When Chris Baio sat down to work on his third studio album, “Dead Hand Control,” he was circling bleak topics. Namely: death, and nukes.
The record takes its name from a rumored Soviet missile system designed to obliterate America (“Dead Hand”), and a legal strategy for attempting to control the beneficiaries of your will after you die (“Dead Hand Control”). Yet this is not an album about annihilation. Instead, Baio zigzags joyfully between techno, art rock and a dash of funk, exploring what it means to care for one another in a society in Upheaval.
“The starting point of the record was extremely dark,” says Baio. “But I wanted to make something that was ultimately romantic and hopeful.”
For Baio, who is also the bassist for the Grammy-Award winning band Vampire Weekend, examining the most nihilist and human aspects of American life is a recurring impulse. His previous album, “Man of the World,” which Paste Magazine called “the album we need” for the moment, served as a deft reaction to the global upheaval of 2016.
“Dead Hand Control” reflects the evolution of this distinctive musical voice. “I was looking at the past five years of American life and obsessing about topics like death, wills and nuclear war,” he says, of the album’s origins. “But at its heart, it’s about how the only thing you can control is the way you treat the people in your Life.”
It’s a perspective on full display in the propulsive title track, which reimagines the defiant spirit of an outlaw country song as a battle cry against the end times. (“Dead hand control / You can take my life but you will never take my soul”).
Recorded over 18 months at Damon Albarn’s 13 Studios in London, as well as Baio’s personal C+C Music Factory (founded with VW bandmate Chris Tomson in Los Angeles), “Dead Hand Control” reflects Baio’s evolving artistry as a producer. “I look at it as a big jump up in terms of production and ability,” Baio acknowledges.
“There’s always a gap in the artist’s mind as to what they want a recording to sound like and the way it ends up. This is the smallest that gap has ever been for Me.”
Baio wrote all the songs on the album with the exception of “O.M.W.”, the nearly 10-minute long closing ballad written in collaboration with Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig. “It’s something we started together from a beat I made and a chorus he wrote almost nine years ago,” Baio says. “Now just felt like the right time to finish it.”
The album features a small cast of eclectic collaborators, including Baio’s longtime guitarist George Hume, drummer and State Department Jazz Ambassador Robby Sinclair, Future Classic’s Buzzy Lee, and VW touring member Greta Morgan, on backing vocals. The album was made with Baio’s longtime engineer John Foyle and mixed by Lars Stalfors (St. Vincent, Still Woozy).
While it arrives at a tenuous moment on the national stage, the album marks a banner year in Baio’s career, which saw a Grammy win for Best Alternative Album for Vampire Weekend, the release of an EP from C.Y.M., Baio’s experimental Krautrock project with British producer and DJ Mike Greene (a.k.a. Fort Romeau), and the launch of the popular Ringer podcast The Road Taken (which teams up Baio and Tomson interviewing touring musicians about life on the road).
The basic throughline, from Baio’s solo work to his ancillary projects, is an unapologetic and uncanny perspective on the current moment—a quality that shines on “Dead Hand Control.” The eight razor-sharp tracks cut through the static of the present and position Baio as a sorely-needed creative voice.