CHAIRLIFT: DOES YOU INSPIRE YOU (2008)
1) Garbage; 2) Planet Health; 3) Earwig Town; 4) Bruises; 5) Somewhere Around Here; 6) Evident Utensil; 7) Territory; 8) Le Flying Saucer Hat; 9) Make Your Mind Up; 10) Dixie Gypsy; 11) Don't Give A Damn; 12) Chameleon Closet; 13) Ceiling Wax.
The first thing you read about Chairlift on Wikipedia (today) is that «Chairlift was an American synthpop band». Well... from a certain formal standpoint, this might be true: they use a lot of electronics, and a couple of the songs are based upon danceable synthesizer grooves. But if we understand this term in a very straightforward manner, then no, Chairlift were not just one more band driven by nostalgia for the Eighties and a desire to adapt the naïvely idealistic and simplistic futurism of that decade to our post-post-modern realities. They were much more than that — for a brief while, they were a refreshingly ambitious and daring engine of musical eclecticism; and this debut record of theirs deserves your full and undivided attention even ten years later, which is a pretty high compliment coming from me for anything released in the 2000s.
In 2008, Chairlift were a Brooklyn-based trio consisting of: hipsterly gloomy-looking, curly-haired, dishevelled Patrick Wimberly on bass and stuff; happier-looking, somewhat cleaner-shaven, but still dishevelled Aaron Pfenning on guitar and stuff; and retro-gorgeous, intelligent-looking, and quite tidy (in comparison to the other two) Caroline Polachek on vocals, keyboards, and stuff. Apparently, Pfenning and Polachek met together in Boulder, Colorado, which is a grand place if you're a bearded loner (hey, you can travel to Bear Peak and imagine you're Bon Iver!), but maybe not so grand if you want to make hip pop music that mixes current trends, retro influences, artsiness, and advanced progressive conscience, so they moved to Brooklyn for those ends, where they ended up picking Wimberly and... but enough trivia.
Does You Inspire You is a wonderful little record (well, no longer truly «little» since they reissued it on CD and added three extra tracks). I have no idea who writes which parts and whether there is an individual mini-genius at work here or it's all a matter of collective spirit, but, with the exception of a few lesser tracks, this is a collection of tight, diverse, colorful, inspiring art-pop tracks that do not offer much in terms of radical innovation, but simply put together a half-bright, half-dark, deeply personalized world that manages to include a little bit of everything. I have not been able to spot any single running theme — it's more like an artistic diary for a small group of young people trying to grasp the meaning of life around them, and it's cool.
I'd guess that most people's memories of the album would revolve around ʽBruisesʼ, the closest they ever got to hitting the charts and even so, probably only because of the song being used in an Apple iPod Nano commercial. It would be anything but a bad memory — the song is a great example of their songwriting style, a set of somewhat ambiguously dark lyrics set to a catchy, cuddly melody and punctuated by Caroline's perfectly placed falsetto chirps. However, it might also give the totally wrong impression of the band as an electronic-based twee-pop outfit, whereas in reality this twee vibe of ʽBruisesʼ is but one piece of a much larger puzzle.
Because if you listen to the album properly, starting from the start, the first song is ʽGarbageʼ, which, despite the use of programmed drums and keyboards, from a purely melodic standpoint is straightforward blues-rock — a dark, sneery vibe whose distant prototype is left somewhere far behind, in Chicago's Chess Studios, perhaps, but whose essence remains the same; and on this song, Caroline Polachek sounds more like a disciple of Grace Slick than of Amelia Fletcher. It is hard to understand what the song is about — should it be understood directly, as an ecological rant? indirectly, as a political allegory? totally indirectly, as a condemnation of some particularly messy ex-boyfriend?.. better still, all three ways at once, and that's not even mentioning how much I like the overall style — the watery electric piano overlays, the little distorted guitar riff crossing the threshold midway through the song, the ghostly la-la-la harmonies, the equally ghostly and ever so slightly dissonant chimes, the vibraphone, the faint shadow of a sax solo towards the very end... apparently, we did begin this as a Chicago piece, but by the end, it becomes more of a lite jazz jam, never boring because they do not drag it out for too long and keep adding neat creative touches every few bars or so.
On a few other tracks, the band goes for a grand atmosphere, which is also totally believable. ʽPlanet Healthʼ is a slow combo of a funky bassline, a whole dazzling kaleidoscope of keyboard overlays, and a vocal part run through a minor vocoder effect that makes Caroline sound a bit like an alien — completely making sense for a song beginning with the line "when I arrived on Planet Health...", although the song itself is hardly a sci-fi adventure, but rather a harsh indictment of the hypocrisy of our allegedly progressive society (best verse: "I was trained in diversity / In the garden of puberty / Where they Heimlich maneuvered me / And they showed me how to make a baby"); if somebody is still living in the 21st century, yet misses out on the bitter irony of the "I'm feeling great tonight" chorus, then I guess I must be dreaming. Another great moody piece is ʽTerritoryʼ, where they are not afraid to advance into the territory of The Cure, Dead Can Dance, and other slow, mopey, ocean-of-sorrow bands — an anthem of self-protection and isolation, with Polachek floating over her protected territory like an aggressive, but still gorgeous ghost, while protective guitar and keyboard spirits are building up their defenses below. Brilliantly crafted — and I dare you to play it back to back with ʽBruisesʼ and then think of any other act that would have the talent / gall to release such lightness and such heaviness on the same record... well, at least in 2008.
Other as yet unchecked highlights include: ʽEvident Utensilʼ, the first single from the album that is every bit as catchy as ʽBruisesʼ, though a little less light (there's a good chance that either the silly, but unbeatable line "the most evident utensil is none other than a pencil", or the strained, border-hysterical chorus of "how hard must I try?.." will stay with you for a long, long time); ʽMake Your Mind Upʼ, which lives through an abrupt shift from an adult contemporary ballad into a rough, loud, screechy metallized R&B groove; and I even like their minor genristic excourses — ʽDon't Give A Damnʼ puts the Polachek stamp on country waltz, and while most people seem to hate ʽLe Flying Saucer Hatʼ, I think it's a hilarious parody on French atmospheric pop of the Mylène Farmer variety (I'm sure someone will love to pigeonhole this under the dreaded «cultural appropriation» tag, but if you love missing the point so much, be my guest). The eclecticism continues with the two-minute ambient-avantgarde instrumental ʽChameleon Closetʼ, and finally ends with the New Age-like finale of ʽCeiling Waxʼ — "my time has come, my day is done", she wails quietly in a tired voice, as if indeed thinking of herself as somebody who'd been temporarily assigned to visit our «Planet Health» and is now retiring back to eternity.
So what's not to like? It's clever, it's catchy, it's bursting with creativity, and it's one of those rare records that manages to sound a bit out of this world and yet fully in touch with reality. I'm guessing that, had the album been released and promoted in Europe rather than the States, it would have enjoyed far more commercial success — after all, they didn't just move to New York, that most Europeanized of all American outlets, for nothing — but unlike most of the stuff that happened to chart in 2008, this one feels totally fresh and exciting even today, so a major thumbs up here. (Please do not run off to watch the video for ʽEvident Utensilʼ, though: as in so many cases, this is yet another situation of brilliant musical ideas desperately unmatched with anything close to a working, healthy video aesthetics! Anyway, you've been warned).