Thursday, June 28, 2012

Chromatics: Kill for Love (2012)

(Italians Do It Better)


Few bands have more to answer for, at least in the context of indie pop, than this one -- though initially released with little fanfare, their 2007 album Night Drive turned them radically away from their lo-fi origins into a then-otherworldly delving into '80s AM radio, fused with the hazy mystery of the Cocteau Twins. In bloggery circles, 2007 was an eternity ago and Night Drive is seen as a classic that foretold the advent of chillwave and correctly predicted the shifting of the tide in indie circles to a fetish for synth textures and, gulp, soft rock. Then there was the film Drive, of course, which despite being an abysmal, hate-filled movie certainly captured the musical moment decently enough in its iconography of a blank-faced Ryan Gosling traversing the streets in his shiny car, the airy, lightweight, moody textures of the Chromatics drifting dreamily from his cracked windows. Mood music, you say, and you're right -- mood music raised to some sort of agonized art.

But this is a more interesting group than all that accidental trend-mongering suggests, certainly more compelling than the majority of the bands who've made it their mission in the last five years to conjure up memories of Mr. Mister, occasionally riding the idea to an armload of Grammy nominations. The major difference, emphasized heavily by long-awaited sequel (and grandly titled) Kill for Love, is that the quartet doesn't value perfection, nor is an artificial "sheen" their simple means to an end. Their addiction is on sound, and in this respect they belong far more to the shoegaze and Eno quadrant of alternative rock than to the Bon Iver / Fleet Foxes guild of glazed-eye boredom. That's not to say Kill for Love is an exciting and explosive record -- it almost painstakingly avoids saying or doing anything terribly distinctive beyond its cumulative effect, the provision of an impulsive, hypnotic state that perversely recalls some of the sleazier corners of '60s psychedelia, the C.A. Quintet and the 13th Floor Elevators in particular.

What excuses all of the stylish excesses of this record? The vocals, plainly. Singer Ruth Radelet takes most of the duties, and her warmth and strange, sullen nonchalance transforms the music and lends it an air of joy and enthusiasm, because it sidesteps the technical crooning favored by both the chillwave and EZ listening indie bands as well as the pop giants they seek to imitate. She sings in a manner that somewhat recalls Maureen Tucker, or the women who guest on Owen Ashworth's material and always sound like they're having a bit of a laugh and a great day but are utterly heartfelt. The injection of sincerity Radelet provides is so disarming when compared even to relatively mainstream-leaning chillwavers like Ariel Pink that it has little trouble making the first half hour or so of Kill for Love something that almost seems inadvertent -- a shattering and professionally blissful synth-rock record.

A recasting of Neil Young's "Into the Black" as depressive hymnal opens the LP; though it filters the song through the Night Drive machine, it ends up suggesting a fusion of Young's original with his own mournful CSNY cut "Helpless" -- it's a lament. That sadness is retained despite the skittering, enthusiastically bright synthpop tricks on "Back from the Grave" and "The Page," but the band lets loose on the title cut, a statement of purpose that manages (thanks largely to Radelet) to dig for something that isn't trite in its powerful central phrase. Radelet's real showcase is "Lady," a self-duet of sorts that reaches for radio-hook sorcery, and ends up reigning. It's rather shocking how this music that so recently would have been labeled kitschy and retro now sounds entirely, presciently cutting edge.

Those first five cuts would've made a dandy EP, but they're mostly the prologue to what is in the end an overlong series of variations on a droning, obsessive theme. Radelet recedes into the background after the exquisite eight-minute construction "These Streets Will Never Look the Same," and from then on the remaining hour or so functions as a complete, self-reflexive piece that weaves in and out of a straight line. It doesn't hinge on songs or on music, but on texture and wide-eyed focus. You're meant to drift off while it's on, and at times it's such vague and distant music -- despite its perverse attachment to the archaeology of long-ago "hits" -- it feels as if it could float away, right out of Ryan Gosling's window. Nevertheless, Kill for Love begins with a bang and is consistently listenable; Chromatics are talented enough to be doing much more, but they do excel at establishing and sustaining -- for an appalling amount of time, really -- this noise and mood to which they're so clearly attached.

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