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Friday, May 19, 2017

Chairlift: Moth


1) Look Up; 2) Polymorphing; 3) Romeo; 4) Ch-Ching; 5) Crying In Public; 6) Ottawa To Osaka; 7) Moth To The Flame; 8) Show U Off; 9) Unfinished Business; 10) No Such Thing As Illusion.

Well, at least Chairlift will go down in history as one of the few bands of the 21st century to have significantly evolved with each new album — the evolutionary path from Does You Inspire You to Moth is not exactly staggering, but it is very clearly laid out. In between 2012 and 2016, Pola­chek officially began her solo career (under the new moniker «Ramona Lisa»), and Moth, at least judging by the songwriting credits, is basically just another Polachek solo album, with guest musician Patrick Wimberley providing some assistance; both of them understood this, and went on to announce the final breakup of Chairlift by the end of the year.

Moth is a well-produced, intelligent, reasonably complex and multi-layered synth-pop album; unfortunately, it has very little of the charm and personality that made the first years of Chairlift's existence so endearing. It is not a coincidence that a few years before, Caroline contributed ʽNo Angelʼ for Beyoncé's self-titled album — she has clearly become a fan of modern «intellectua­lized» R&B, mixing its plastic funky grooves with the old spirit of the Eighties and depersonali­zing the songs in the process. Fans of electronic effects, autotuning, etc., will appreciate the various tricks she is playing with her voice on most of the tracks: I will not — not after she'd used it so naturally and so seductively on everything in between the twee-pop of ʽBruisesʼ and the Goth-art-pop of ʽTerritoryʼ.

This is not a legitimate «sellout»: the music is too complex, the lyrics too dense, and the hooks generally too inobtrusive for the common ear. But it is clearly a move towards a more mainstream sound; and while I applaud Polachek for doing it the best way possible — groping for interesting sounds and cool grooves rather than going in the direction of sappy adult contemporary — she is not enough of a genius songwriter to compensate for this loss of identity with unforgettable tunes. The result is a record that sounds like a more mature and educated version of Carly Rae Jepsen: indeed, I can very well picture Carly singing "Hey Romeo, put on your running shoes, I'm ready to go", except I'm not sure she knows who would «Romeo» be in the first place.

At least that chorus is catchy, as is the repetitive refrain to the soft techno number ʽMoth To The Flameʼ. Songs like ʽCh-Chingʼ go the harder way, combining tricky signature and tempo changes with an overall attitude of a sweaty-sexy R&B groove — but it's just not the kind of genre that Polachek can turn into her own, because, after all, she is not Beyoncé and she simply does not have it in her blood. As an artistic statement, it is too cluttered with «body-oriented» elements; as a dance groove, it is too damn artsy. The accompanying video, where she dresses up in Eastern fashion and gives us a martial arts demonstration, does not make things any easier — looks like a fairly pointless bit of «cultural appropriation», much as I hate the silly term.

It does look as if her gaze is turning more and more to the East: ʽOttawa To Osakaʼ is a telling title, in particular, and her use of Eastern melismatic techniques that was already evident on ʽAmanaemonesiaʼ, seems to have increased. Which is not a problem by itself: theoretically, a mix of Eighties' synth-pop, modern R&B, Chinese vocalizing, and whatever else you can throw in seems like a realizable proposal. It simply does not feel to me as if it's really been realized. Every now and then, you encounter openly bad songs — like ʽShow U Offʼ, which simply sounds like any mediocre electropop groove ever produced by a mediocre R&B artist. And the only thing that I cannot get out of my head is that goddamn "I can't help it, I'm a moth to the flame" chorus, but heck, when this band started out, it did not build its reputation upon repetitive techno one-liners.

The last and longest song, ʽNo Such Thing As Illusionʼ, is a particularly irksome patience-tryer: seems like she is trying to be Beyoncé and Björk at the same time here, and ends up being neither. Six and a half minutes of quietly rolling synth loops, odd patches of bass notes borrowed from ancient soft jazz fusion, chaotic vocal overdubs, and an overall feel of somebody trying to pro­duce an epic psychological anthem in the bedroom. Not a very respectable way to go.

I do know better than to give the record a thumbs down: who knows, it might grow on me if I ever soften up on this genre of music in general, and even now I am able to recognize the amount of work and the spirit that went into it. I can even understand it when plastic soul is delivered as plastic soul, with an underlying symbolic or ironic message; but this is plastic soul masquerading as genuine soul from somebody who once used to deliver genuine soul without a hitch, and this is irritating. Another case of the music industry eating up a good artist? It is probably too early to say this a fact, but hey, wouldn't be the first time. That's the price you pay for writing songs for Beyoncé.


  1. She doesn't auto-tune her voice. That is the real thing. She does it live in concert too.

    1. What? There's plenty of vocal effects on this album, including autotune (or at least whatever variety of it they use). But I'm not saying she cannot sing - it's all strictly for creative purposes. In any case, live renditions of most of these songs sound very different from the glossed studio versions.

  2. I know no one will believe me, but whenever I see post-80's synth groups being praised I can't resist plugging what I consider the best.

    The absolute finest "modern" synth group I've ever come across if Joy Electric (believe it or not a Christian band though only one album was explicitly religious).

    If nothing else mastermind Ronnie Martin's music is truly unique among synth groups because he uses no drum machines, guitars, or sequencers and creates everything using layers and layers of analog, monophonic (ie only one note played at a time) synth lines. Here are some examples:

    and from the early days when the group sounded like a fairy-tale synth twee outfit:

    Since discovering them, I have little use for any other post-80s syth music honestly.

    1. A very nice surprise! Thanks for letting me know about this.