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As far as jokey electro bands from the 2000s go, the floor is littered with also-rans who never amounted to much more than novelty—anyone still listening to Junior Senior or Datarock?
So it's a testament to Chromeo's knack for sneaky hooks and funny lyrics that they're still very much alive and kicking ass. Their latest album, Business Casual, has the masterful electronic beatwork and synthesizers to land the duo among contemporaries such as Hot Chip and LCD Soundsystem, but with a knowing wink to '80s R&B acts such as Hall & Oates, the Jets, and Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam setting them apart from the pack.
"I think people realize we don't have a gimmick," says Chromeo's P-Thug (Patrick Gemayel). "After three albums, you kind of realize, yes, things we do can make you smile and laugh and are definitely tongue-in-cheek with a lot of musical winks. But at the end of the day, you can hear the work we put in everything we do. You can hear we try to stay away from things that make you disposable."
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Gemayel and bandmate Dave 1 (David Macklovitch) met in Montreal, Quebec, and played together in a band in high school before forming Chromeo in 2001. Ten years later, they've toured the world, released three critically acclaimed albums (including 2007 breakthrough Fancy Footwork), had a song in a commercial ("Fancy Footwork" in a U.K. hair-gel commercial), and, perhaps best of all, performed with one of their heroes, Daryl Hall of Hall & Oates, at Bonnaroo 2010 and on Hall's Internet show Live From Daryl's House. "I'm still kind of pinching myself," Gemayel says about the experience. And they seem to be following that band's mustachioed, long-haired path by defying the odds and continuing to turn out delectable pop.
"I think if we took ourselves either too seriously or not seriously enough, where we would wear wigs onstage and make it like a real '80s thing, I think that would go against us for longevity," Gemayel says. "So it's just balancing a thin line between being complete jokers and too serious. As long as you keep that line blurry and the compositions and the work behind it thorough, you kind of have somewhat of a recipe for success."
Business Casual keeps the Chromeo party going with a set of danceable songs that don't skimp on detail, from the Moog solos of "Hot Mess" to the talk boxing on songs such as "You Make It Rough." The songs are full of references to classic Reagan-era hits: The synth stabs that open "Night By Night" are straight out of "Eye of the Tiger," while the excellent shuffling closer "Grow Up" blends Michael Jackson's "The Way You Make Me Feel" with Wham's "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go." Recent single "Don't Turn the Lights On" and its jittery chorus capture all the joy of mid-'80s pop, when R&B and hip-hop broke into the mainstream and blended mercurially with synth-pop and house was just popping up in its earliest forms.
The best throwback acts don't stay frozen in nostalgic tropes but rather create songs that loosely capture the feel of a particular era, and Chromeo nail that by staying focused on bargain-bin, forgotten acts that sound pretty amazing in retrospect while still using modern means, collaborating with the likes of La Roux, Vampire Weekend's Ezra Koenig and Solange Knowles, who sings on "Night By Night." They don't just emulate what radio sounded like in 1986; they make you feel the way you felt when you heard those songs in 1986.
"We tried to make the album a bit more musical while still trying to keep the same spirit—the fun immediate side of Fancy Footwork, but advance things musically," Gemayel says, adding that they were also inspired by easy-listening artists such as Michael McDonald. "I'm just glad we didn't scare all the fans away."
An air of sexy sophistication elevates these songs beyond the superficial Aqua Net sheen. Chromeo are always suggestive but never really raunchy, such as in the newly released "Hot Mess" video, in which the boys get into trouble with some lady cops. The punishment: sauna-ing with said sexy-lady cops. Perhaps it's because Chromeo create an alternate universe in their music in which the nerds are the kings of the party and can get the girls by treating them with respect—while still letting them know they're sexy.
And, if all else fails, you can always sing in French, as they do in the album's ballad, "J'ai Claque la Porte."
"We've listened to French music throughout the years, mostly through our parents and through the radio where we grew up," Gemayel says. "We're proud to be French and be from Montreal, and it's a good complement to the Chromeo sound."This article ran in print as "Almost Totally ’80s: Chromeo delve even deeper into Reagan-era pop—without turning themselves into a novelty act."