The Neighbourhood Reinvent Themselves as ‘Chip Chrome & the Mono-Tones’

Over the last decade, Southern California’s the Neighbourhood have turned out a fresh take on alternative rock, with sonic influences that are more trendy and current, yet also more varied than many of their peers. Having collaborated with the likes of YG and Denzel Curry, and drawn critical accolades steadily, they have always still struggled to replicate the success of their 2012 single “Sweater Weather.” As with many bands in such situations, they have reacted in something of an escapist reinvention. In the style of Ziggy Stardust, frontman Jesse Rutherford and crew return as “Chip Chrome & the Mono-Tones,” a conceptual outfit led by silver-adorned singer Chip Chrome. As for “the Mono-Tones,” Rutherford has referred to them as the voices in his head. As it turns out, the voices led to plenty of inspiration, and have resulted in an album that still sounds distinctly like the work of the Neighbourhood, although with some unanticipated directions.

The album begins with a sci-fi cartoon flurry of madcap, descending orchestral swirls, making for the most dramatic entry of the titular star, Chip Chrome. The music resounds with metallic overtones, and it doesn’t take much imagination to envision Rutherford’s silver creation spiraling into view. There’s a considerable let down when all of this frenzy gives way, in a flash, to the mellow mildness of “Pretty Boy,” which reveals the Neighbourhood at their most basic. The song is at least a success in that it effectively captures the sentiment at hand. Rutherford found himself after two earthquakes flanked by his girlfriend and dog, whereupon he figured, “Even if the Earth starts shaking / You’re the only thing worth taking.” A sluggish bassline and sedate vocals capture the sense of being suspended in the comfort following a jolting shock, while retro percussive accents and muffled string flourishes add some quirk. The main drawback is the track sequencing, as this type of generic fare doesn’t gel with the elaborate conceit of “Chip Chrome & the Mono-tones.”

“Lost in Translation” is more in line with the core concept, taking up an outlandishly ‘70s sound. Beginning with a melismatic soul sample, it erupts into festive disco revelry, with a cheery falsetto chorus, trickling, percussive guitars, and lush, spacey vocal harmonies. “Devil’s Advocate” is a highlight, with the band settling into a groove that showcases their varied musical influences in a particularly Gen Z way. Rutherford’s vocals are designed after the most radio-friendly contemporary R&B, punctuated by exhilarating bleeps and feedback, and taking strikingly catchy turns, as he expresses a disillusionment with glitz and glamour, at one point noting, “If a god is a dog, and a man is a fraud, then I’m a lost cause.”

Following naturally from the lyrical themes of “Devil’s Advocate,” “Hell or High Water,” is charmingly vintage fare. A simple singsong befitting the ‘50s at latest plays with its wheezing tremolo guitars ringing like an old, dusty record, with only Rutherford’s vocals captured in higher fidelity. “Cherry Flavoured” fits clean ‘80s guitar tones and swirling ambience to vocal stylings distinctly of the last decade, a blend of sounds that has often characterized the Neighbourhood’s music. The efforts of “Devil’s Advocate” fall short, as Rutherford confesses, “I sold my soul a long time ago,” as he bemoans the artificiality of everyday affairs. 

“The Mono-Tones” ostensibly pitches Rutherford up to an expectedly female register, as he sings “Boys, boys, boys” over a stripped-down instrumental that returns to the threadbare vintage of “Hell or High Water,” and questions the voices in his head. “Boo Hoo” returns grandly to today, with a siren intro, syncopated beat, and instantaneous vocal melody that finds Rutherford varying his timbres in trendy processing. Then, he switches suddenly on “Silver Lining,” ditching R&B swagger for a more standard angst-ridden indie voice. Space rock guitars blare, as the character of Chip Chrome continues his soul searching, reflecting, “If you find that silver lining / You’re already in deep.” 

On “Tobacco Sunburst,” a meager guitar plods along at a steady pace that suggests a final grounding, recalling some of the placid steadiness of “Pretty Boy.” Rutherford sings in a distorted croon, in a fidelity somewhere in between the bright pop tracks and the retro interludes among the album. In the end, the rough-hewn sounds assume a final clarity, upon “Middle of Somewhere.” After everything, Chip Chrome muses, “I was on the outside looking in / Now I’m on the inside / Tryna stay out of my head.” The song takes on shoegaze-ey, acid turns, and winds down with Rutherford in a blissful falsetto, ending on a high note.

On “Chip Chrome & the Mono-Tones,” the Neighbourhood continue to condense an impressive musical range into tunes that stack up decades of stylistic signifiers, with the present moment reverberating above all. The way that the band manage to shuttle brazenly between traditionally segregated sounds so convincingly never ceases to amaze. On the other hand, this wild darting can also make a record seem unfocused, which becomes a concern on a work pitched as a high concept album. The fanciful invention of the Chip Chrome character, and the voices in his head, ultimately comes across as a bit of overkill, as the themes of his neuroses are hardly intriguing, and the music doesn’t exactly live up to the creative excesses one might expect from such elaborate imaginings. That said, the album does find the band taking on new creative dimensions, with the quaint vintage explorations, the ‘70s disco and space rock indulgences, the contemporary R&B inspirations, and the classic indie sounds all amounting to an engaging listen from a band that knows how to assemble sounds for maximum effect.

Chip Chrome & the Mono-Tones” releases Sept. 25 on Apple Music.