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Montreal duo Chromeo back with provocatively titled 'White Women'

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TORONTO - Sitting a few feet in front of the Danforth Music Hall stage — which features a keyboard perched atop plastic high-heeled female legs — Chromeo's Dave Macklovitch steers a conversation about the Montreal duo's new album into a discussion about the persistent female imagery in their music.

It's natural, really, given that the title of their new album — out Tuesday — is "White Women." Although that references a 1976 book by late German fashion photographer Helmut Newton, Chromeo gravitated toward the name for its potential to provoke.

Macklovitch said he had to "sell that title" to partner Patrick Gemayel. They were both "very hesitant," but ultimately decided that it had the "iconic" flair of an old Roxy Music, David Bowie or Van Halen record.

Though they intended to raise eyebrows, Maklovitch is eager to confront the notion that the Juno-nominated outfit — which blends disco, yacht rock and funk with goofy-hearted humour — is sexist to any degree.

"I feel like people who view our visual language as objectifying are taking it too literally — because what we reference is not the concept of women, it's an era and an atmosphere," he said during a recent interview.

"Our iconography ... doesn't refer to actual female legs to say that the legs are pretty when they're skinny and you should chop them off and put a keyboard on top, because that would be really offensive even to us. It refers to a whole atmosphere: late '70s, early '80s, erotic, kind of soft rock."

The title, Macklovitch says, "works on multiple levels."

"It's highbrow and lowbrow," he added.

It's the sort of contradictory balance Chromeo has always tried to strike. Similarly, the duo is simultaneously retro and modern, slick and gawkish, arrogant and neurotic, goofy and yet determined to build a catalogue that stands up to those of their musical heroes.

That ambition is especially obvious on "White Women," an album they worried over for two years that is packed with guest stars (including Solange, Toro Y Moi and Vampire Weekend's Ezra Koenig) and sleek mini-epics that discard the careful brevity of previous records.

"We had a lot to prove," said Macklovitch, seated next to Gemayel. "Everything's harder on album No. 4. But for a lot of bands, sometimes that's when the accomplished version of the band appears."

Their comedic lyrics again offer an arch look at relationships, and again Macklovitch balances smug shtick with funny admissions of self-doubt. Insecurity is a persistent lyrical theme, on groovy single "Jealous (I Ain't With It)," "Over Your Shoulder" and "Sexy Socialite."

"There's gotta be juxtaposition," Macklovitch said. "Because a song like 'Over Your Shoulder' for instance, when you hear the music it's normally very Playboy, Barry White stuff. So we decided to make it a feminist anthem."

"I'm sure tons of singer/songwriters have touched that subject but never on our type of music," Gemayel piped in. "Two guys that look like us and sound like us."

"We started out on 'Needy Girl,' we had a dance track about someone being annoying," Macklovitch added, referencing their breakthrough 2004 single. "That was always our blueprint."

When the pair emerged a decade ago, many critics figured their obsession with then-unfashionable influences — blue-eyed soul and disco, performing on sleazy synths and talkboxes — was intended as winking irony.

Those attitudes have gradually evolved, to the point where Daft Punk's disco-indebted throwback "Random Access Memories" was serenaded as album of the year at January's Grammy Awards.

Students of musical history that they are — and indeed, during a 20-minute interview the pair variously digresses into dissections of ZZ Top, Kanye West, Led Zeppelin, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Death Grips — the members of Chromeo look at the critical rehabilitation of artists like Hall & Oates and see something resembling a legacy.

"We take credit for that," Macklovitch said matter-of-factly. "Daryl (Hall) gives us credit for that, us and other groups. We went to war for a lot of groups that were unfairly dismissed, booted out of the '70s and '80s canon for no reason — for racist reasons. Because they were doing black music or they were black. Black dance music has been vilified from its inception and moreso in the '80s with the 'disco sucks' thing. It's been institutionalized racism."

"Somehow the excuse is that it's not musical because there's drum machines and synthesizers," Gemayel contributed. "But you know, new wave music is full of really cold synths and drum machines, and that was intellectualized way more than Cameo or Midnight Star. So it's truly unfair to us."

"We went to war for that," Macklovitch repeated. "And it's great that now it's turning around. That was our cause, in a strange way."


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