The history of Fleetwood Mac is such a maelstrom of addiction, bankruptcies, and bitter lovers’ spats that it’s hard to pin down exactly what led to their early-1980s hiatus and subsequent limbo. But it’s safe to say that after Lindsey Buckingham, Mick Fleetwood, and Stevie Nicks released solo albums in 1981, the overall band had an increasingly challenging time holding things together.
Although Hot Chip’s precision beats sound rather different from Fleetwood Mac’s brand of dad-rock, the acts share one trait in common. They’re multipolar projects whose respective members have embarked on solo careers only to return to the mothership, and for Hot Chip co-frontman Alexis Taylor, a piano-centric independent career is now four albums strong. While Beautiful Thing, released in April, is certainly not a Hot Chip record — based on its dramatis personae alone — it bends back toward the source. Taylor’s unmistakable, affect-less voice can give listeners the false impression that he’s an art-school scenester having a laugh, but Beautiful Thing is set up as a vehicle for his unabashed love of pop schmaltz. It’s very circa-1980 Paul McCartney, with the synths that open “Oh Baby” sounding like the ex-Beatle’s “Temporary Secretary” before diving right into Wings territory.
“A Hot Chip record is Joe [Goddard] and I often together at the beginning, writing things, and then Al [Doyle] and Felix [Martin] are there in the second stage of writing and demo-ing,” Taylor tells SF Weekly. “There might be somebody else, an engineer there, but it’s very much a kind of group energy in the room.”
By contrast, for Beautiful Thing, Taylor and producer Tim Goldsworthy — a DJ and recording artist in his own right — brought in enough musicians to keep the record’s center of gravity wholly apart from the Hot Chip canon and from Taylor’s previous solo work. They don’t feel like they’re competing for the same space or trying to make similar types of records, Taylor says.
“Also, they don’t really feel to me like they are in any sense threatening to disrupt what Hot Chip does,” he adds. “I mean, it’s easy to say that now, because I haven’t made any singles that have been hits outside of Hot Chip. But if I was to do that, or if Joe was to do that, I imagine it might feel a bit different. You come back to Hot Chip wondering whether everyone’s unsettled by that — but we’re all friends with each other and we’ve been making music together for such a long time.”
It’s been nearly 20 years, in fact. And the enduring connections probably can’t be dissevered. Goddard was actually involved with “Oh Baby,” and Goldsworthy has worked with Hot Chip for years — since the time “when he still spoke to James Murphy, years ago,” Taylor says, referring to the LCD Soundsystem frontman. (The connections between the two bands run deeper still. Al Doyle plays guitar for Hot Chip and tours with LCD, for instance. Hot Chip’s cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” segues into LCD’s “All My Friends,” and the two acts have played the same circuit since at least 2007, when this writer dashed through deep mud from one stage to the next to see them play at the short-lived Connect Festival in Inveraray, Scotland.)
But that unique, sad-robot quality to Taylor’s voice remains the through-line, even on solo efforts like 2016’s Piano, which was “very down-tempo and not electronic pop music.”
“It had its own territory,” Taylor says. “Sometimes, I think about what I’m doing, and whether people are aware of it and whether people would be more aware of it if I wasn’t known for Hot Chip — or whether they’d be less aware. It’s kind of hard.”
To test that a bit, Taylor and Goddard once put out an old-school, two-sided single (“Doubleshaw”) under the name Booji Boy High, an homage to a Devo character that George Michael later purloined to issue a cover of a Bee Gees song that must have gotten Michael entangled in contractual difficulties. But it was a one-off.
“I’m kind of comfortable using my own name at the moment and just getting on being myself,” Taylor says, “so I’m not thinking too much about mysterious alter egos.”
A palpable anxiety about the state of music undergirds Beautiful Thing. “Home taping is killing music, don’t you know?” Taylor sings on “Roll on Blank Tapes,” a sort of echo to the line “Replace us with the things that do the job better” from the Hot Chip cut “Huarache Lights.”
But if you’ve ever wondered where Taylor falls on the irony-sincerity scale, Beautiful Thing establishes exactly which point. Cool geek though he is, Taylor likewise insists that he’s not being “arch and hipsterish” in his presentation — nor does he mind that, in the early days at least, many people thought a woman was singing on Hot Chip records.
“I only sing in a way that feels very natural and heartfelt to me,” he says. “I don’t try and put on a kind of gravelly voice, and I don’t think that being soulful means you have to sing like Otis Redding or Billie Holiday.”
Conceding that there are some American tonalities and pronunciations that creep into his vocal style — and which don’t match his British speaking voice — he believes the voice that most closely matches his in timbre is trumpet player Chet Baker, whose vocals were criticized for being “un-slick.”
Referring to the lead singer of Big Star, Taylor says that “Alex Chilton’s voice I kind of feel close to, and Paul McCartney’s as well. And Crystal Gayle, the female country singer.
“I don’t really sound, to me, like any of these people,” he adds. “I certainly don’t try and sound like that, but I can hear occasionally somebody go, ‘Oh, you remind me of Paul Carrack.’ Or, ‘You remind me of Paul Simon.’ Or Paul McCartney. Any Paul will do.”
Alexis Taylor, with Annie Hart, Saturday, June 9, 8 p.m., at Great American Music Hall, 859 O’Farrell St., $24.19-$50.66, slimspresents.com