Hot Chip - In Our Heads - Review
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critics' view

“Look at where we are,” sings Alexis Taylor midway through Hot Chip's fifth album. “Remember where we started out.” He appears to be singing, as is often the case, about a long-term relationship: almost uniquely in the world of dance music – not a genre famed for its way with a lyric about how nice it is being married – Hot Chip have a winning line in songs about the pleasures of domesticity and monogamy. But he could be singing about Hot Chip themselves. You can currently see them staring out from the shelves of sundry newsagents: magazine cover stars. Hot Chip look as uncomfortable as they always do in photographs; Taylor in particular wears an expression that suggests he finds being on the cover of a magazine only moderately preferable to a body cavity search. But it doesn't feel strange to see them there. In 2012, Hot Chip are, if not pop stars exactly, then certainly a beloved and longstanding part of the pop landscape.

So it's instructive to remember where they started out, if only to note how unlikely this state of affairs would once have seemed. Reading back the decidedly mixed reviews of their 2004 debut Coming On Strong, what's striking is how many people seemed to think Hot Chip were a novelty act, presumably because of the way Hot Chip kept knowingly playing on the disparity between their middle-class Englishness and the ultra-macho hip-hop and R&B they loved. The lyrics of Playboy opened with a quotation from TS Eliot's The Wasteland before hymning what a rapper would have referred to as Hot Chip's whip: “Drivin' in my Peugeot, 20in rims with the chrome now.” It's a gag which they're not above revisiting eight years on – “Do I look like a rapper?” asks Taylor on Night and Day but they do so in the knowledge that no one's going to compare the results to Goldie Lookin' Chain.

Novelty act is a tough perception to shift. Hot Chip have done it partly by toning down the irony: Taylor's query regarding his resemblance or otherwise to a rapper comes in the middle of an album packed with charmingly open-hearted songs. There's no inverted commas around Motion Sickness's joyful celebration of pop music's constant changeability, or How Do You Do, another paen to the simple but deep pleasures of domestic contentment. More prosaically, they've done it by developing a distinctive and hugely appealing approach to electronic pop music. It nods at ongoing developments in dance music – the two-step beat of These Chains acknowledges the way post-dubstep producers are currently harking back to the sound of late-90s garage – without allowing them to overwhelm the band's own identity.

Hot Chip are clearly not the only artists in the world to boast wildly eclectic tastes, but what they're exceptionally good at is synthesising those tastes into an impressively sleek and streamlined sound. No matter where the music on In Our Heads ventures – and it goes everywhere from a collision of 70s soft rock and constantly shifting prog on Now There Is Nothing to Flutes' slowly unfurling mid-tempo house – it never feels forced. There's a similar subtlety in the songwriting, which is deeply idiosyncratic without smashing you over the head with its quirkiness. Reflecting on where Hot Chip started out, you're struck by the sense of a band maturing, gradually developing, improving at a steady pace.

Doing that isn't particularly fashionable in rock and pop music these days, which tends to deal in the excitement of grand, flashy entrances, the ensuing dispiriting decline ignored because everyone's moved on. Perhaps that's why Hot Chip feel a little undervalued, longstanding part of the pop landscape or not: listening to In Our Heads, you do wonder why a band who make music this good and this unique aren't huge stars. Then again, Taylor's expression on that magazine cover suggests that's the last thing Hot Chip want to be. Either way, in purely musical terms, where they are now is somewhere special.

Alexis Petridis
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