Tuesday, December 20, 2005

CD Review: Coming On Strong by Hot Chip

Upon first listen, Coming On Strong, the debut album by English group Hot Chip, will sound kind of silly and a bit...odd. First, there are the high-pitched vocals of Alexis Taylor whose voice rides the fine line between endearing and grating just like that of N.E.R.D.'s Pharrell Williams. Then, there is the actual music, which takes a variety of musical styles and coats them with a sheen of electro funk. If those don't get you, then the lyrics will with lines that will make you rewind the song to make sure you didn't just hear what you thought you did. Frankly, that initial listen is a doozy.

However, it's in further listens that Coming On Strong reveals itself to be a wonderful album that specializes in contrasts. It's a calculated (and unusual) combination of elements rather than a slapped-together "everything-but-the-kitchen-sink" stew. There is a lot of intriguing stuff to be found here and it rewards the open-minded listener.

There are a lot of surprising contrasts throughout Coming On Strong. The first is the contrast between hip-hop and non-hip-hop sensibilities. On "Playboy," Joe Goddard (the group's other, deeper-pitched vocalist) sings of a common activity mentioned in hip-hop...driving around while blazing music. However, the car he's driving is a Peugeot with "20-inch rims and the chrome" that's "blazing Yo La Tengo." "A-B-C" (one of three bonus tracks exclusive to the American version of the album) is basically filled with the group's version of hip-hop style boasts: "Makin' tracks is like A-B-C / Pickin' up awards like 1-2-3." Things get even weirder in "Shining Escalade," a song where Joe dreams of having the SUV of choice for many hip-hop artists. The lyrics act as a twisted parody of how hip-hop artists seem to "love" their cars as Joe calls the SUV his "boo."

Another contrast is between the silly and the serious. "Down With Prince" clearly fits into the silly category with the opening line "I'm sick of mother fuckers tryin' to act like they're down with Prince." "Keep Fallin'" contains several silly lines with one of the nuttiest being "I'm like Stevie Wonder but I see things." However, "Crap Kraft Dinner" seems to paint the dark picture of a man who has left his former life behind. Alexis sings of how all the people he loves "can't hear" and are "drunk" before letting his bitterness at his former lover show, calling the person "a jerk off loser." Despite the relative darkness in the lyrics, they are sung in such a way that the impact is softened. When Alexis says "jerk off loser," it sounds no more threatening than a kid calling another kid a name. "Baby Said" portrays a relationship mired by one's fear to take chances: "My baby said she wanted adventure / I said, baby, the outside world's not safe / We should sit down."

There is also quite a contrast between the vocals and the music. There is a definite amateur quality to the high-pitched/low-pitched vocal duo of Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard. Neither of them is a particularly good singer. However, the production contained on Coming On Strong is far from amateur. It's richly detailed and filled with elements influenced by too many artists and producers to name. "Keep Fallin'" has a very simple bassline but has the nerve to end with a kazoo solo. "Down With Prince" has a groove that just may be funky enough to impress the Purple One himself. "Crap Kraft Dinner" builds gradually to a great smooth jazz-influenced groove at the end. "Take Care," the album's opening song, has a slight reggae feel to it and the U.S. exclusive closing song "From Drummer To Driver" opens with a clear nod to The Beach Boys.

Hot Chip's Coming On Strong is not your typical album. It stands out in plenty of ways whether it's the sometimes goofy lyrics, the excellent production, the various contrasts, or the not-that-good-but-not-that-bad vocals. This is an album where the first impression isn't everything. It seems like a silly, strange little record at first but it becomes more than that after a few listens. If you can be open-minded enough to give it a chance (while not taking it too seriously), you will find more than enough to enjoy yourself.

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