Timmy Thomas’ 1972 beat-boxdriven hit “Why Can’t We Live Together?” is a paradigm of how machine rhythms can make the human voice sound simultaneously stalwart and vulnerable. That quality has been milked by countless button-pushing acts, from New Order to the Neptunes. London’s Hot Chip, the latest posse of bleepy R&B-boys, sound like Kraftwerk if the Germans were record-shop clerks in a High Fidelity update — know-it-alls who love Nick Drake, DJ Screw, and Ashford & Simpson. And the quintet definitely has a sense of humor: On “Playboy,” a single that slayed British indie geeks last year, singer and beatmaster Joe Goddard croons the hook in a wobbly baritone like Sleepy Brown sippin’ a bottle of Old Peculier with sizzurp: “Driving in my Peugeot / Twenty-inch rims with the chrome, now / Blazing out Yo La Tengo / Drive around Putney with the top down.” That the song also cribs from T.S. Eliot just increases the yuks.
But what might be sub-Beasties shtick exudes a strangely sincere melancholy, getting over like Brian Eno did with his own egghead white-boy blues, which ached musically even when the lyrics were gibberish. Here, you don’t doubt choirboy lead singer Alexis Taylor when he sings, “There’s only so much sorrow a man can take” over bouncy funereal beats, even if “Playboy” is obviously the formal exercise of a lit student. It’s also an honest song about being sad and how good music cheers you up.
So goes the rest of Coming on Strong, recently released in the U.S. with some extras — an impressive balancing act that name-checks Ween and cracks wise about Stevie Wonder’s vision while spinning bighearted melodies and harmonies over quirky beatscapes. It’s no surprise that these guys connected with DFA for their follow-up, due later in 2006. The production team made their name putting out warm-blooded dance music while their Brooklyn neighbors were icesculpting electroclash. Hot Chip’s hot-plate electro soul, meanwhile, is an object lesson not unlike Jon Stewart’s “comedy”: Sometimes things are funny because they’re also serious.
SEE ALSO: The Postal Service, Give Up (Sub Pop, 2003)