Chris Baio’s third solo album is just fine even though it seems like the individual ingredients should add up to a more interesting record.
Note: this review originally ran on Set the Tape (link).
Disclaimer: this review was made possible thanks to a pre-release stream link provided by the artist’s label, Glassnote Records.
In my years writing about music on and off, I’ve tried to focus my energies on writing up the music I love, or at the very least the music that I find interesting and provokes strong reactions, because those are the most enjoyable to write about. They’re also, not coincidentally, the easiest to write about since you can summon up passion and point to standout moments, good and ill, to talk more in-depth on. Especially nowadays when there’s just so much music flowing through the release pipe and spending extended time on records that are just “fine” can also feel a little like a waste of personal resources, in addition to being really difficult to write about. After all, “fine” records are just that: fine. Decent enough, likeable enough, nothing spectacularly wrong with them, but still weirdly ephemeral in that nothing really sticks in the aftermath and you can’t quite explain why.
This is where I’m at with Chris Baio’s solo work three albums deep. I have lived with the Vampire Weekend bassist’s newest album in particular, Dead Hand Control, for almost a fortnight now and I’m still struggling to muster up much to say about it. It’s… fine. Pretty alright. I’ve tried to arrange what few review bullet point notes I could manage into a more naturally-flowing prose structure, but that complete and total “fine”-ness is really messing with those efforts. It all feels like so many unnecessary words when going “it’s fine” really does cover the sum of it.
For an album named after both an alleged Soviet missile defence system designed to destroy America (that’s the “Dead Hand”) and a legal strategy to control who benefits from your will post-death (that’s the “Dead Hand Control”), Baio’s latest is a rather comforting listen. His 80s lounge singer baritone is being put to use on somewhat more hopeful lyrical content this time than the irony heavy The Names and slightly despairing Man of the World. Sure, there’s still a lingering spectre of apocalyptic death looming over almost all of the tracks – and the irony isn’t totally jettisoned, since semi-title track “Dead Hand” is a love song to that missile defence grid – but Baio is more fixated on connection and the possibility of romance still blossoming in spite of it all. The album’s closing pair of tracks “Never Never Never,” a zippy Brit-pop post-punk number pledging devotion, and “O.M.W.,” which functions rather like a soothing pep talk, are clearest about this, but you can find those inclinations throughout most all of the eight songs featured.
It’s also a very sonically rich and varied record. Whilst the album is still split evenly per Baio tradition between the sprawling near-epics that push past six minutes and sub-three-minute speedsters, there’s a lot of musical variety crammed into a 42-minute record whilst still remaining cohesive. The opening title track kicks off as a country-Western campfire singalong only for that to cut out just before two minutes and flip into something a little more Paul Simom with marimbas, funky breakbeats and African folk-style backing vocals, before the chorus drops back in over this new setting. Whilst the centrepiece sprawls “Dead Hand,” “Caisse Noire,” and “O.M.W.” don’t cross over into house-excursions like those on previous albums, they do dip into territory trodden by The Art of Noise in the shifting sound collages that crop up deep into their runs (particularly “Dead Hand”).
Much of DHC feels indebted to 80s pop-wave – that brief period of time where both British and American post-punk and the artier New Wavers shifted over into crafting successful out and out pop songs like Martha and the Muffins’ “Echo Beach.” Lead single “Endless Me, Endlessly” and the aforementioned “Never x3” certainly have that sparkling unlikely crossover hit sheen to their songwriting and production (self-produced). The whole album sounds lovely, with lots of cleanly engineered instrumentation and a busy yet not suffocating mix that leaves just enough actual space in songs like “What Do You Say When I’m Not There?” to successfully ground the track in a studio. And, unlike on his prior two albums where entire tracks could go by before I realised on a casual listen that the song had changed, Baio is getting a lot better at fashioning his tracks into distinctive songs without losing the continuous linked journey he aims to make with his albums; the first half really nails that goal.
…and yet I feel utterly lukewarm about Dead Hand Control? As mentioned, I’ve lived with this record for nearly a fortnight by the time you read this review and I still don’t have any strong feelings about it one way or another. It mostly just washes over me, even now as I loop the thing to write these words hoping something major sticks out. I wouldn’t say it’s boring but it also doesn’t feel anywhere near as interesting as it should be either? For a record that switches sounds on a per-track basis (sometimes even faster than that) and has songs named after nuclear Armageddon and a decades-long Mauritian financial embezzlement scandal, I can’t help but feel like I should be more engaged by the results than I am, especially since it doesn’t really do anything wrong either. I think the album’s second half is weaker than the first, mainly because “O.M.W.” and “Caisse Noire” could’ve done with chopping at least two minutes from their runtimes, and none of the hooks are sticking like they clearly should for whatever reason, but it’s never bad.
It’s just… fine. Perfectly fine. Thoroughly unspectacular. Likeably decent. If I didn’t have to keep coming back to it for review purposes, I’d have pocketed “Never Never Never” as the keeper after my first listen and likely gone back to that new Beach Bunny EP instead. Of course, I’m also willing to admit the possibility that, now with three albums under his belt, Chris Baio’s solo work just isn’t really for me. He’s definitely progressed as an artist from The Names, although I don’t think any of his subsequent longer tracks have managed to outdo that record’s “All the Idiots,” but my opinions on most of his work still don’t really extend further than “it’s fine” and that’s ok. I’m sure fans are going to love it and I wouldn’t recommend against checking out Dead Hand Control if any of what I’ve written here sounds up your alley. After all… it’s fine.
Dead Hand Control releases on CD, vinyl, and digital this Friday from Glassnote Records.
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