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Hot Chip, ‘In Our Heads’ (Domino)

SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: June 12, 2012
Label: Domino

The bizarre video for “Night and Day,” the first single off Hot Chip’s fifth album, shows you what to expect. Amid an elastic bass line, black and white spaceships (manned by Reggie Watts and supermodel Lara Stone) zip toward a temple which houses a crowned egg guarded by Chippendales dancers and hooded monks chanting and flailing in ceremony, awaiting their cosmic visitors. The goal is unclear until the two ships merge above the temple to form a yin-yang, briefly reaching a moment of zen before crashing and exploding.

This British dance-music outfit always has obscured their mission statements with absurd, off-kilter brilliance, though they’re far from a novelty act. Sure, their geek chic has aged well, but In Our Heads proves that their pop-glazed production savvy still reigns supreme. The 11 tracks here manipulate signature elements of disco, yacht rock, techno, funk, and R&B, weaving it all into refreshingly original grooves. Hot Chip have never shied away from their idiosyncrasies, but they can also use those quirks to charm a mainstream audience, crafting a funk-infused R&B that champions Destiny’s Child, the Beastie Boys, and Kraftwerk while notoriously taunting lesser artists who attempt something similar but inferior. (Consider the famous zing from their 2003 debut: “I’m sick of motherfuckers saying they’re down with Prince.”)

Which brings us to “Look at Where We Are,” easily their cleanest and most successful go at a ’90s R&B slow jam. Stripped of accompaniment save a slow kick-snare, guitar, and fading keys, frontman Alexis Taylor’s voice doesn’t have the strength or sexiness to compete with the icons of his youth. But the swerving bounce of ohh‘s amid his fragile tenor and Joe Goddard’s bedroom bass feels both intimate and poignant. If that doesn’t win you over, fellow ballad “These Chains” carries a subtle undercurrent of garage and simmers in a pool of sultry, cool downtempo ambience reminiscent of Everything But the Girl’s folk-dance hit “Mission.”

Notably, nearly every member of the band has indulged a side project in the past year: Taylor put out a second album with his experimental folk-electro band About Group; Al Doyle and Felix Martin made their album debut as two-thirds of disco-punk-funk outfit New Build, and Goddard produces Chicago house-influenced bangers as one-half of 2 Bears. In Our Heads reaps the benefits. The anthemic “Night and Day” reflects Goddard’s admiration of Blawan’s springing bass drops and Chicago vet Ron Hardy’s aggressive energy. And the lovey “Don’t Deny Your Heart” knocks with up-tempo, funkified disco that channels both Chic and the Bee Gees; the introductory synths and running hi-hats make it feel like the band’s very own “Good Vibrations,” replacing Marky Mark’s endearingly nerdy tough-guy white-boy raps with endearingly nerdy nasal white-boy laments. And then there’s “Flutes,” a soul-grabbing swirl of techno keys and darker, trance-like synth builds, that makes the chant of “Work that outside, inside / Work that board, work the floor” feel like a war cry.

As a whole, In Our Heads is a smartly assembled, beautifully arranged improvement on 2010’s One Life Stand. The normally jokey, tongue-in-cheek outfit is starting to deal in heavier themes: Songs that may have once focused entirely on wry dance-floor observations now openly grapple with marriage, children, contentment, and vague existential musings. On amped house jam “How Do You Do,” Taylor declares that “A church is not for praying / It’s to celebrate the light that bleeds through the pain” in his childlike warble, while gorgeous opener “Motion Sickness” carries a similar sentiment: “Remember when we both first found / The world is sound, the world is sound,” another line with both a sing-song catchiness and a self-mining catharsis. It all adds up to perhaps Hot Chip’s best album yet, masterfully walking the line between the throw-your-head-back hooks of soulful deep house and the piercing, hand-holding preciousness of Phoenix or Cut Copy, nodding to the current vogue of grab-bag dance production without falling victim to either its randomness or soullessness.