This Chairlift article was written by Stephen Butchard, a GIGsoup contributor. Edited by Ben Kendall.
Chairlift’s sparkling indie-pop songs have always seemed lost in the crowd when it comes to cutesy boy/girl duos. Thankfully, their latest full length ‘Moth’, changes that: it’s a slick, enveloping pop record that stands out from the crowd without ever having to raise its voice, thanks to a subtly complex approach to songwriting. Caroline Polachek and co. first broke through after their twee single, ‘Bruises’, was featured on an equally twee Apple ad; from that alone, it’s surprising how much longevity the band has secured, all down to a mature expansion of their sleek indie-pop sound.
Their first album, ‘Does You Inspire You’ (which ‘Bruises’ was released on) has a charming barebones appeal, but its rudimentary presentation doesn’t hold up all of these years later. A lineup change followed, which saw founding member Aaron Pfenning break away to pursue solo material; Polachek continued onwards with multi-instrumentalist and frequent collaborator Patrick Wimberly, and the duo have sounded sharper with each passing year.
2012’s ‘Something’ was an effervescent pop record that isn’t without its moments of greatness. A year later, writing credits on Beyoncé’s most lauded project assured that Chairlift were set for grander things than their formative years suggested. Luckily, with ‘Moth’’s arrival, the band’s ‘Bruises’ days seem very far behind them.
Just like the insect it takes its name from, ‘Moth’ is both delicate and vulnerable. The project feels beautifully intricate, but with an underlying ugliness found within Polachek’s scratchy, untouched vocal. This is demonstrated on ‘Polymorphing’, where her voice slinks around a fluid bass line, stuttering percussion and sharp horn stabs. It’s colourful but understated, building elegantly as Polachek sings out the song’s hook – a piercingly delivered ‘toniiieeeiiieeght’ – around an ever transforming groove.
Though working with elegant production and skilled writing, the album feels too composed for its own good at times. ‘Romeo’ aims to be an energetic pop smash, and while the duo hones their instrumentation with colour, the song lacks any real sense of passion to sell the dramatic presentation. The mix is thin and lacking in warmth, and without the complex edges seen on the previous ‘Polymorphing’, the end result comes off as distant and flat.
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The same could be said for early single, ‘Cha-Ching’. While the song captures the sharpness of their work on Beyonce’s ‘No Angel’, with off kilter melody writing and glassy beat work, the uncomfortable coldness of the delivery makes the song feel grating rather than bold. It’s a cut filled with nuggets of details, such as the stretchy bassline which warps as the track rolls onwards, or the cavernous rush of synths which thicken the track at its conclusion. Sadly, all of this sharp production doesn’t boost up the lack of warmth. Polacheck is oddly unconvincing as she squeaks out the song’s chorus, leading to an uncanny sense of something being off ever so slightly. This uncanniness is almost undoubtedly a stylistic choice, but it contradicts the duo’s smooth instrumentation in an unsatisfying way; with bolder sounds backing it, the band’s oddness would be considerably more convincing.
Sadly, this lack of boldness coats much of the rest of the album, such as on ‘Moth to the Flame’, a sleek 80’s inspired dance cut that uncomfortably sits in the middle ground. Polocheck’s vocal is rough and unkempt, which could be exciting if boosted by an equally textured backdrop. Instead, the delivery is slightly bland and conservative, making everything feel uncertain and lacking in confidence.
The band’s eccentricities pay off on ‘Ottowa and Osaka’, which takes risks in terms of song structure by focusing instead on their colourful instrumentation, with warbling synths, pulsating drum blasts, delicately plucked violins and woozily bowed strings. It’s a moment that shows exactly how far the band have come, but makes it easy to wish they took more risks elsewhere.
‘Moth’ is yet another step forward for Chairlift, but one that’s easier to admire than it is to love. With a shot of adrenaline and a bolder use of textures, Chairlift could evolve into something even greater. Like, an escalator or something.
‘Moth’ is out now via Columbia Records.