After more than a decade of well-received writing and performing, four critically and commercially successful albums, and even a top-ten hit, Hot Chip has cemented itself as one of the UK's premier electronic acts. But with success comes elevated expectations, and given the run that Hot Chip is on, any new material from the group will surely be met with scientific scrutiny. Perhaps that's part of the reason why the group's songwriters, Joe Goddard and Alexis Taylor, have been stepping outside of the Hot Chip brand to release more personal and less polished music under their given names. More recently, Goddard has gone further, teaming up with Greco-Roman Soundsystem DJ Raf Rundell to form The 2 Bears, which, after releasing a series of EPs, has now put out its self-titled debut full-length.
Be Strong is an endlessly fun and accessible dance record that teems with silliness, soul, and party vibes. For the listener, it's a treat to listen to, but it also sounds as though the producers themselves enjoyed the writing process. The music has the easy-going quality of a record created by a bedroom producer who isn't sure that anybody but his friends and family will ever hear the results. As such, it never feels forced or contrived, instead coming off like a painting one would make for their own home. Make no mistake, the album has weaknesses, and perhaps full-fledged errors, but it sounds like Goddard and Rundell thought about touching it up in many places, only to ultimately decide that the imperfections gave it a quaintness that would only give way to overproduction and blandness with further editing.
Hot Chip's music drifted towards more serious, mature territory with 2010's One Life Stand, but Be Strong goes the opposite direction. It's a juvenile vacation for Goddard, who blasts fun, bouncing basslines without caring too much what people think about it, most notably on the goofy single "Bear Hug" and the record's celebration of unpretentious musical selections, "Be Strong." Even the group's name is over-the-top silly, conjuring images of large, hairy homosexuals who don't look particularly unlike The 2 Bears themselves. The lyrical content is frequently outrageous, with songs about hugging it out on the dancefloor, ghosts and zombies, getting high, and staying high. The tunes are full of asides ("Music for days and days and days. Trust me"), self-aware exclamations ("This is ridiculous!"), and a constant barrage of references to bears (of both the human and animal variety). While the silliness is all in good fun, it often feels like a sort of crutch to prop up some otherwise weak lyrical themes. It's not that songs extolling the virtue of hard work ("Work") and being sincere about music ("Be Strong") are particularly bad, but they do seem like an awkward first attempt at putting words to music.
The vocals are a particularly weak point on the record, with Raf Rundell's soft and low voice lacking the confidence and charisma to fully grab the listener. Most songs have the vocals altered in some way; they're usually pitched down, as on "Bear Hug" and "Warm and Easy," and occasionally Auto-Tuned, like they are on "Ghosts and Zombies." Other times, the thick, crunchy production keeps the vocals from sticking out, or backup vocalists add a boost to Rundell's quiet croon. To his credit, the songs become more vocal based as the record proceeds, yet Rundell's vocals don't become tiresome. Instead, by the time one reaches the record's final trio of vocal-heavy tunes, his voice has become an endearingly imperfect default.
Not surprisingly, the album's production is strongly reminiscent of Hot Chip, especially the kooky dance jams of 2006's The Warning. On Be Strong, dance and pop music are cleverly blended; there are singalong choruses when one might expect a breakdown, and the duo offers drops when one is looking for a hook or a bridge. It's largely a disco and house record, but the album is dramatically eclectic, showing influences from a range of music that also includes garage, reggae, and decades of pop. While not as complete or precise as any major release from Hot Chip, this is a strong debut album, even after factoring in the slightly elevated expectations based upon Goddard's previous successes. The 2 Bears show up to have fun with Be Strong, and even though they might not be the coolest or best-looking folks at the party, they're so enjoyable that everyone wants to hang out with them anyways.