If it’s ethnically-inflected ’80s revivalism you’re after, look no further than Brooklyn. Nestling beside the likes of Vampire Weekend, Yeasayer and MGMT, Colorado natives Chairlift are using the New York borough du jour as a springboard into the pop world with their debut album Does You Inspire You.
Alongside the inevitable Talk Talk and Peter Gabriel touches (drenching by synthesiser, muggy atmospherics, distorted rawk guitars), Chairlift seem to be trying super hard to be very clever. There’s a clear smarty-pants hipsterness at work here, in evidence from the album title onwards.
Everything appears to be a knowing, faintly ridiculous pastiche of something else – whether it’s the overblown, satin-and-steel, fighter-jet-straddling balladry of Planet Health; or the tinny novelty-hit Casio reggae of Evident Utensil. Bruises, already wheeled out to the UK public via the iPod Nano advert, takes the jaunty, otherworldly Vampire Weekend template, and dilutes it into a cheesy faux-naive Bontempi bossanova duet.
Lyrically too, Chairlift seem to be playing odd, slippery games throughout. Opener Garbage – delivered, manifesto-style, by Caroline Polacheck in a self-conscious Suzanne Vega monotone – begins by asserting that “All the garbage that you have thrown away / Is waiting somewhere a million miles away / Your condoms and your VCR / Your ziplock bag and your father’s car.” Sincere or kooky? It’s about ten years too late to cut any mustard as the former, so you have to assume the latter. Later we learn that “The most evident utensil / Is none other than a pencil”. Well jeez. And Planet Health informs us that “I was trained in diversity / In the garden of puberty”.
OK, so some dodgy lyrics aren’t the end of the world, but true to the spirit of the ’80s, they’re delivered throughout with po-faced, mock sincerity and are so prominent in the mix that their grating daftness becomes impossible to overlook.
The album’s more interesting when the ersatz profundity is set aside in favour of moody soundscapes. Earwig Town echoes the doomy electronica of Ultravox; Territory makes powerful use of heavy, swampy synths and a witchy vocal, evolving into an electronic drone reminiscent of Giorgio Moroder‘s soundtrack work. Ceiling Wax is less successful: striving for a floaty Angelo Badalamenti atmosphere, it sorely lacks a central idea and ends up sounding like a ponderous Eurythmics B-side.
Does You Inspire You has a few high points, most of them hidden in the quieter corners of the album. In its more strident moments, though, it’s just plain puzzling. Inextricable from its 80s influences, it’s too serious to be a comedy pastiche, and yet too silly to be a faithful homage. The cut-and-paste tomfoolery quickly wears thin, and we’re left with a disposable album with no discernible centre of gravity. “We’re making shit for you to throw away”, sings Polacheck at one point. It may be a little harsh to speak of being hoisted by one’s own petard, but there’s certainly a speck of truth in there.