As synthesizers became more widely available in the 1970s, more and more European musicians adopted their use to various effects, sometimes leaving an indelible print upon their national music scene. Nowhere was this more true than with Italo disco, a synthesized extension of disco music to take root in Italy in the late 1970s.
The impact of the genre was significant, ultimately circling back to feed the cradle of the disco genre in New York City and clearing the way for the manifestation of mature new wave music — and especially New Romantic music. (There is not a New Romantic soul that does not absolutely adore the collaborations of Italo disco grandmaster Giorgio Moroder with disco queen Donna Summer.) In hindsight, Italo disco can be seen as building very important bridges across not only these genres but into Europop and Hi-NRG in general.
It is wholly welcome then that the spaced out dance beats found in Italo disco should continue to find acclaim and a home with the assistance of specific labels and projects. Perched atop this Italo disco survival is independent record label Italians Do It Better, out of Bayonne, NJ. One of the key movers and shakers in that label is Johnny Jewel, space synthmaster extraordinaire, who lends his talents to the bands Glass Candy and the Chromatics, among other efforts.
The Chromatics are touring with synthpop virtuosos Hot Chip but they came through Washington, DC, separately in the last week, leaving the Chromatics to do their own show at the Rock and Roll Hotel Thursday night. It turned out to be to the advantage of the Italo disco outfit from Portland, Oregon, however, as they successfully charmed a very packed house with selections from their last several albums. The space provided by the separation from the main tour allowed the Chromatics to unwind and exhale slowly more than a dozen disco pop gems in a darkened cavern where time could stand still.
The Chromatics have a new album, Kill for Love (released in March), which is such a sonic masterpiece for their specific sound that you are left wondering what they could possibly do next without switching it up a little bit. Leaving that question aside, the album opens with a startlingly sedate cover of Neil Young’s “Into the Black,” setting the stage for some 77-minutes of effortless cool. When chanteuse Ruth Radelet coos, “My my, hey hey, rock and roll is here to stay,” you may not be “rocking out” but you’ll be convinced nonetheless.
The band actually opened their show with the pitch-perfect stage version of “Tick of the Clock,” from their last LP, Night Drive, carefully setting the tone of the show with pulsating beats that literally count down to something more about to happen. The song and the LP, first released in 2007, deservedly have gained renewed attention for their use in the soundtrack of last year’s movie Drive, starring Ryan Gosling. That soundtrack drew heavily on Italo disco styled modern bands like the Chromatics to set the tone for its noir shoot’em-ups. (And not coincidentally, a few French bands from the soundtrack also passed through town two nights later in the Drive tour in a sold-out show at DC9.)
The Chromatics gave plenty of love to the Night Drive album, closing out the show with its title track, a glittering ride of soothing dance rhythms. They also presented their masterfully slow cover of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” from that album to close out their main set.
The new album got its fair share of attention with lovely lush “Kill for Love” and “Into the Black” as well as the chilly closer, “The River,” another song that makes great use of Radelet’s disaffected but sweet vocal intertwined with Jewel’s synthesizer.
If there a complaint about the concert, it’s a complaint common to many shows particularly in boxy small venues like the Rock and Roll Hotel. The vocal never seems quite right and the instrumentation overpowers the singer when the sound mix cannot compensate. I don’t blame anyone in particular for this state of affairs; it seems a fact of life and a sound guy is left to struggle heroically with what he’s got. In the case of the Chromatics however, Radelet’s crystalline voice is so important to setting the tone as an instrument of its own that the audience lost a big part of the affect when she couldn’t be heard properly. Again, I don’t know what’s to be done about it under the circumstances, but it was too bad.
The new album from Saint Etienne released in May (Words and Music by Saint Etienne, perhaps this year’s best release to date) demonstrate how wonderfully lush yet groovy the Italo disco influence can be, and the Chromatics also provide a worthy exploration of this dance space with their latest album (which one could buy for a steal at $5 at the show). I highly recommend checking it out.