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Review: Chairlift, ‘Something’

attends Tropfest New York 2013, the world's largest short film festival, at Prospect Park on June 22 in Brooklyn.
SPIN Rating: 6 of 10
Release Date: January 24, 2012
Label: Columbia

Caroline Polachek is getting better at Scrabble. On her synth-pop crew’s skeletal 2008 debut, Does You Inspire You, the singer-keyboardist was so proud of the song’s hazy, unusually worded chorus — “The most evident utensil / Is none other than a pencil” — that the band risked a video budget, winning a VMA nomination for their datamoshing 4D clip. Now, the first song on Chairlift’s new album raises the syllabic stakes to downright goofy heights: “Is it amnesia / Amanaemonesia / Mistaken for magic,” goes “Amanaemonesia,” which may or may not be a real condition. There’s a quirky video for that one, too.

Accordingly, Polachek’s takes on alienated Brooklyn disaffection are more playful than most. In “Met Before,” she gets déjà vu from too many ninth-floor loft parties,and or “Sidewalk Safari,” she hunts hipsters even more explicitly than Foster the People did on “Pumped Up Kicks” — by actually running them over. This all befits these quirky borough transplants who broke through with “Bruises,” an iPod commercial honeypot that celebrated grass stains and frozen strawberries, among other metaphors. They didn’t especially stand out from the scads of ’80s-minded, synth-soaked indie bands at the tail end of the 2000s, but they laid the path for Something, their true major-label debut.

With Chairlift now whittled down from a trio to a duo, Polachek’s Cocteau Twins-cum-Feist vocals turn stranger, hookier new corners, while instrumentalist Patrick Wimberley (who sneaked massive weirdness into beats for Das Racist on last year’s Relax) artfully fills out these misshapen pop tunes. Only the opening squelch of “Sidewalk Safari” matches the never-knew-what-hit-you shock of Das Racist’s crank-shifting “Michael Jackson,” but Wimberly bends and contorts Polachek’s torch songs in ways that equally textural peers like Class Actress and Au Revoir Simone have yet to master.

Credit producers Alan Moulder (My Bloody Valentine, Smashing Pumpkins) and occasional Hot Chip/CSS tinkerer Dan Carey. “Ghost Tonight” sounds like Tears for Fears’ ’80s radio epic “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” redesigned to fit onto Björk’s Homogenic. “Wrong Opinion” draws on a friendlier version of the Knife’s aluminum-walled histrionics. And “Guilty as Charged” (sadly, not a cover of the Walk Hard chestnut) utilizes a loop so lo-res it could make you check your MP3’s bit rate, with horn stabs beamed in from some beat program’s default setting. Nonetheless, it emerges as a engaging, top-notch ballad with a bit of frost on its breath.

That these studio rats have mastered kitsch-en sink sonics is perhaps unsurprising; what’s unexpected is their ability to deliver such full-bodied arena-pop cheese while remaining so cool and detached. The best song here, “I Belong in Your Arms,” skyrockets off a pumping Hall and Oates beat, while the glimmering new-wave sweep of “Met Before” is as straight as straitlaced pop gets. Moreover, these 11 roomy tunes fall all over the sonic spectrum, which is a credit to Chairlift’s curatorial skills. Fake-sounding percussion glistens off real-sounding walls; keyboards sound more pillaged than patched; clangs sound like they’re emanating from actual metal objects. The overall affect is a travelogue falling between chillwave’s lo-fi explorations and the sophisticated melancholy of Lykke Li’s Wounded Rhymes: tightly economic pop tunes that draw on aural largesse as much as claustrophobic bricolage.

The weak points don’t even feel like they’re on the same record — “Take It Out on Me,” with its rainfall of MIDI scales, could be Small Black mistakenly dropped into the playlist. But at her best, Polachek’s ice-curling vocals keep the troubling fog at bay in favor of something merely partly cloudy. And in her shrouded way, she welcomes the distinction, as well as the small-stakes stardom that could soon set her apart from the crowd: “Amongst the buzzing of billions / Clear like yesterday, when you look at me and smile.”