Album Review: Chairlift—“Moth”

By James Li

It is really hard for synthpop duos – traditionally there is a girl on vocals and a guy on keyboards – to stand out from the rest of the pack, mainly because there is a surplus of indistinguishable groups covering very similar sonic ground. Speaking cynically (but realistically), their ceiling works out to something like this: the crafting at least one single that gets picked up by Urban Outfitters PAs and/or Spotify “Chill Out” playlists, thus pulling the group out of obscurity and (briefly) into the public eye. Rarely do we see one of these duos making music that is both challenging and accessible or escaping the alt-teen trap (once consigned), let alone both.

Chairlift, the New-York-by-way-of-Colorado duo of Caroline Polachek and Patrick Wemberly looked like they were condemned to a fate as one-hit wonders best known for 2008 single “Bruises,” which ended up in an iPod Nano commercial. However, eight years later they have not only built a hotspot recording studio, been nominated for a Grammy, and established themselves as in-demand-songwriters (including co-writing a track with Beyoncé for her paradigm-shifting 2013 self-titled album), but they have also, beginning with with 2012’s Something, found a way to make the successful experimental/pop many of their cotemporaries can only dream about. Now, Chairlift are back with Moth, their strongest and most ambitious effort yet.

Like many recent synthpop albums, Moth has a slick, glossy, retrofuture sheen to it. It shares its DNA with the previous year’s two best pop albums, Grimes’ Art Angels (especially on Moth’s surreal Japan-inspired “Ottawa to Osaka”) and Carly Rae Jepsen’s E•MO•TION (the slow-burning post-Sade “Crying in Public”). And, like any good synthpop album, Moth is infectious and danceable but. What sets it apart, however, is that it takes chances and succeeds.

Chairlift-Moth-640x640.jpg

Album Art for Moth

Chairlift follow a familiar career arc for many indie darlings (in general) on Moth. They signed to Columbia, a major label, and moved their sound in a more mainstream direction. However, Chairlift are the exception that proves the rule – embracing mainstream sounds pays off in their case. The lead single “Ch-Ching” could easily have been handled by Beyoncé, with its syncopated percussion and flourishes of brass (admittedly, it might be even better in Beyoncé’s hands, but she is Queen Bey for a reason).  “Ch-Ching,” however, is not even the best or most immediate single on the album: that crown goes to “Romeo,” which takes the Greek myth of Atalanta and turns it into a glitzy banger.

However despite its immediate pop appeal Moth is also an album that takes chances. Caroline Polachek, who studied opera, is a more versatile and powerful singer than most. “Unfinished Business,” with its glitchy percussion and Polachek’s dramatic vocal performance, is very reminiscent of Vespertine-era Björk. And the influence of 90s R&B is apparent on tracks like “Moth to the Flame” and “Show U Off.” But Moth’s best track is one of the most subtle – over a synthetized jazz backdrop, Polachek’s vocals barely rise above a whisper on “Crying in Public” except when she gets to the chorus: “I’m sorry for causing a scene on the train / I’m falling for you, I’m falling for you.”

Although it might not make a huge impact on the charts, Chairlift still come through with a strong contender for indie pop album of the year, both embracing mainstream trends and hooks while keeping a firm grounding in experimentalism. Interestingly, the pure pop moments are, I found, more compelling than the experimental ones – Moth is a rare case where an indie band takes on a mainstream direction and they are all the better for it. (Columbia)

 

Cover photo via Facebook

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