Ditching your aesthetic (hairy noise-rock troupe) in favor of its polar opposite (neatly groomed pop-dance trio) is a sure way to get some pre-release hype, but the transformation of Chromatics has been so effortless that it's still easy to be wowed by the results. Those who caught the swooning glide of the Chromatics' "Nite" single last year-- or their contributions to the After Dark compilation earlier in 2007-- won't be shocked by the similarly sleek Night Drive (aka IV). But listeners who are only familiar with the band's forays into shambling punk will certainly be surprised by Night Drive's assured songwriting (which would wow even if the band had been chasing this narcotic Eurodisco sound for years) and how it wrings ravishment out of electro moves that should be long-drained of their charms.
Credit some of this to Johnny Jewel-- Chromatics member, one half of Glass Candy, and the economical production whiz/secret weapon in the much-feted Italians Do It Better camp. I have no idea how duties on Night Drive were divvied up between Jewel, founding member Adam Miller, and vocalist Ruth Radalet. But you can certainly hear all of the IDIB trademarks: doleful disco-punk guitars (the menacing clang of "Healer"), starkly monochrome synth patches (especially gorgeous on the bumping goth club slow-jam "Let's Make This a Moment to Remember"), watery keyboard progressions (ditto), and exploitation flick arpeggios ("Tomorrow Is So Far Away"). Even as they've dumped the genre's sonic baggage, Chromatics have retained punk's taste for spare arrangements, but drawing on overripe Moroder-style dance music and early 1980s synth melancholia makes for some sumptuous spare arrangements.
Of course, sumptuous production is often not enough, especially if all you're doing is cloaking a dead heart in good taste. But while the languorous, mid-tempo Night Drive may sway like it's half-drugged, its heart is still beating, thank you very much. The record opens with a female voice (presumably Radalet) dialing her lover as the club rats scatter home from their nights out, and when she winsomely closes the call by telling him that she loves him, she proves that (however much she comes across like a cutie pie version of Nico) she's no ice queen. Even when she sounds half-tranquilized, it's Radalet that adds the very necessary soft touch to all those implacable sequencers. Throughout Night Drive, whether at a kittenish whisper or a husky, longing sigh, her cauterized range fits the band's vision of disco recast as heartsick pop. And even when wholly instrumental on "The Killing Spree"-- forget the title, the sinister descending keyboard fuzz does a perfect job evoking a murderous robot sci-fi flick on its own-- the band uses what could be sterile pastiche to pull your strings. Tastefully.
Night Drive's peak is the rightfully praised cover of Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill", where the band shifts the focus of the (already minimal) arrangement onto three sour keyboard notes and a dapple of guitar. Radalet sounds like the school wallflower trying on the queen of frou frou art-pop, her unsteady hold on Bush's delivery cracking into a yearning coo at the chorus (about as demonstrative as she gets), making for the only moment on the record where the band really lets their emotional guard down. Haters and fans alike often call this neo-disco stuff "cold" and "dark," but I think that's just code for "not kitschy" (on the plus side) or maybe "not emotionally open enough" (on the minus side). But while Night Drive might not be warm, it does feel intimate, like a 3 a.m. ride home, where you're not alone but exhaustion and intake have made talking impossible, the city is silent, and the traffic patterns are as comforting and regimented as a drum machine click track. One of those moments, to paraphrase Ms. Bush, when you should be crying, but you'll be damned if you let it show.
-Jess Harvell, October 11, 2007