Disco is not dead. On the contrary, it is alive and well all over Night Drive, the newly released and hotly anticipated album from Portland's Chromatics (you might know them from their contributions to the After Dark compilation earlier this year or through their overlap with another great band, Glass Candy). This batch of songs is a departure from the band's prior noisy punk efforts. Usually, a band or artist changing his stripes and musical direction amounts to lackluster results (think Gwen Stefani, who gave up her reign as ska prom queen for a harem of mute Japanese girls), but that couldn't be farther from the truth here. The refocus from punk to a sleek Italo-disco aesthetic has revitalized the band.
The album consists of moody melodies with a certain dark sentimentality attached. Certainly not the disco of yore, but an innovative redefinition of what once was. The psychedelic, languorous songs are supported by the voice of Ruth Radalet, who often sounds like a drugged intergalactic goddess in love, the production talents of Johnny Jewel, and the guitar tricks of Adam Miller. All of which makes for a groovy foray into infectious hypnosis.
The album begins with Radalet calling her boy after leaving a club. The conversation endears us to the vocalist, especially when she promises to bring home some wine, and prepares us for our journey with her kittenish coo. Next comes one of the standout tracks and the album's title song. "Night Drive" really sells the idea behind the album, a musical representation of nocturnal patterns mostly noticed from the seat of a moving vehicle. Radalet's vocals call to mind a groggy drug-addled dream from which one wishes never to wake. The same goes for the next track, "I Want Your Love," a neatly packed craving for affection buoyed by stimulating guitar sequences.
The album's major moment comes with "Running Up That Hill," a momentous cover of Kate Bush's classic. This version is more restrained than its inspiration and sounds sexier and more elegant. Radelet turns the simple line "It's you and me" into a persuasive mantra, slowly convincing the listener that her words are meant for him. Alas, it's not reality, just a side effect of her ethereal pipes, which coalesce perfectly with the distorted harmonicas. The song's haunting guitar arpeggios and Radelet's passionate delivery will place this spectacular redo into heavy rotation.
"The Killing Spree" takes a turn away from love "hill" down a dark, narrow road that shouldn't be driven this late at night. Thoughts of cold murder and bogeymen arise sounding much like the score of a Dario Argento flick (Suspiria is a must-see). If you've escaped with your life, "Healer," a standout Joy Division-influenced number, and "Mask," a groove-worthy experience of bouncing moog synth, follow to rid any residual hesitation or doubt.
As on most long night drives, an are-we-there-yet? moment arrives during the last two or three songs of the album. Absent Radalet's voice, which grounds the preceding tracks, the beats sound repetitive and unconvincing. Nonetheless, the album's previous gems greatly eclipse the spiritless end notes and convey that disco is still alive and these are its heartbeats.