When he spoke to Best Fit this February, Hot Chip frontman Alexis Taylor told us last year’s solo record Piano had in some parts been a response to “overproduced” albums that offered no intimate listening experience. The result was a captivating and deeply personal mix of covers and original compositions, and now Taylor has turned them over to a select group of collaborators to offer their own interpretations of the record.
The artists – ranging from friends like Scritti Politti’s Green Gartside, to family in cousin Betsy Taylor, to those recommended to him, like Lung Dart – were briefed with the aim of producing songs that “anyone could put on and listen to and not know it was inspired by my song off Piano”, but that could also be played alongside that album. Ask and you shall receive: some of the tracks here bear no prima facie relation to Taylor’s originals, even when synced up with Piano, as he himself demonstrated in a charmingly Blue Peter-style promo clip.
Opener “I’m Ready” receives Lung Dart's customary a cappella treatment, its slow tidal movements washing up sonic detritus and recording equipment, pared back almost as much as the original. In the hands of Mammalien, an instrumental “So Much Further To Go” prickles with anxious plucked strings, like an insect emerging from a cocoon to explore its newly jointed limbs, the limits of its pre-pupal form long since overcome. From here, things get more electro: Elvis cover “Crying In The Chapel”, stripped by Beatrice Dillon of its bluesy accompaniment, is manifest as a series of glitching echoes and subterranean implosions, which in turn add an uncanny atomic warmth to the original. Susumu Mukai’s “Without Your Name” is a dark laboratory of fluorescent bubbling vats and cagey synths, and abutted to its opposite it is uneasy, apprehensive. “I Never Lock That Door” was a highlight of Taylor’s record, and here Jennifer Herrema’s refracted cosmological ambience becomes incongruity when queued up alongside its forebear, the sparse piano melody enveloped by irregular incursions. The silence that once filled the air is now a miasma of tenebrous murmurs, and the confessional candour of Piano is met with cryptic counsel.
There are some tracks that need to be heard with their Piano counterparts. Betsy Taylor’s dry cello on “In The Light of the Room” finds its voice after the first verse and replicates the raw, withdrawn contemplation of the original with a perfect understanding. Likewise, Green Gartside’s take on “Repair Man” resonates with vocal harmonies on an astral plane, which alternate wonderfully with Taylor’s lyrics: “I started my life (This is not the truth) / Over again (These are lies you knew) / As a repair man (Don’t be deceived) / Whose hands do not work (Smoke and broken glass)”. Here Listen With(out) is in mesmeric dialogue with Piano, becoming the unexpected coda that demands new readings of a question long thought answered.
There’s an endearing and rewarding DIY concept at work here, one that speaks - however briefly - to that school of ambient thought concerned with the idea that the experience of music is not a finite exchange between artist and consumer. Taylor is presenting you with the constituent parts and leaving you to assemble them (or not) as you wish, to decide for yourself whether they are halves or wholes. He has always been an inquisitor of this structural approach to music: assembling and disassembling, interrogating space and emptiness, presence and absence, impressively so on 2014’s Await Barbarians and latterly on Piano. If that was an atheist’s gospel, Listen With(out) is apocrypha. There is agreement and discord, reference and contradiction. Some of it rings true, some of it is challenging, and some of it jars. There's no canonical consensus: it's up to you whether to accept it or not.