Two very different bands usher in 2008 with new ideas, albums

By Peter Valelly

If I lose my sense of rhythm, will you help me to make a new sound? pleaded singer Alexis Taylor on Hot Chip’s 2005 track “From Drummer to Driver.” This question – answered perfectly by the backing track’s symphony of whirring, quivering beats – seems to have become the group’s unofficial motto. As the quintet’s convulsive, omnivorously creative take on dance-pop has garnered repute in indie circles both here and in their native UK, people seem to have been so entranced by Hot Chip’s overflowing melodic and rhythmic gifts to notice just how fresh and ingenious the music is.The group’s new album, “Made in the Dark,” is its third straight masterpiece, following on the heels of debut “Coming on Strong” and 2006’s gorgeously kinetic “The Warning.” Released on Tuesday, the record shows the group’s sound becoming even more streamlined.

While hardly any track on here equals Taylor and company’s masterful 2006 singles “Over and Over” and “Boy from School,” many come close. Tracks like “Out at the Pictures,” “One Pure Thought,” and “Shake a Fist” deftly assimilate rock influences, producing a sound that is chaotic but infectious. The latter track is particularly mesmerizing, boasting a slithery beat that many hip-hop stars would kill for. The convulsively catchy monotone chorus is a treasure as well, but the track’s many segments and gimmicks, delightful as they may be, preclude it from being single material.

That honor, however, befalls “Ready for the Floor,” another of the album’s peaks. Like all of Hot Chip’s best tracks, the song demonstrates how effortlessly a supposed “retro” sound like electro-pop can be made to sound not just contemporary but downright futuristic.

It’s not just uptempo numbers at which Hot Chip excels. The band’s ballads are always heartbreaking, providing a convincing emotional core to the mischief that characterizes its single fare. “We’re Looking for a Lot of Love” may be the group’s best slow song ever – its funereal organ and clipped digital choirs perfectly frame one of Taylor’s finest vocal performances to date.

Yet while Hot Chip is, in my opinion, far and away the best band to emerge this decade, fractured synth-pop ear candy is hardly the only path to musical innovation on the indie circuit. Another band has made it its business to reconstruct sound for the contemporary scene, yielding another of 2008’s greatest albums yet.

The Brooklyn trio Rings could hardly be more different from Hot Chip, and the group’s new record “Black Habit,” released in January on Animal Collective’s label Paw Tracks, showcases its genre-demolishing style. More experimental and abrasive than AC have been for five years, their sound is a chaotic collision of piano and guitar fragments, dissonant choir and thumping drums. Tempos and timbres become playthings for them, as shards of folk-rock, indie and electronica synthesize into a thrilling, lulling whole. Despite their difficult sound, there’s an overwhelming sense of comfort to this music, a delicacy and lethargy that envelopes, womb-like, the furious rush of ideas.

Rings’ most obvious sonic forbear is a circle of mainly British groups from the late 70s and early 80s, including the recently reunited Slits and Kurt Cobain favorites the Raincoats. Those bands -all-female ensembles like Rings – made it both their explicit rhetoric and their aesthetic law to dismantle the “masculine” rhythmic machinery of traditional 4/4 rock, and there are echoes of their relentlessly circular, syncopated pulse and fragmented melodies all over “Black Habit.”

While it’s certainly exciting that Rings are taking up the mantle of two of rock’s most brilliant and underappreciated bands, the record is hardly a rehash. Rather, it sounds as though this forgotten sound has been gestating just out of earshot for the last two decades, absorbing music’s new developments into its amorphous, non-comformist stew.

Album highlight “Is She Handsome?” is a perfect example. Lovely but difficult, it begins with quiet bleeps and frail, precious vocals; sporadic eruptions of bass drum add tension and eventually cascade into sampled audio snippets and rumbling piano. Opener “All Right Peace” exudes a brittle comfort with its gently plucked guitar and repetitive rushes of percussion.

The album closes on a truly beautiful and weird note with two haunting, fantastic tracks – the creepy, cacophonous “Tone Poem” and “Teepee,” a lullaby laced with vocal histrionics that somehow take on a tragic, cracked serenity.

With two records this strong already making the rounds, things are looking up for musical innovation in 2008. Here’s hoping for 11 more months of rhythm and business.