Alexis Taylor - Beautiful Thing
Few artists have covered more ground in modern pop than Alexis Taylor. Whether fronting Hot Chip, performing in improvisational quartet About Group or making music as Fainting By Numbers alongside minimal techno producer Justus Köhncke, the 38-year-old has resisted comfort zones and sonic polarities, all while carving out a solo career every bit as mottled as his collaborative work.
On paper, his first solo endeavour working with a producer (Tim Goldsworthy, co-founder of Mo Wax and DFA Recordings, and member of UNKLE), Beautiful Thing should expand upon this synergetic streak. But even with Goldsworthy as a sounding board, and the likes of Susumu Mukai (aka Zongamin) and Royal Trux’s Neil Hagerty commingling as an out-of-shot house band, Taylor sounds alone - disembodied even - as he delves deeper into the introspective headspace that once defined Hot Chip’s percolating electro-pop.
This manifests itself as one major sticking point on Beautiful Thing: the nuanced yearning that has long set Taylor’s soft, captivating vocal apart often feels unsure and wilfully uncared for. Take album opener ‘Dreaming Another Life’. Despite unfurling from balmy resignation via a melange of understated beats, trumpet and squelching textures, the melancholia that would have erstwhile seeped forth with purpose feels barely meant. Taylor is waving a tiny white flag from the empty, mid-2000s dancefloor of his mind (“Won’t you meet me out of your head and out of the clubs that we leave behind?”) and it brings a curious air of non-commitment from the outset.
With its loose meld of clattering beats and backwashed synth arpeggios, ‘Roll On Blank Tapes’ conjures a woozy netherworld from which Taylor looks the listener dead in the eye and all but acknowledges being bereft of ideas. “Roll on blank tapes, let nothing stand in our way. Roll on blank tapes, without anything to say,” he sings, fashioning lack of inspiration as artistic revelation. Here, as with piano-and-vocal lament ‘A Hit Song’ (“There’s nothing to hide in a song / There’s nothing to know outside this song…”), what presumably felt liberating to Taylor at the time - an acknowledgement of effectively being without spark or stimulation - feels more like an oblique strategy that doesn’t pay off.
Thankfully, Beautiful Thing has moments to mitigate the prevailing inertia. ‘Oh Baby’ (Hot Chip cohort Joe Goddard’s sole production credit here) is an outright peak, nodding to Taylor’s love for Alex Chilton and Paul McCartney. While little throwbacks to their band’s heyday are laced throughout, the distance between that world is at its slightest here and on ‘Beautiful Thing’, a glitchy burst of wistful, piano-based house that kickstarted the recording process with Goldsworthy.
Taylor has expressed dissatisfaction with the working methods for certain records in the past, and here “new technology [and] instruments” are credited with helping to colour the bobbing synth-pop of ‘Suspicious of Me’. But his explorative, experimental spirit never really materialises. From the ‘Purple Rain’ pastiche of closer ‘Out of Time’ to ‘I Feel You’, a track flirting with full-blown MOR balladry, Taylor’s words and his stark music seldom hit home. Where 2008’s Rubbed Out and 2014’s Await Barbarians saw him reconfiguring Hot Chip’s understated synth-soul with impressive results, Beautiful Thing bears the outline of transition rather than bold progress.
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The Guardian 80
The more you listen to Beautiful Thing, the more you realise what a marvel of sequencing it is: here are songs that truly talk to each other, musically and lyrically. You hear it musically in the way the walking bassline of Roll on Blank Tapes rolls into Suspicious of Me, the principal thematic link between two songs that are otherwise very different. You hear it lyrically in the transition from There’s Nothing to Hide into I Feel You. In the former, Taylor assures us gently: “There’s nothing to hide in a song / There’s nothing to know outside this song.” And then, in I Feel You, this most open-hearted and sincere of songwriters offers his truth: “I feel you / I wanted you to know / I feel you … When you’re lonesome / When you’re praying.” It’s not just that there’s nothing to hide; there is no desire to hide.
The production comes from Tim Goldsworthy, and Beautiful Thing sounds fantastic throughout. These are simple songs, but Goldsworthy does enough to keep them from being simplistic. In Roll on Blank Tapes, which may be a reflection on worthless nostalgia (“Home taping is killing music, don’t you know / Skateboarding is not a crime any more”), the song fills with percussive, electronic whooshes, echoes and bangs that seem to reflect the lyric: it sounds oddly like kids skateboarding around the ramps of a deserted multistorey car park. The most fun is Oh Baby, which begins with the glammy hammering piano and synth squiggles of an early Roxy Music single, but has the joyful honesty of a Teenage Fanclub song.
Hot Chip’s singer sounds caught in an irresistible haze on his latest solo LP, making music that’s more deluxe than usual but far scruffier than his main band.Fri Apr 20 05:00:00 GMT 2018
Drowned In Sound 60
Alexis Taylor has never been an obvious solo artist for two reasons. Firstly, his band, Hot Chip, always felt greater than the sum of its parts and secondly, Taylor’s vocals, which are undeniably pretty but often lacking in forcefulness, were never the band’s strongest feature.
His past two solo albums have acknowledged this unlikeliness, in the sense that they’ve both felt like deliberately minor releases. Await Barbarians, from 2014, was a fragmented collection of strange piano ballads and synth experiments, while 2016’s Piano was more focused, zoning in on Taylor’s songwriting, but equally lightweight. Both records felt like attempts to scratch a personal itch rather than a clear step forward in his career.
Beautiful Thing is different then, as it’s the first Alexis Taylor album that feels designed to be heard more widely. With no official news of a follow-up to 2015’s Why Make Sense? for Hot Chip, Beautiful Thing is bound to attract more attention than his previous solo work and Taylor seems aware of it. This album is a tidier collection of songs that refines the experimental edge of his other albums. On Beautiful Thing, Taylor is cast as a studio musician in the style of early Brian Eno, adding unusual and eccentric textures onto Seventies pop ballads.
The title track and lead single is misleading in this sense. It’s the most overtly Hot Chip-like track here, opening with a wonky drum machine that sounds like its malfunctioning before building to a crowd-pleasing piano-house finish, and is largely uncharacteristic of the album that follows it. The only reoccurring feature from it is the uncomfortable atmosphere that Taylor and Tim Goldsworthy’s production brings. For the most part, Beautiful Thing is a collection of piano ballads that find Taylor caught between opposing styles – traditional vs. experimental, pop vs. avant-garde.
The album’s approach mainly consists of adding strange, mechanical sounds onto delicately written pop songs to mixed effect. On the album’s gentle closer, ‘Out of Time’, as Taylor meditates on the days used up and those still ahead, a roaring Berlin Trilogy-styled guitar can be heard in the distant background, upsetting the song’s simple structure beautifully. At other points, the experiments are less effective, like on ‘Suspicious of Me’, when the song’s erratic, constantly shifting drum pattern is ultimately unsatisfying. It’s all conflict and no resolution, and it doesn’t help that the song at the heart of it is one of the album’s least creative. Sometimes Taylor is too mild with his song-writing, such as on ‘There’s Nothing to Hide’; a song which is pleasant but feels like an over-extended interlude and doesn’t cover much ground with its six minutes.
Nevertheless, there are a lot of enjoyable moments on Beautiful Thing as well. ‘Dreaming Another Life’ is the album’s wildest experiment and its most successful, as Taylor’s sweet vocals clash with bursts of alien synth samples and distorted guitars. But some of its simpler tracks also succeed. ‘Oh Baby’ is a charming McCartney-esque rocker and the album’s catchiest song, while ‘A Hit Song’ is one of Taylor’s stronger ballads.
The album is more robust and purposeful than Taylor’s previous solo efforts, but unfortunately it feels inessential compared with his best work. The album’s two most distinctive songs open the project and it spends too long drifting between pretty but unspectacular ballads. These songs have not been fine-tuned like his best work for Hot Chip and more often than not, it still feels like Taylor is writing to please himself rather than his audience.
Beautiful Thing can be marked down as an interesting experiment but not a great record. It may end up being loved by hardcore fans of his song-writing but there won’t be a lot here for casual fans to come back to. It gives an insight into some of the idiosyncratic parts of Taylor’s taste and possibly offers clues to where he might go next with Hot Chip. Unfortunately, it doesn’t mark him out as a particularly distinctive solo artist.Wed Apr 25 13:06:24 GMT 2018