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Alexis Taylor
Beautiful Thing Brian Coney , April 18th, 2018 07:22

The Hot Chip veteran heads a bit too far into his comfort zone on this new solo album

Few artists have covered more ground in modern pop than Alexis Taylor. Whether fronting Hot Chip, performing in improvisational quartet About Group or making music as Fainting By Numbers alongside minimal techno producer Justus Köhncke, the 38-year-old has resisted comfort zones and sonic polarities, all while carving out a solo career every bit as mottled as his collaborative work.

On paper, his first solo endeavour working with a producer (Tim Goldsworthy, co-founder of Mo Wax and DFA Recordings, and member of UNKLE), Beautiful Thing should expand upon this synergetic streak. But even with Goldsworthy as a sounding board, and the likes of Susumu Mukai (aka Zongamin) and Royal Trux’s Neil Hagerty commingling as an out-of-shot house band, Taylor sounds alone - disembodied even - as he delves deeper into the introspective headspace that once defined Hot Chip’s percolating electro-pop.

This manifests itself as one major sticking point on Beautiful Thing: the nuanced yearning that has long set Taylor’s soft, captivating vocal apart often feels unsure and wilfully uncared for. Take album opener ‘Dreaming Another Life’. Despite unfurling from balmy resignation via a melange of understated beats, trumpet and squelching textures, the melancholia that would have erstwhile seeped forth with purpose feels barely meant. Taylor is waving a tiny white flag from the empty, mid-2000s dancefloor of his mind (“Won’t you meet me out of your head and out of the clubs that we leave behind?”) and it brings a curious air of non-commitment from the outset.

With its loose meld of clattering beats and backwashed synth arpeggios, ‘Roll On Blank Tapes’ conjures a woozy netherworld from which Taylor looks the listener dead in the eye and all but acknowledges being bereft of ideas. “Roll on blank tapes, let nothing stand in our way. Roll on blank tapes, without anything to say,” he sings, fashioning lack of inspiration as artistic revelation. Here, as with piano-and-vocal lament ‘A Hit Song’ (“There’s nothing to hide in a song / There’s nothing to know outside this song…”), what presumably felt liberating to Taylor at the time - an acknowledgement of effectively being without spark or stimulation - feels more like an oblique strategy that doesn’t pay off.

Thankfully, Beautiful Thing has moments to mitigate the prevailing inertia. ‘Oh Baby’ (Hot Chip cohort Joe Goddard’s sole production credit here) is an outright peak, nodding to Taylor’s love for Alex Chilton and Paul McCartney. While little throwbacks to their band’s heyday are laced throughout, the distance between that world is at its slightest here and on ‘Beautiful Thing’, a glitchy burst of wistful, piano-based house that kickstarted the recording process with Goldsworthy.

Taylor has expressed dissatisfaction with the working methods for certain records in the past, and here “new technology [and] instruments” are credited with helping to colour the bobbing synth-pop of ‘Suspicious of Me’. But his explorative, experimental spirit never really materialises. From the ‘Purple Rain’ pastiche of closer ‘Out of Time’ to ‘I Feel You’, a track flirting with full-blown MOR balladry, Taylor’s words and his stark music seldom hit home. Where 2008’s Rubbed Out and 2014’s Await Barbarians saw him reconfiguring Hot Chip’s understated synth-soul with impressive results, Beautiful Thing bears the outline of transition rather than bold progress.