Nearly unrecognizable as the work of the one-time punk rock outfit, Night Drive is effectively Chromatics' third debut album in a row, following a wholesale transformation in sound and style and yet another lineup change: Adam Miller is again the sole constant member; vocalist Ruth Radelet is a new addition even since the 2006 teaser Nite, replacing Lena Okazaki, while Glass Candy's Johnny Jewel, who produced that single, is now a full-fledged member. Actually, this seems to be Jewel's record more than anyone's -- in the silver-screen conceit of the liner notes he's listed as director to Miller's screenwriter, though he also has a writing credit on all the record's originals, only four of which (the vocal songs) Miller co-wrote -- indeed, Jewel is emerging as the primary musical force behind much of the Italians Do It Better label. Among that camp of synthesizer-disco revivalists, Chromatics stand out as the most lush and cinematic, drawing on the more languorous, atmospheric aspects of '80s electronica to fashion a hazy imaginary soundtrack to a stylish, decadent noir film (as the album's visual presentation suggests) or just a lonely late-night drive (as per the opening "Telephone Call.") (One is reminded that Giorgio Moroder is almost as celebrated for his film work as his dancefloor material.) Sounding somehow stark and sensuous at the same time, the album evokes widescreen opulence with a sonic palette that extends beyond the bedrock of synths, guitars, and drum machines to include touches of organ, strings, flutes, and so on, but it's always used sparingly, rarely outstepping the group's meticulously minimal, carefully controlled arrangements. "In the City," a highlight of the After Dark label compilation (and centerpiece of the "Shining Violence" 12") is unfortunately absent here, but its stark, hypnotic, after-hours vibe is echoed across the album, on beat-driven numbers like the eerie, unsettling title track and the relatively uptempo "I Want Your Love" (whose insistent refrain, steady disco glide, and ice-pick guitar work make it the most plausibly danceable selection here, though it's hardly a party-starter), as well as moodier pieces like the gentle, resigned "Tomorrow Is So Far Away" with its twinkling synths and mournful flutes, and the burned-out, utterly minimal, epic-length closer "Tick of the Clock," which rides a single, skeletal percussion-and-synth pulse for 15 minutes, letting up only for several minutes of unaccompanied organ drone in the middle. Jewel's compositions and production are certainly effective, and the arrangements, whether his or the band's, are undeniably tasteful, but Night Drive could have been a much more offputting, lonelier affair -- not that that would necessarily be a bad thing -- if it weren't for Radelet, whom liners rightly list as the album's star. She's not exactly overtly emotive, but there's enough warmth in her breathy voice to create a sense of palpable, relatable humanity, just enough to distinguish her from the glassy-eyed alienation of so many dark post-disco vocalists (Glass Candy's Ida No, for one.) That's crucial, especially, on the stirring Kate Bush cover "Running Up That Hill" -- chalk it up to the unassailable songwriting, if you like, but it just might be the finest moment on a consistently engrossing record that, if it can't quite claim the title, is as distinctive and striking as a great debut.
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AllMusic Review by K. Ross Hoffman