Perhaps because he gets his dance pop jollies with his steady band Hot Chip and his avant rocks off with his side piece About Group, Alexis Taylor seems to aim for the austere when he releases music under his own name. 2014’s Await Barbarians was a charming but slight affair, built primarily from loops and the rhythms of vintage drum machines and filled almost entirely with ballads. Now for his second solo joint, Taylor scales things even further back.
He’s still sticking to stately songs with an aim toward gently stroking the heartstrings of his listeners, but this time around he’s laying every moment bare by performing with just piano and voice. It’s a conceit that provides a wonderful platform for Taylor’s delicately reedy voice and his choice of songs. At the same time, the constant mellow, late-night vibe that he brings to the fore on Piano gets tiring after a while.
A little of this does go a long way, however. Taylor isn’t a virtuoso on the piano, preferring simple melodic phrases that he often lets hang in the air like a bulbous cloud. It seems meant to draw you in. With so much space between chords, you might find yourself leaning in and waiting for the blessed relief of the next trill brought out by his fingers.
According to the song-by-song notes he put together for the album, Piano is suffused with the memory of a close friend, violinist Vince Sipprell, who took his own life last year during the recording sessions for this collection. That passing informed at least one song choice here: the gentle love song “Just For a Little While”. It’s a tune written by Sipprell’s brother and one that the late musician would sing in his old band. Knowing that information provides a great deal of depth to an already weighty song, as well as making the next track “Don’t Worry”, a message meant for the people left behind by a loss (“If I am gone away, don’t worry/ It is only forever”) that much more aching.
The same idea applies for a few of the other song selections here. Hearing Taylor wind his way through the Crystal Gayle classic “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” was lovely enough; hearing that it’s a song that stirs up memories of his parents’ divorce is enough to send one reeling. That goes double for “Repair Man”, a tune co-written with Scritti Politti leader Green Gartside, that looks back on that split with understandable sorrow and a hint of desperation. The rest of Piano harbors less dramatic underpinnings but is still thick with emotion.
For all its spectral beauty, Piano feels like it should only be taken in small doses. The album simply doesn’t move. At around the midpoint, it starts to feel like being stuck in humid weather and begging for the blessed relief of A/C or a cool drink. Without the addition of other instrumentation or a shift in meter, there’s no reprieve. It doesn’t help that Taylor kicks the album off with his most positive, forward-thinking song and closes it with his most sorrowful statements.
Not that Taylor owes us uplift. He knew what he was doing putting this album together the way that he did. It’s something that he has wanted to do for a while, with an early attempt evolving into the second About Group release. But how you respond to Piano can easily be tracked by your reaction to one song: “So Much Further to Go”. If you’re a Hot Chip fan, you’ll recognize that name from the tracklisting of the band’s Why Make Sense?. In that guise, it provided a quietly thrumming moment of calm between the disco pump of “Need You Now” and the post-punk agitation of the LP’s title track. On Piano, the chords and vocal melody are exactly the same, yet the mood is much more melancholic and thoughtful. And, again, the songs around it carry a similar sentiment.
If you prefer the full band version over the solo, chances are you’ll dip into Piano occasionally, pulling your favorite tracks out for personal playlists. If you gravitate toward the solo rendition, the complete piano might be your background music of choice during those long, post-dance party Uber rides of the soul.
Essential Tracks: “Just For a Little While”, “Don’t Worry”, and “Repair Man”