A small grace: for all of the terrible things that have befallen the music industry owing to COVID, the Late Night Tales compilation series continues unabated. Originally founded as the Another Late Night series in 2001, released by Azlui Records, Late Nate Tales has since 2003 offered an eclectic group of artists a unique opportunity to organize a mix of songs specifically designed to evoke the late hours of the evening. One could call each Late Night Tales an extended nocturne in concept album form. The steadily growing lists of artists who have taken a stab at the project – MGMT, Belle and Sebastian, and Jon Hopkins, to name a few – understand the "night music" theme differently, but there are a few constants with each disc. A Late Night Tales LP will feature a cover version by the organizing artist (and, in some instances, originals by that artist) interspersed with a curated mix of previously released songs. A spoken-word piece concludes most of these records, performed in some cases by celebrities like Benedict Cumberbatch (on the 2014 Django Django compilation). British electropop innovators Hot Chip follow the 2019 Floating Points album with their own entry in the series, making them the 40th musical outfit to do so.
Of the dozens of bands with a Late Night Tales to their name, Hot Chip stand out for not being a band one would normally associate with night music. Think of the jubilant chorus to "Don't Deny Your Heart" or the earnest sentimentality of "I Feel Better": these tunes are practically drenched in sunlight, the kind of music people dance to without inhibitions during sweaty days at a music festival. There are some instances where Hot Chip try their hand at something more nocturnal. The opening synth riff of "(Just Like We) Breakdown" sounds like something Michael Mann would use to score a scene of a hitman snaking through LA freeways in the late hours, and the brooding "Spell" has a "club at 1:00 am" vibe about it. Apart from the challenge of arranging an album made up of disparate to create a coherent flow, Hot Chip's Late Night Tales also gives the listener insight into what this band thinks of as a nighttime aesthetic.
Hot Chip are a colorful group compositionally, and their Late Night Tales is no exception. No one mood dominates, no single tempo remains consistent for a long period. After a contemplative beginning with Christina Vantzou's synthscape "At Dawn", the record hovers at a slow-to-mid-tempo, then picks up right around Fever Ray's "To the Moon and Back". It quiets down again with Matthew Bourne's "Somewhere I Have Never Travelled", picking up with the chill electro lounge jazz in About Group's "The Long Miles", and then gently gliding to a tranquil conclusion with reflective piano-led pieces by Daniel Blumberg ("The Bomb") and Nils Frahm ("Ode"). Frontman Alexis Taylor's father Neil wraps up this 19-track aural exploration with a reading from James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, one of the great novels that few have ever actually read. Clocking in at nearly two hours, this Late Night Tales album is a vision of a night full of twists and turns, technicolor in moments, and gloomily monochrome in others.
Like many double LPs – and this could certainly be thought of as one, given its length – Hot Chip's mix has a low for every high. The propulsive beat of PlanningToRock's "Much to Touch" provides a major uplift at the near-halfway point. But a few songs later, the oscillating, unaccompanied synth notes of Bourne's "Somewhere I Have Never Travelled" threatens to end the night early for its sleepiness. On a briefer album, a loose, 11-minute jam like "The Long Miles" would feel less indulgent than it does in the back half of this compilation, yet Frahm's delicate "Ode" successfully culls introspection right at the very end of the tracklist. Suzanne Craft's buoyant "Femme Cosmic", which shares the almost cartoony brightness of Todd Terje's It's Album Time, is preceded by a rather drab spoken word electronic piece, "Have You Passed Through This Night", which like the Explosions in the Sky track of the same name puts the central inner monologue from Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line to music. A little bit more editing could have resulted in this album feeling less sluggish as it goes on.
In a way, it's hard to "rate" or evaluate a compilation like the Late Night Tales LPs. Each one feels more like an experience that's meant to be taken as it is rather than a distinct artistic statement equivalent to a studio record, even though there is an undeniable artistry to putting together a great mix. As a listener, you aren't meant to evaluate the songs themselves, most of which have already been released before. With Late Night Tales, like any mixtape, it's about the flow. One may find new favorites along the way – I'm grateful, for example, to have found out about the Danish producer Mike Salta, whose groovy instrumental "Hey Moloko" makes for an excellent centerpiece here – but the goal is to have an overarching experience, particularly in the case of the Late Night Tales series' clearly articulated ethos. Less the individual songs, and more the overarching sonic voyage. By that metric, Hot Chip have succeeded in creating a unique experience with this record. There are real surprises even deep into the last stretch of songs.
It helps, too, that Hot Chip contribute not just one exclusive cover to the compilation – an orthodox rendition of the Velvet Underground's "Candy Says" – but also three new originals. "Nothing's Changed" is classic Hot Chip electrosoul, with Taylor's pristine vocals backed by some real earworm synth licks. The band is at its most experimental on "Worlds Within Worlds", a dreamy musical landscape led by Joe Goddard's reverb-drenched vocals that culminate in an outro that twinkles like stars in the deep of night. The last musical track before the Finnegan's Wake reading, though, best captures the night-music goal of the Late Night Tales project: "None of These Things", a reverie that follows Frahm's "Ode" to end the album with a pensive, tranquil beauty. This Late Night Tales release may be a long and sometimes meandering journey, but Hot Chip do by the end articulate their vision of the music of the night.