Chairlift are the Brooklyn-based female-male duo that seem to have already experienced many incarnations during their relatively modest output of three albums released over the past six years. Thrust upon the world’s media with ‘Bruises’, used to soundtrack an Apple iPod ad, their 2008 debut was a whimsical, often self-conscious collection of acoustic and electronic artpop.
Its follow up, Something, which saw band member Aaron Pfenning swapped with Patrick Wimberly to play alongside vocalist Caroline Polachek, was a massive leap forward on every level and was one of the smartest, most impressive and underrated pop albums of 2012. Since then Chairlift’s absence has been notable – until now.
‘Ch-Ching’ was our first taste of Moth and pretty much typifies the general direction and musical ambitions the duo set out to achieve on this record. Even based on this first single, though – which pretty much takes all of its quirks and cues from various shades of R&B music over the last 40 years or so – it’s clear that there are some problems with Chairlift’s ability to fulfil this desire.
Polachek took singing lessons as she felt it necessary to sing these songs in a particular way and throughout there is a spotlight placed on her impressively expanded vocal range. But in the case of ‘Ch-Ching’, a rag-bag mix of trap percussion, live brass, something that sounds like The X-Files theme, and 90s hip hop, one is left asking ‘where the hell is the song?’
The more obvious and organic pop songs here, the unexceptional ‘Romeo’ and the much better, seductively rhythmic and jazzy ‘Polymorphing’, are shoehorned between more experimental but strangely sanitised electronic tracks.
The album’s final track, ‘No Such Thing as Illusion’, is nearly seven minutes long and is hard to retain even after several listens. Polachek’s strangulated vocals make you pray that the ‘Unfurnished Business’ she is referring to is now out of her system. This is regretable as the ballad has elegant string flourishes and smooth verses which sound a lot like Imogen Heap, but the insistence to include what is presumed to be a pained and soulful performance is ultimately misguided.
Having said all this, there are three brilliant songs on Moth which are as good as Chairlift’s strongest and most deftly melodic and charming previous work.
‘Crying in Public’ is a mid-tempo, softly chiming R&B track with Polachek’s vocals bright and perfectly arranged. She shuns any temptation for histrionics and embellishments, and the end result is simply lovely. Squint hard enough and you can hear the sublime Joni Mitchell influence everywhere.
Stark and spacious funk combined with a turn of the millennium Neptunes-type production make ‘Show U Off’ a fat-free, sensual dancer, but it’s the elongated title track, ‘Moth to A Flame’, that’s the album’s ultimate star turn. Running at just under three minutes and with time for slack, this kind of discipline seems to suit Chairlift. A carefree and joyous throwback track to the house-pop of the 80s and, in particular, Kym Sims’ ‘Too Blind to See It’, even down to its similar spoken sample of ‘he’s that kind of a man mama’. Along with ‘Crying in Public’ it’s the best song here.
There is little doubt that Polachek and Patrick Wimberly aren’t capable of making commercial, idiosyncratic and interesting pop music, attracting new listeners and building their already substantial fan-base into something that is more supportive and inspiring to the duo.
Moth may be the record that does this – it has already garnered many positive reviews – but I somehow think that’s unlikely. Chairlift are too pointlessly weird and uneven here, their songs too ungainly and, bar the few exceptions, there is little to tempt you back again (and again) or offer that delicious, immediate high and the subsequent, endless repeat plays.