The new Chromatics album starts with a remake of the Neil Young classic “Hey Hey My My (Into the Black).” It’s a bold move to open a record with a cover, much less a cover of such a seminal rock anthem. Young himself did two versions of the song on the 1979 album Rust Never Sleeps, and the tune has since been redone by everyone from Dave Matthews to Oasis to Battlme, whose version appeared in the FX family drama Sons of Anarchy, a.k.a. Hamlet on Harleys. Yet the Chromatics cover –a closer cousin to Young’s acoustic “My My Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” than the electric “Into the Black” –works both in its own right and as a prelude to the rest of Kill for Love. Singer Ruth Radelet replaces Young’s nasal earnestness with her ethereal tone and narcotic delivery, the anthemic A minor guitar riff survives, and percussive squeaks foreshadow the album’s hypnotic electronic melancholy.
Chromatics have made music for nearly a decade, but were relatively obscure until their 2007 song “Tick of the Clock” not only made it onto last year’s acclaimed Drive soundtrack, but accompanied the movie’s opening scene. According to the liner notes, Kill for Love took five years to make and was recorded in seven cities: Montreal, Los Angeles, Houston, Minneapolis, Paris, Jakarta, and the band’s hometown of Portlandia. (Their record label, Italians Do It Better is based in New Jersey. Ohhhhh.)
Much of Kill for Love feels like a time warp. Ironically, Chromatics often champion some of the musical styles that Young feared would make him irrelevant as punk, disco, and electronic music challenged the hegemony of what later became codified as “classic rock.” The percolating synth and syncopated bass line in the gender-bender “Lady” could be from the Knight Rider theme song. The eight-minute anthem “These Streets Will Never Look the Same” replicates the percussive guitar riff from “Eye of the Tiger.” Several tracks feature New Wave sounds: sparse, melodic, and reverb soaked guitars and keyboards, minimalist bass lines, and electronic beats; others sound like the synthesized spirit of Brian Eno.
More broadly, Chromatics join a new new wave of mixed gender retro electro pop groups such as Chairlift and Polica, as well as Bon Iver, whose latest album channels 80’s music without apology or irony. Beyond the pop-rock instrumentation and electronic effects, producer Johnny Jewel embellishes the sound with orchestral backbenchers bassoon and viola, folk fair favorite hammered dulcimer, and the slightly more obscure bowed psaltery. The result is a warm collision of past, present, and future.
While Kill for Love has an cohesive aesthetic, the 17 songs –including five instrumentals– include a fair amount of variety in terms of style, length, and mood. After she does her best Neil Young, Radelet sings four upbeat pop songs, then yields the microphone to a male singer whose auto-tuned voice repeats the mantra: “The streets are flashing in my mind” over a single chord played for nearly nine minutes. The album’s middle third is more mellow and includes three dreamy instrumentals, the languid and hazy “Candy,” and two piano ballads: “Birds of Paradise” and the seven-minute “Running from the Sun” which features more auto-tuned male vocals and a farty retro synth. The beats return on a trio of laments “Matter of Time,” “At Your Door,” and “The River,” and in a move as bold as the opening cover, Kill for Love ends with a 14-minute instrumental entitled “No Escape.”
In context, the long coda makes sense. While there are some standout songs, including “Lady,” the title track, and “Into the Black,” Kill for Love is best savored as an album, a 90-minute trance that seems to start at midnight and end at dawn. In this case, it’s better to fade away than to burn out.
Keith Meatto is co-editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. Last week, he reviewed Soul of America, a documentary about soul singer Charles Bradley, and M. Ward’s A Wasteland Companion. Italians do it better, but the Irish do a pretty decent job, too.