A band’s arc or progression or trajectory or oeuvre, whatever you want to call it, can trace all kinds of shapes between the bewildering and the banal. Chairlift started as Caroline Polachek and Aaron Pfenning, a two-piece and couple. After forming in Boulder, Colorado they moved to Brooklyn, as you do, and with Patrick Wimberly became a three-piece. In 2008 they released their debut album Does You Inspire You, a formidable if unextraordinary synthpop album that also happened to have a track featured in an Apple commercial. At this juncture you’d be forgiven for tuning out of this quaint indie tale.ever
Post record one however, something happened. There were very obvious, surface level changes – Polachek and Pfenning broke up, leaving Polachek and Wimberly to carry on with Chairlift, but not without legal proceedings. Wimberly, by Polachek’s admission, became “more determined, organised, and generally more gangsta than when I first met him”, and the duo shifted to a major label. But something less tangible also happened: their ambition opened wide and their confidence hardened, and instead of politely dipping their toes in the referentially warm waters of 80s pop, they dove into the deep end. This wild and wooly period of flux birthed Something, Chairlift’s second record and first as a duo.
Written in the back of a Brooklyn antiques shop and recorded in the winter of 2010/11 in South London with producer Dan Carey, Something doesn’t sound so much like a different band to the one that made Does You Inspire You than it does like that same band to the power of ten – so finely tuned, so certain, so on that nothing is wasted and every melody is designed for at times almost crippling emotional impact. It’s a quantum leap forward for the band to the knife-edge of perfect pop songwriting, a record born of “frustration and desire” that ultimately sounds totally elated and emancipating. Something boasts the kind of perfectly timeless synthpop shapes, robust arrangements, and melodic curveballs that could conquer a perfect world, while Polachek’s voice is all but flawless, hammering nails in the coffin of cold detachment with every line.
Something sounds exquisite without showing off, and evokes some stirringly melancholy stuff but without the use any sentimental cheap shots. It’s intelligent and poetic but without any pomp, wonderfully on the money all season music. If I Belong In Your Arms doesn’t belong on the triumphant closing scene of a definitive teen movie then I don’t know what does.
Alongside the personal and personnel changes between records, their practical approach to their art adapted as well. “We got pickier. We refined our taste, our palette, our need for a song to feel fulfilling.” Working with a purposefully restrictive sonic assemblage, decreasing their options only increased the possibilities within, with no choice but to push the songs to the outer reaches of the emotional spectrum with what they had, all the while crafting a record that’s totally cohesive and fun without ever feeling formulaic or safe.
There’s an openly apparent creative chemistry at play with Chairlift Mk II, something Polachek attributes to the group’s newfound yin-yang balance. “I’m a dork, Patrick’s cool. Like a cool cat. I’m kind of A.D.D., Patrick’s very focused. I write a ton of melodies and sections, Patrick’s very intuitive at filtering and sequencing. I obsess over small details, Patrick’s good at zooming out and seeing the big picture and knowing what needs to be done next. I bring more pop/electronic/goth references to the table, Patrick brings more hip hop/soul/jazz.” While it’s hard to believe the arguably statuesque, French-speaking, ballet-dancing Polachek when she paints herself a poindexter, one can’t argue when she surmises, “we’re a good team”.
The songs on Something for the most part broadly broach the topic of love, but casting it in a kind of instinctive, vivid but abstract, one might even say spiritual light. So who of the two is the candle-burning love spiritualist? “Probably me, because of the nature of being a singer and having this unconscious/conscious relationship between mind, music, and body.” Freeing the path between the brain and the body, the heart and the hard drive seems to work wonders in the Chairlift studio on the basis of the results.
Asked who she might choose if she could transform into anyone else for a day, Polachek responds by citing “either Buckminster Fuller or Glenn Gould. It would be amazing to feel how their brains worked”. Two men famous for their wildly creative if unorthodox approach to their respective practices, to science, architecture and philosophy in Fuller’s case, and classical piano in Gould’s, it’s telling she should feel an affinity with two so deeply, spiritually engulfed with their practice.
As for Chairlift’s future, Polachek imagines them continuing on the path they’ve now set, “further down the rabbit hole. I really am dying to get into the recording studio again and make our next record, but I know I need to ‘earn’ it, by building up more new energy, stories, experiences to channel.” Here’s hoping it’s an eventful path then, for the sake of act three.