Start & Complete
, May 3rd, 2011 09:26
Hot Chip's Alexis Taylor is a very busy man. With his main band, he has spent the last few years crafting some of the most inventive, perfectly structured and insanely catchy electro-pop of the past decade: zeitgeist-humping hybrids of R&B, house and good old-fashioned indie rock that won plaudits from celebrity admirers as diverse as James Murphy and Kylie Minogue. On top of this, he has done countless remixes, put out a folky solo album and provided guest vocals for bands including Shit Robot, Gang Gang Dance and Spank Rock's Win Win project. With every passing release it's becoming increasingly clear that, despite his meek geek demeanour, Taylor is in possession of one of the UK's finest and most restless musical minds.
About Group, his collaboration with Pat Thomas, This Heat drummer Charles Hayward and Spring Heel Jack/Spiritualized guitarist John Coxon, is by far Taylor's most eyebrow-raising move to date. Their 2009 release on the jazz-leaning Treader label was recorded in a single day, and documented the first time the quartet had played together. Amazingly, it yielded impressive results: four lengthy, improvised instrumentals revolving around Hayward's loose, ever-shifting grooves and Thomas' mad-scientist electronics that inhabited a psychedelic no-man's land between krautrock and free noise whilst remaining surprisingly listenable. Follow-up Start And Complete is a very different affair. Featuring a set of new, traditionally structured Taylor-penned songs, the album sounds – on first listen - like the work of a different band altogether, and anyone hoping for another serving of rhythmic experimentation is in for a shock.
Whereas previously Hayward assumed the role of leader, steering the flow like Jaki Liebezeit conducting a Boredoms drum circle, this is very much Taylor's show, his melancholy vocals anchoring a set of mid-paced, bluesy soft-rock ballads that seem designed to showcase the soulful side of his songwriting. Those familiar with Hot Chip's catalogue will already know that Taylor can do heartfelt and earnest better than most ('We're Looking For A Lot Of Love', 'Made In The Dark', 'Look After Me'), but the prospect of a whole album of tearjerkers - shorn of their usual tongue-in-cheek, upbeat pop surroundings - might worry even the most die-hard fan. Thankfully, these songs combine the studied leftfield AOR song-craft of Scritti Politti (whose Green Gartside shares writing credits on the Stax-y 'Repair Man') with the shaggy, romantic charm of John Martyn's 70s output. It's about as far as possible from Taylor's usual floor-filling ear-candy, but Start And Complete caters for the head and heart in equal measures; a tricky balance to achieve, but one that Taylor and friends make look easy.
Of course, this being an improv performance, each player's parts are as important as the songs themselves. Coxon really shines on tracks like 'Lay Me Down', where he is given the chance to indulge his inner guitar hero, flipping between sparse Steve Cropper licks and Hendrix-y freak-outs. Thomas' electronics – all agitated buzzing and uneasy frequencies – provide a discordant counterpoint to Taylor's mellow Wurlitzer tones, especially evident on headphones, while Hayward's showman-like fills prove that down-tempo beats don't have to be pedestrian.
As lovely as Taylor's songs are, Start And Complete's finest moment is a cover of Harvey Averne's 1967 R&B nugget 'You're No Good' that owes more to Terry Riley's version than the obscure original. A loose-limbed heavy funk jam that locks into a trance-inducing Can-like groove, it's the track that comes closest to capturing the debut's freewheeling, adventurous spirit, and also the most playful eleven minutes to be found on an album that often seems weighed down by its own sincerity. Subtlety is all well and good – and there's no question that this album's charms continue to reveal themselves with repeated listens – but if the group can strike a more even balance of soulfulness and spontaneity on their next outing the results could be truly spectacular.