February 1, 2012

Test Spins: Chairlift

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Taking a ride on a chairlift is thrilling and engaging; there is the constant anticipation of what is about to come, yet the relaxing feeling of sitting back and enjoying the ride as the track navigates you.  With its second full-length album Something, the band Chairlift stays true to its name by taking listeners on that journey.  But instead of simply moving upwards on a track, listeners simultaneously move backwards and forwards, on an excursion into retro ’80s pop with a refreshingly modern spin.

Something could have been risky and poorly fated without founding member Aaron Pfenning, who left the electro-pop band in 2010 to pursue solo ambitions.  Yet this album is where the now two-member band, consisting of Caroline Polachek and Patrick Wimberly, truly proves itself, with its refined production, dreamy vocals by Polachek and more emotional lyricism.

The tracks are not as careless and cheerful as some of the ones from the band’s 2008 album Does You Inspire You, especially the cute feel-good hit “Bruises,” which got its big break in the same year’s iPod Nano commercials.  However, there is still a slight euphoric quality to all of the new tracks, though it is more subdued and presented as more of a wistful illusion than a reality.

The opening track “Sidewalk Safari” is a perfect start to the album, as it immediately drags listeners into another time period, with the electronic guitar and ’80s-influenced beats.  It is not difficult to warm up to this catchy, upbeat dance track, or to Polachek’s sultry but rough voice that exudes a fiery confidence as she sings of being merciless and on the prowl.  Another similarly fast-paced track is “Amanaemonesia,” the first single to be released off the album.  The song is just as difficult to understand as the song title is, but the chorus in its vague absurdity is undeniably catchy: “Is it amnesia/Amanaemonesia/mistaken for magic.”

On tracks like “Ghost Tonight” and “Guilty As Charged,” Polachek shows that she can be both sweet and edgy.  “Ghost Tonight” starts off sounding very feminine, but her vocals quickly gain more intensity and a slight ferocity.  The instrumentals, more specifically the jazz influence, makes the song upbeat, yet more mysterious and distinct than the band’s usual electro pop tracks.  “Guilty As Charged” has a rougher, less innocent sound, with a greater emphasis on the bass and rock-infused beats.  Polachek displays a different side of herself, as she lustfully sings; “Now I’m guilty as charged/Go on and punish me.”

At times, Chairlift struggles to pull off the whole ’80s influence.  “I Belong In Your Arms” has a constant retro musical beat, but this includes little variation and immediately gets repetitive.  The vocals are not particularly impressive on this track and the lyrics are sappy and cliché.  “Take It Out On Me” also borders on a cheesy ’80s track, but Polachek’s sultry and powerful voice redeem it.  The lyrics are also sufficiently feisty, as she croons, “bring on the fire cause business is cruel …”

The more melancholy tracks are where the album tends to turn mundane. “Cool As a Fire” fails to excite, with its slow rhythm and sulky lyrics about heartbreak and how it continues to burden her, even as she tries to put on a front.  Polachek’s voice is soft and lovely as she sings this ballad, but the gloomy track does not integrate well with the more whimsical tracks on the album.  While “Turning,” another mellow track, includes Chairlift’s dreamy sound, the musing quality almost sounds overly lethargic with the echoing tuned-out vocals and simultaneous layers of audio being played at once.

However, serving as an exception among the slower songs, “Wrong Opinion,” is a standout track.  It is a prime example of the smooth merging of vintage and contemporary, with Polachek’s sultry old-fashioned voice overtop a background instrumental consisting of both dated beats and futuristic sounds resembling what one would imagine to hear in space.

With Something, Polachek and Wimberly serve as an interesting duo, combining nostalgia with a revived forwardness, but the ’80s influence seems to be so overdone in recent music that there is little to set Chairlift apart from the other emerging indie bands.  However, for the angle Chairlift decided to take with this album, the band deserves credit for a strong overall product.  The constant variability of romanticism and dreaminess, mixed in with melancholy and fiery qualities, provides much diversity within the tracks of the album itself, and overall creates a sweet sounding hard-to-define “something.”

Original Author: Dina Khatib