener. This album can mean whatever I want it to mean; a tool which can be lazy in the wrong songwriter’s hands, but when smartly executed, can make music which sounds universally appealing and inclusive. All the while, it’s dressed with sumptuous songcraft: music that booms and flutters simultaneously, collaging elements of disco, synthpop and alt-rock to form a constantly shifting backdrop. It congeals into a colourful, kinetic, feelgood tonic, and for Hot Chip, it discloses their greatest evolution yet. The fun-but-awkward ironies of yesteryear have mostly dissolved away, leaving a pure solution which sounds like the group have finally left their cocoon, and become the full-blooded band they’ve always promised to be. Heard in the right context, this music can be more than agreeable; it can be revitalising. ‘How Do You Do?’ in particular sounds custom-made to tackle end-of-day blues, thumping into view with a tyre-thick pulse and working its way to a chorus that ricochets around the eardrums, culminating in Taylor’s reedy yelp of “you make me wanna live again!”

I know In Our Heads isn’t perfect, but I love it anyway, primarily because it is greater than the sum of its parts. I can’t say I’d ever pick out ‘Now There is Nothing’ or ‘End of the Earth’ as singular listens, but I’ll give them time in the context of the album because they’re warm-ups for the two-song kicker that perfectly closes proceedings. The penultimate odyssey ‘Let Me Be Him’ should be enough to warrant a listen from anybody; a tropical-flavoured epic whose emotional reach matches its admirable ambition, distilling beauty and a heady bliss over eight enchanting minutes. As with many of the songs from In Our Heads, it offers me so much to enjoy that I can see its appeal lasting for years to come. And even though I may risk sacrificing time to spend on a whole new favourite, it’s an appeal that I’ll happily fall for time and time again.

*I appreciate that Bug has garnered much praise, but ‘Don’t’ will always be shite to my ears.

In Our Heads
1 – Motion Sickness
2 – How Do You Do?
3 – Don’t Deny Your Heart
4 – Look at Where We Are
5 – These Chains
6 – Night and Day
7 – Flutes
8 – Now There is Nothing
9 – Ends of the Earth
10 – Let Me Be Him
11 – Always Been Your Love
 

22/10/2014

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25 Masterworks: Belle and Sebastian – If You’re Feeling Sinister

 My Spin on Masterworks: 8 of 25

Belle and Sebastian

If You’re Feeling Sinister

Jeepster, 1996

If You're Feeling SinisterIt’s been two-and-a-bit months since I graduated from university, and there are many facets to student life which I’ll probably never stop missing entirely. At the top of this long, lost list are two particular cornerstones that I constantly wish I could return to: the people, and the radio.

Here’s a quick(ish) story. During our final year, two absolutely delightful people – Katie and Jake – and myself teamed up to form a show for the university radio station (RaW 1251am); a broadcast which we christened ‘The Velvet Undergrads’. (Jake deserves all the credit for that gem.) Once a week, we’d choose a theme and run with it for an hour, cobbling together a playlist to suit whatever topic suited our collective fancy.

It was probably as indulgent as I’ve made it sound, but ‘The Velvet Undergrads’ was a constant source of joy (for us, if not our listeners), and brought me some of my most cherished uni memories. The communal atmosphere of the radio station was always welcoming, and the broadcasts helped the three of us keep close during the turbulence of finals year. Every week we would present one another with a glut of new sounds to obsess over. Katie provided the vintage soul and obscure surprises that blew everybody away. Jake gave us our indie-centric appeal and masterminded a wealth of ingenious themes to work with. I twiddled the knobs and crowbarred in as much Beach House as I could get away with. When we started out, though, we joked that we’d probably only ever end up playing The Smiths, Perfume Genius, and Belle and Sebastian.

This hasn’t been a very quick(ish) story after all, but it was thanks to Katie, Jake and our radio show that I discovered a lot of the music that I’ve become ecstatic over in the months since our final show together. Of all their suggestions, the one which I have most taken to heart has been to pore over Belle and Sebastian’s discography, though it’s only been since graduation that I’ve started paying proper attention to the Glaswegian outfit. Happily enough, however, I’ve found their music to be the perfect companion for this particular time of my life, as I’ve moved from one state of living to another. In particular, 1996’s If You’re Feeling Sinister (one of Katie’s favourite albums, if I remember rightly) has struck me most profoundly, primarily in the way that it approaches the examination of human lives.

Some albums are deemed masterpieces because they are greater than the sum of their parts. With If You’re Feeling Sinister on the other hand, any segment could be removed from the sequence and still be paraded as a standalone work of immaculate songwriting; melodically rich and lyrically enrapturing. Whether one chooses to take these songs individually or in a single sitting, it’s hard not to cherish every second. Furthermore, despite popping up in the mid-90s and opening the floodgates for a staggering deluge of indie-pop darlings in the twenty-odd years since its release, If You’re Feeling Sinister is wholly in tune with its time and place, yet still sounds daisy-fresh when heard in 2014.

‘The Stars of Track and Field’ is perhaps the pre-eminent opener of its genre, outlining the contours of the album to follow and aligning the listener with Stuart Murdoch’s keen eye and wry wit. Even after hundreds of listens, it’s still a lovely lift to hear the instrumentation adding new colours to the frame with each passing minute: the keys sprinkled over the second verse, the mid-song spring in Murdoch’s vocal, and the foggy horns raising the bar to pave the way for the triumphant crescendo. There’s not a hair out of place, and it speaks volumes about the quality of the musicianship that all ten songs on here are of equal calibre.

I could go on for hours and hours about the music, because there are so many grace notes packed into each song that all of them dazzle. The entire band were on top form during the recording process, sitting nicely between the subtleties of Tigermilk and the flouncy touches of 1998’s The Boy With the Arab Strap. It’s thanks to the assembled cast of musicians that the pace never flags, and not a second is left wanting. But inevitably, the features that make the album a real treat are the people it documents, and it is chief songwriter Murdoch who has to take the credit here.

1 Belle and Sebastian

Belle and Sebastian, l-r: Mick Cooke, Richard Colburn, Bobby Kildea, Chris Geddes, Stevie Jackson, Sarah Martin, Stuart Murdoch (photo: wikipedia.org)

The personalities whom Murdoch depicts are a largely forlorn bunch, and If You’re Feeling Sinister looks at a range of lonely and confused lives, from curious schoolers to irrevocably depressed souls (the twin cases of suicide in the title track). Although their actions and undertakings play a large part in how these songs unfold, what really takes centre-stage is what these people think as they go about their lives; thoughts which are by turns funny, poignant, and poetic. There’s no time wasted contemplating abstract emotions; only looking at – and trying to understand – what makes specific people tick.

There may be big themes bobbing below the surface, but the manifest content itself possesses a richness and clarity which is uncommonly striking. It’s devilishly interesting and frequently touching as Murdoch observes humans doing their best to unscramble their bewilderment. Schoolboys experiment with their sexuality, children struggle to make sense of the generation gap, and Judy (the album’s final protagonist) has taken to obsessive dreams of equines (or maybe orgasms. Could be both, could be neither). What could have in lesser hands been reduced to a glib compendium examining oddballs who don’t “fit in” is instead a warm and quick-witted treatise on individuality, and the unique reactions that individuals have to the issues that millions have previously addressed.

I think that’s why I’ve found Belle and Sebastian so comforting in the past few months. To hear music like this which is playful and witty rather than saccharine and po-faced is a great relief. It’s still difficult to adjust to life outside of university, but there’s something touching to be found in Murdoch’s characterisation. The community that he conjures can be enjoyed as the people that they are, rather than simply existing as ciphers for abstract ideas, and therein lies one of Murdoch’s most crucial gifts as a songwriter.

If You’re Feeling Sinister
1 – The Stars of Track and Field
2 – Seeing Other People
3 – Me and the Major
4 – Like Dylan in the Movies
5 – The Fox in the Snow
6 – Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying
7 – If You’re Feeling Sinister
8 – Mayfly
9 – The Boy Done Wrong Again
10 – Judy and the Dream of Horses
 

02/10/2014