How best to sum up the sound of Hot Chip, a quintet of lads from the west side of London crafting a danceable indie pop equally obsessed with the strand of R&B plied by American producers like Timbaland, Jam and Lewis, and Jermaine Dupri, as well as the knottiness of grime (made within their same municipality)? Critic Simon Reynolds parsed the Chip's reality as "feel[ing] the gulf that separates black pop's high-gloss fantasy world from the scuffed 'n' shabby reality that nearly all of us inhabit." Or, in the band's own couplet, from "Playboy," off 2005's Coming on Strong, they boast about "20-inch rims with the chrome now/Blazin' out Yo La Tengo." Such cheeky juxtapositions run throughout their brief but prolific catalog, offsetting their checkered reality so that both colors (uh... make that "colours") shine that much brighter. The key to pulling it off is in the soft, boyish keens of Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard; in a song that scans as insensitive, singing that "I'm like Stevie Wonder, but I can see things," their depth of appreciation for R&B is evident in that—while they evoke Stevie—the vocal line hints at Carl Carlton's "She's a Bad Mama Jama."
That R&B shading recedes a bit in this year's record, The Warning. The furious breakbeats and cheerleader shouts of opener "Careful" are more like UK garage, leading into one of 2006's finest singles "And I Was a Boy from School." Already covered by fellow indie mates like Grizzly Bear and Mac McCaughan's Portastatic, its driving high hat and incessant, gurgling keyboard riff belie a bittersweet core of lost childhood, wherein "a girl from school blaming all the words she stole from home/Nothing would keep her a child." Ever so slowly, twinkling glockenspiel and harp strums enter, the beat drifts away, and a boyish choir gives the song a weightless, poignant ending.
Live, the fey recorded sounds of Hot Chip bulk up considerably. One of their earliest stateside shows was just five blokes manning keyboards, but far more percussion fuels their set now, with bongos, congas, claves, go-go bells, and a full trap kit giving the songs some serious horsepower. At CMJ, the drummer from LCD Soundsystem incessantly held down the fours, allowing for the album's gentlest moments to fully expand into sweaty dance-floor workouts. The reflective "(Just Like We) Breakdown" now has a motorik kick to it, while the bubbling lick that opens up "Boy from School" dilates for a good three minutes, pressurizing before the vocals of Taylor and Goddard arise. The inherent wistful undertow of Hot Chip remains intact though, suggesting a different type of British obsession: one wherein, say, the Commitments emulate Kraftwerk instead of Wilson Pickett, gleaning the soul that resides underneath the computer world.