[Italians Do It Better; 2007]
A compilation like this has been a long time coming. In 1997, Holland-based DJ/producer I-F basically invented electroclash with his underground dance hit "Space Invaders Are Smoking Grass". Two years later, he helped catalyze the ongoing Italo-disco revival with one of the genre's most essential compilations, Mixed Up in the Hague, Vol. 1, a DJ mix that pulled together defining cuts like Mr. Flagio's vocoder-fronted "Take a Chance" and Klein & MBO's "Blue Monday"-influencing "Dirty Talk". Since then, other DJ mixes such as Morgan Geist's Unclassics have kept vintage Italo on turntables, while I-F's Italo-focused Cybernetic Broadcasting System has deepened the canon for real devotees.
2007 may be remembered in some circles for its dance-rock hybrids: Klaxons and Justice, "nu rave" and "blog house," each ably filling in for the dance-punk and electroclash of previous trend cycles. But it's also a year when significant numbers of contemporary artists have embraced Italo's Giorgio Moroder-styled synth arpeggios and brought them into the new millennium. Sweden's Sally Shapiro and Cloetta Paris are breathing new life into the wispy synth-pop of Italo singer Valerie Dore, while the UK's Kathy Diamond is making beardo synth-pop with producer Maurice Fulton. The enigmatic Black Devil Disco Club's 28 After could've been made any time in the past 30 years. In the icy winter afterglow of Shapiro's Disco Romance, Portland, Ore. acts Glass Candy and Chromatics helped keep Pitchfork HQ's Italo love aflame with their first releases for Italians Do It Better, a new label from Troubleman Unlimited founder Mike Simonetti. Viva Italia.
On After Dark, the fledgling imprint assembles mostly vinyl-only or previously unreleased tracks by its current roster, which also includes Farah, Mirage, and Professor Genius. Produced in substantial part by Glass Candy guitarist Johnny Jewel, the comp is practically a Mixed Up in the Hague for present-day Italo, only with the darker ambiance its title implies. Where its precursor could at times play up Italo's proclivity for cheese (once experienced in the U.S. via minor Eurodisco hits by the likes of Falco and Taco), this album wisely eschews ironic winks and kitsch-for-kitsch's sake. Shapiro might find an indie pop romance in Italo, but After Dark lovingly re-imagines the style as retro-futurist noir-- a sleek soundtrack to lives of moral ambiguity in post-urban shadows.
The best tracks on the compilation embody that eerie slant on the old Italo throb/pulse without letting an air of minor-key reflection lapse into air quotes. On the extended 12" version of Chromatics' "In the City", the crackle of vinyl, distant synth swoops, skeletal drum patter, and singer Ruth Radelet's narcoticized murmurs about "midnight workers" and a "concrete river" evokes rain hitting sidewalks. Glass Candy's Italo coming-out, "I Always Say Yes", is conspicuously absent, but their hazy "Rolling Down the Hills (Spring Demo)" opens the disc with horns and singer Ida No's deadly cold vocal presence.
After Dark's other acts approach the compilation's dusky Italo aesthetic from similar perspectives. New Jersey-based Professor Genius homes in on the dystopian synth work of Vangelis and the upbeat expressiveness of Alexander Robotnick on instrumentals "La Grotta (Demo)" and album-closing "Pegaso". The vocoder makes its sole appearances on two tracks by Italy's Mirage ("Lady Operator", "Lake of Dreams"), but Mirage uses the instrument to enhance singer Julius' alienation, not to dish cheap nostalgic thrills. Texas-based Farah keep up the metronomic beats and analog cascades, but "Dancing Girls (Suite 304 Demo)" adds a section sung in Persian, while the spoken-word monologue of "Law of Life" sounds like a scripture reading from a church of the damned. It's one of the few moments on After Dark that seems stilted as much as reverent.
For plenty more reverence, look to the album's cover versions. Though occasionally distracting, After Dark's updates of older compositions are good signposts: Glass Candy's relatively direct take on Kraftwerk's essential 1981 "Computer Love", or a lavishly orchestrated rendition of Paris-based Eurodisco group Belle Epoque's 1977 "Miss Broadway" (later sampled by rapper Special Ed on 1990's "Come On, Let's Move It"). Not quite a cover, but Mirage's remix of Indeep's 1982 classic "Last Night a DJ Saved My Life" adds evocative Italo synths to the original's spare, post-disco bass line and early hip-hop vocals.
In addition, both Glass Candy and Chromatics cover songs by ex-DNA member Robin Crutchfield's Dark Day, particularly suiting Glass Candy's shift from no-wave to disco. A tinny analog synth rotates through slight arpeggio variations without giving way to a shift in mood on Glass Candy's cover of "The Chameleon", haunted by suicide and unnamed attackers. The steady snare thwack and detached atmospherics on Chromatics' version of the catchy "Hands in the Dark" suggest Chromatics' MySpace quote-- "Night Drive"-- fits them even better than it does Jan Hammer riffer Kavinsky's recent "Testarossa Nightdrive", though here it's surely a drive headed toward despair.
So there it is: Italo survived electroclash. And the recent explosion of Italo disco-inspired acts culminating (for now) in After Dark probably suggests the style will survive current indie-dance trends as well. In an interview for Australia's Rave Magazine, Simian Mobile Disco's James Ford (who produced the latest releases by Klaxons and Arctic Monkeys) says of his own dance-pop outfit's swooning single "I Believe": "We've been getting into loads of slow, dreamy disco stuff-- the Emperor Machine, and a pair of bands in particular called Chromatics and Glass Candy-- and it partly came about like that." Just don't look for Justice to follow suit quite yet.
-Marc Hogan, June 22, 2007