Caroline Polachek formed Chairlift with her college boyfriend Aaron Pfenning. The pair initially planned to make music for haunted houses but ended up following the time-honoured path – recording an EP. In 2006 they moved to Brooklyn and recorded their debut album, joined by new member Patrick Wimberly.
The trio were immediately successful, as the sweet indie pop of ‘Bruises’ was featured on an iPod commercial. Pfenning left Chairlift in 2010, but the remaining two members grew remarkably with their second album, Something, a near-masterpiece of smooth sophisti-pop. Polachek’s vocals became more athletic, able to jump smoothly into falsetto.
The group gained wider recognition when they wrote and helped produced ‘No Angel’, from Beyoncé’s 2013 self-titled album. Chairlift split after their third album, 2016’s pop-oriented Moth. Polachek’s enjoyed acclaim as a solo artist, embracing her inner Enya, while Wimberly has worked with Solange and Joji.
Chairlift Album Reviews
Does You Inspire You
Caroline Polachek was still a student at the University of Colorado when Chairlift recorded their debut album. While they were a duo for much of their recording career, Chairlift are still a trio on their debut – Aaron Pfenning duets with Polachek on several tracks.
Chairlift were immediately successful with this debut – ‘Bruises’ was featured on an iPod commercial. But overall Does You Inspire You is their weakest album – it’s a portrait of a young band throwing ideas at the wall and seeing what sticks. There’s some odd material that feels incongruous – most notably the country duet on ‘Don’t Give a Damn’, but also the silly French excursion of ‘Le Flying Saucer Hat’.
At the same time, there’s worthwhile material here past ‘Bruises’. ‘Planet Health’ has a memorable melody, and Polachek sounds great holding the long syllables at the end of each line. The funky pop of ‘Evident Utensil’ presages the direction they’d explore on Moth.
If Chairlift had only recorded Does You Inspire You, they’d be dismissed as a one-hit wonder, with some justification.
Pared down to a duo of Polachek and Wimberly, Chairlift also streamlined their sound with their second album. The uncertain genre-hopping of the debut is replaced by intelligent and sophisticated pop. The duo worked with producer Dan Carey, who they chose due to his “punchy, textural, open” sound.
There’s a particularly strong stretch in the middle of Something – the dramatic chorus of ‘Ghost Tonight’ allows Polachek to display her vocal chops, while the elegant balladry of ‘Cool as a Fire’ recalls Portishead. The duo’s debt to Stereolab is clear on the gentle songs at the end like ‘Turning’ and ‘Guilty as Charged’. The crown jewel of the record, and of Chairlift’s entire discography, is ‘I Belong in Your Arms’, putting just enough drive behind a tender melody.
Something is Chairlift’s undeniable peak, sophisticated and wide-ranging.
With its four-year gestation time, Moth gives the impression that it was a difficult album to make. The duo broke up shortly after, and it feels like they just managed to fill out a 40-minute running time by including some weaker tracks. It’s more pop-oriented than before – foreshadowing Polachek’s solo work. When Moth works, it’s great – the strong material is up with the best moments of Something, even if their music’s less nuanced.
The highlights include the sophisti-pop of ‘Crying in Public’, the unabashed pop of ‘Moth to a Flame’, and ‘Polymorphing’, a funky track with quickfire lyrics and Polachek and Wimberly on congas. ‘Ch-ching’ emphasises the group’s R&B side, not surprising after their Beyonce collaboration. Moth tails off at the end, and the songs without immediate hooks are drab in comparison to the hook-laden highlights.
Moth was Chairlift’s final album, leaving Polachek free to explore her easy-listening Celtic predilections on her solo career.
10 Best Chairlift Songs
I Belong in Your Arms
Moth to a Flame
Cool as a Fire
Crying in Public
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Aphoristic Album Reviews is almost entirely written by one person.
Graham Fyfe is probably the only music blogger to appreciate both Neil Diamond and Ariana Grande. Based in Fleet Street (New Zealand), he's been writing this blog since around 2000. Aphoristic Album Reviews features reviews and blog posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.
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