California Sounds: Chromatics deliver October surprise in new album ‘Closer to Grey’
Chromatics, “Closer to Grey” (Italians Do It Better)
Chromatics have been teasing a new album called “Dear Tommy” for nearly seven years now. It’s been quite the roller coaster. At one point after a near-death experience, the band’s co-founder, Johnny Jewel, destroyed already-pressed copies of one version of the album so they could start anew.
Then, out of nowhere, Chromatics surprise-released a new, full-length album on Wednesday. But it’s not “Dear Tommy.” Called “Closer to Grey,” the northeast Los Angeles group’s work packages a dozen fully formed analog dance tracks into 45 minutes of synth-driven cruising music.
Chromatics are best known for their musical cues in David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” continuation on Showtime (they also played a bar band in the series). Their song “Tick of the Clock” was harnessed to expert effect by Nicolas Winding Refn for his L.A.-noir film “Drive.” In both visually striking instances, Chromatics’ detached, 1980s-suggestive electronic tones underscored similarly elusive narratives. It makes sense that the group’s music has been in heavy rotation on runways during fashion week.
“Closer to Grey” opens with a cover of Paul Simon’s “Sound of Silence.” Each line is laid bare by singer Ruth Radelet. The opposite of a belting diva, Radelet expresses emotion via inside-voice restraint and a Sade-esque sense of phrasing.
That the album opens with the line, “Hello darkness my old friend / I’ve come to talk to you again” is telling. Guided by a sparse bass line, a slow, thumpy bottom-end kickdrum and synth-generated cosmic twinkles in the midrange, Chromatics’ nuanced rendition of “Sound of Silence” serves as a curtain raiser for what the troupe describes in press notes as “a film for your ears.”
That’s about all you can glean from the press notes, though. Jewel and band have remained mum on the specifics of “Closer to Grey,” an emptiness that allows you to build your own stories inside the songs. Sonically, the record’s longest track, “On the Wall,” feels like an early New Order jam. “Love Theme from Closer to Grey” creeps along quietly, with Radelet gasping as if in the middle of a nightmare. “Wishing Well” could be a lost piece from Lynch’s “Blue Velvet.”
On “Touch Red,” a distant beat and a few well-chosen keyboard chords offer a monochromatic background onto which Radelet sings, “Touch red, the world needs color.” The shock of luminosity is jarring. Like a rose blossoming in a field blackened by wildfire, it’s one of many moments on the record that capture in equal measure both beauty and bleakness.
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