Various Artists, ‘After Dark 2′ – Album Review
Whew. It’s hard not to feel like the last 18 months of activity related to the Italians Do It Better label has all been leading to this moment. So let’s recap. In late December of 2011, a two-hour, 36-track ambient and instrumental record called 'Themes For An Imaginary Film' and credited to Symmetry arrived semi-mysteriously on iTunes. There was barely a whisper of explanation, and it was rumored to be the lost soundtrack to the film ‘Drive,' which featured a number of tracks from artists on Italians Do It Better, among them Chromatics and Mirage. It turned out label head Johnny Jewel and longtime collaborator Nat Walker were responsible for the release, and Jewel subsequently promised new music was coming from the entire label roster, raising hopes they'd repeat 2007, which saw the release of Chromatics and Glass Candy LPs, as well as the first 'After Dark' compilation.
Almost a year and half later, after Chromatics released their cinematic-leaning masterwork 'Kill For Love,' the promise has finally been fulfilled. Following a glut of delays and an unbearably soft trickle of singles from the Italians Do It Better camp over the last six months or so, 'After Dark 2' finally dropped last Friday. And it’s every bit as great as we could have hoped.
Prior to its release, Johnny Jewel unveiled 'After Dark 2'’s final single, ‘Let’s Kiss' by Mirage. When he posted the song on the label’s blogspot, Jewel explained the inspiration behind 'After Dark 2': “I walked into a remote bar in Montreal where I met the love of my life[...]On [a] train out of Paris, I realized my whole world had been permanently turned upside down. The rain was crashing against the windows... [and] I decided I wanted to make a record that felt like that moment frozen in time...”
'After Dark 2' showcases the Italians Do It Better aesthetic -- smoky, 3AM disco and synth-pop -- much like its predecessor did, but it’s a testament to how far Jewel and the label have come that it feels like a singular document and a sonic universe unto itself. Much like 'Themes' and 'Kill For Love' proved, the artists behind the Italians Do It Better imprint have grown substantially as producers and songwriters over the last half-decade, and the label very much has its own sound, identifiable down to the way they treat their thickened kick drums. It’s not an exaggeration to say 'AD2' contains 15 of the best pop songs of 2013, and the artists even break some new ground while they’re at it.
Glass Candy’s ‘Warm In the Winter’ is a perfect opener, with its spread-eagle arpeggios, exacto-knife synth melodies and vocalist Ida No’s inclusive and encouraging calls of “we love you" and “shout." The aforementioned “Let’s Kiss,” a tireless nine-minute vocoder-driven disco workout from Mirage, is another early standout, with its squelching synth centerpiece and 33RPM chorus. Newcomers Appaloosa turn in a couple of the compilation’s strongest cuts with 'Fill the Blanks' and 'Intimate.' But as is probably to be expected, the record’s MVP moments come from both Italians’ flagship acts, Chromatics and Glass Candy.
Chromatics’ ‘Camera’ reprises the synth-voiced style heard on 'Kill For Love' standouts ‘These Streets Will Never Look the Same’ and ‘Running From the Sun. It's a skeletal, tearful pop stomp with a gooey, descending synth hook. ‘Cherry’ remains every bit the wonder it seemed upon being released last November. Glass Candy’s ‘The Possessed’ and ‘Beautiful Object’ bookend ‘Cherry,’ and No’s dance-instructor energy is a perfect foil for Ruth Radelet’s detached femme fatale. ‘Beautiful Object’ might have the single most diabolical hook, with its utterly euphoric synthetic trumpet synths.
'After Dark 2'’s geography is magnificent, and it's obvious that each song is the product of tremendous work and care. Nearly every second can be mapped out and measured, and the basic architecture is immaculate. And as strong as the hooks are, they’re really just the frosting. 'AD2' is atmospherically dense, and a majority of the songs clock in at more than five minutes. The tracks rightfully take a few spins to sink in, but as they reveal themselves, every nook and cranny is worth searching out. It's been six years, but 'After Dark 2' is well worth the wait.