Chromatic Tanlines

In March, the electronic pop groups Tanlines and Chromatics both released new albums; Tanlines called their record Mixed Emotions, while Chromatics decided on Kill For Love.  Despite the synth-pop orientation of the two bands, they take very different approaches to their music.  This is evident at a basic level — in the album’s titles, where “mixed emotions” implies an ambivalence that “kill for love” does not — and it also extends to the lyrics and arrangements.

Mixed Emotions is Tanlines full-length debut, and musicians Eric Emm and Jesse Cohen are true to their record’s title.  They split their time between being highly discerning – about their own feelings and the feelings of those around them – and completely clueless.  On opener “Brothers,” everything seems crystal clear as they sing, “You’re just the same as you ever were, you fight it and wonder why it makes no sense/ I’m just the same as I’ve ever been, but I’m the only one who doesn’t notice it.” On “Green Grass,” however, they vent an opposite emotion, “there a lot of things there I don’t understand/ I don’t know why,” emphasizing their lack of knowledge by dragging the “why” out for several extra beats.  On “Not The Same,” Tanlines switch their stance once again, showing a strong and defiant urge to share their what they know – “Tell everyone we haven’t changed/ tell everyone we’re not the same.”  Then on “Real Life,” the listener hears them ask, “Who is the person next to me?”

While Tanlines’ state of knowing oscillates wildly, their songs are best when they are propulsive and unburdened by knowledge or lack thereof.  Most of their music sounds fairly straightforward — pop with flat drums, synths, bursts of guitar, and the occasional gurgle of rhythm from other continents. “Brothers” marches steadily, taking on the quality of a rhythmic chant with layered vocals.  “Green Grass” is even sturdier, running with an easy set of chords that works to subsume everything into its pulse.  It is basic, uncomplicated, and easy to like.  In contrast, on “Not The Same,” the keyboard simmers but never quite bursts, and the lack of payoff doesn’t work well for the band – they don’t do coy, it’s all or nothing.  Similarly, “Abby” stutters, never gets going, and fails to hold the listeners interest.

 

Like Tanlines, Chromatics are a synth-pop band.  This wasn’t always the case — they started as a punk group, but over time changed their lineup to incorporate vocalist Ruth Radelet and the musician Johnny Jewel, who is also in the electronic pop group Glass Candy and the force behind the “Italians Do It Better” label. Their recent album, Kill For Love, at first seems totally different from Tanlines’ Mixed EmotionsKill For Love’s 17 tracks and 90 minutes make the 11 songs and 40ish minutes of Mixed Emotions seem remarkably streamlined.  Chromatics fancy themselves purveyors of dark and threatening themes, as evidenced immediately by their song titles – “Dust To Dust,” “Broken Mirrors,” “These Streets Will Never Be The Same.”  While Tanlines are ineffective when they simmer, Chromatics are often all about the simmer, since threat is sometimes best conveyed through the ominous bubbling of unrealized danger.

Vocally and lyrically, the Chromatics rely on contrast – most words are sung in a semi-angelic coo by Ruth Radelet, but the words are anything but heavenly.  In “Kill For Love,” she sings “Everybody’s got a secret to hide/ everyone is slipping backwards/ I drank the water and I felt all right/ I took a pill almost every night/ . . . I’d kill for love.”  She enjoys singing of dark things in seductive tones.  “Candy” begins, “Please don’t let them in your heart/ because they’ll try to put out every fire you start.” “A Matter Of Time” also starts with a depressing set of images – “Baby, you’re crying yourself to sleep again/ . . . This is the way it ends tonight/ . . . We all die alone.”  To ram home their point, Chromatics sometimes prey on the audience’s expectations.  For example, they will open a song singing, “I don’t know why,” which was once sung by Al Green in “Take Me To A River.” Green followed this line with “I love you like I do,” but Chromatics invert that anticipation, finishing with “I knocked at your door,” replacing anticipatory happiness with loneliness, isolation, and desperation.

 

Chromatics’ arrangements work hard to back the lyric’s darkness.  “Lady” is carried by discordant screeching sounds.  The album is littered with thick, dark, 80s sounding guitars – a more concentrated dose of the type of thing that the Replacements used to open their 1987 song about suicide, “The Ledge” – and weeping washes of synthesizer.  Sometimes these hit home: “Lady” pairs the guitar sound with steady ticking percussion that carries through the whole song, stalking the listener, increasing the feeling of claustrophobia and imminent danger.  But on “The River,” which uses a similar ticking with a somber piano, the listener can be trapped in complacence as Radelet swims her way around a pool of loneliness.  “Dust To Dust,” which also uses the 80s guitars, noodles around; it feels aimless and ineffective, not committed to a direction. Chromatics can be heavy handed – they wander in their personal darkness for an hour and a half.  At times, they make their sadness seem like a luxury, as if they are wallowing in and parading their depression.  This can undercut their message, making their fate seem less threatening because it was chosen, rather than being forced upon them.

 

Tanlines and Chromatics take “synth pop” in very different directions.  While Tanlines swing wildly between two states of mind, their music is most compelling when it pounds forward as if oblivious to what is being sung – as if the only answer is escape velocity.  When they don’t achieve that velocity, their backing and forth-ing can seem excessively melodramatic.  Chromatics attempt to convey threat, sadness, and isolation in their music. But by immersing themselves in it so thoroughly, they are sometimes in danger of making themselves inconsequential – they seem to get off on these feelings, so the songs can sound self-congratulatory, which makes it hard for the listener to summon up the energy to care.  Interestingly, despite their contrasting approaches, both bands can end up in the same place of self-involvement.  Sometimes you may want to join them there, but sometimes you might not.

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