The essential… Italians Do It Better

Is there a better origin myth for Chromatics than Ruth Radelet singing, “When I came to this world, I arrived in car?” on 2007 track ‘I Want Your Love’?

That image applies not just to dreamy Italo/post-punk/indie band but the entire roster of the Italians Do It Better label. Sure, Radelet is technically from Portland, and Johnny Jewel, the label’s chief operator and ideologue, was born in Houston. But imagine the whole gang — from Chromatics to Glass Candy to Desire to Symmetry, all of which share Jewel as a member—emerging from nowhere onto an empty highway in a cherry-red ’73 Impala, their faces casting no reflection in the rearview mirror.

If that sounds a bit melodramatic, it should: what’s a good noir without extreme emotional intensity? When Jewel founded the label in 2006 alongside Mike Simonetti (who’s since parted ways), the idea was to avoid the bullshit that comes from meeting other people halfway: distributors, marketing executives, or listeners. In the decade-plus since, IDIB has become a beacon of true industry independence, a rare success story in unbending devotion to one’s own vision.

The label also built a singular, self-contained aesthetic universe — one that exists perpetually between dusk and dawn, where love and loss are flip sides of one coin. The Italians catalog isn’t quite electro, hasn’t been explicitly no-wave since Glass Candy and Chromatics’ infancy and feels too insular to be considered straight-up pop; the simplest way to describe it is “night music”. These are the songs that play on the jukebox when you drink alone and the ones on the radio when you drive nowhere in particular, hoping to disappear.

The artists across the Italians roster share a common vernacular — an embrace of all things analog, a fatalistic bent, a fondness for American ruin and ’80s Euro sleaze — but each act presents this world from a perspective that grows more and more distinct, the further acquainted you get. “Glass Candy is a maximal, macro view of the universe,” Jewel explained in a 2013 interview. “Chromatics is inward and deals with death and themes of loss, introspection. And Desire is more what is in your immediate surroundings, like your relationships with people you love. It’s not in outer space and it’s not your loneliness, it’s the way you move through the world with other people.”

As the Italians universe has expanded, Jewel and company have slowly transcended their cult status to draw the attention of fellow purveyors of dystopian romance. The label’s biggest break came via the soundtrack for 2011’s Drive — well, almost. Jewel composed a full score for the film, as requested by Ryan Gosling, a longtime fan of the label’s work, though it was ultimately scrapped but for two songs. (“I know it’s not a nice thing to say, but my score was superior,” Jewel confessed later.) And last year, Jewel contributed significantly to the score for David Lynch’s stunning Twin Peaks: The Return. Chromatics headlined the season’s premiere Roadhouse performance and backed Julee Cruise for a final reprisal of ‘The World Spins’, while Jewel’s ‘Windswept’ became a defining theme for a diminished Dale Cooper, lost in the depravity of Vegas.

The most essential moments within the Italians catalog aren’t necessarily the best-known — Chromatics’ ‘Kill For Love’ didn’t quite make the cut despite once popping up in an episode of Gossip Girl. (Ditto ‘Into the Black’ and Riverdale, as inspired of a pairing as that was.) Think of the deciding framework as something like Agent Cooper’s metaphysical investigation process in Twin Peaks’ first season, or Jewel’s instinctive understanding of when a record’s finally finished after half a decade of editing: when it’s right, you’ll know.

Glass Candy
‘Digital Versicolor’
(B/E/A/T/B/O/X, 2007)

Glass Candy long predates the Italians label itself: Jewel and cooler-than-thou vocalist Ida No formed the band in ’96 after meeting in a Portland grocery story where Jewel worked. The two moved in together almost immediately and began the messy process of, well, learning how to play instruments and synths in a remotely listenable manner: “We had no idea at all how to make or play music,” No admitted in 2008. “It was all droney and weird and I was trying to sound like Nico. Oh my god!”

But as the duo made diehard fans alongside plenty of local skeptics, their early releases smoothed into something glamorous and downright elegant, if still rough around the edges. Glass Candy’s break coincided with a mid-2000s Italo disco revival, but to call them an Italo group felt insufficient: it was disco, yeah, but scuzzed up with bits of Kraftwerk and Suicide and Siouxsie.

Everything officially clicked with 2008’s B/E/A/T/B/O/X, which closed out with what remains the duo’s deepest groove: ‘Digital Versicolor’ a pulsing six-minute slow-burner that makes a simple run-through of the colors of the rainbow (“Green, green, green, green, green / Blue / This is violet”) sound sexy via No’s haunted falsetto.

‘Running Up That Hill’
(Night Drive, 2007)

There are very few 21st century acts with a better track record with cover songs than Chromatics. Comprised of Nat Walker and founding member Adam Miller alongside Jewel and Radelet (at least since the 2005 line-up change that dramatically shifted their sound), the group’s got an uncanny knack for making classic songs their own: they’ve turned Springsteen’s ‘I’m On Fire’ from horny to lonely, made Neil Young’s ‘My My (Hey Hey)’ sound like a rock-n-roll elegy and delivered not one but four shimmering remakes of ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’. But nothing compares to their ‘Running Up That Hill’ cover from Night Drive — the sole moment on the group’s first full-length where fatalistic detachment gives way to an unguarded baring of the soul, as the steady pulse of Kate Bush’s version slows into three somber synth notes and Radelet’s reverb-drowned vocals.

At the risk of sacrilege: it’s even more devastating than the original.

‘Don’t Call’
(II, 2009)

In the late ’00s, Jewel moved to Montreal and met a vocalist by the name of Megan Louise, with whom he started Desire (along with Chromatics/Symmetry’s Nat Walker). The group’s 2009 LP, titled simply II, remains one of the best full-length works in the Italians discography: doomed dream-pop with an Italo pulse, Megan Louise’s translucent voice floating detachedly over reverb-heavy guitar grooves and wistful synths. It felt like the kind of record you play in your room, studying your reflection while you wait in vain for your crush to call — the soundtrack for being all dressed up with nowhere to go. If Megan can have the effect of Blondie drowning in ennui, it makes sense that the album’s best song is the anti-‘Call Me’. “You’re gone, and babe, that’s a good thing,” she sings to an empty room, sounding as if she’s trying to convince herself.

Twisted Wires
‘One Night at the Raw Deal’
(One Night at the Raw Deal 12”, 2009)

In the midst of all the doomed heroines and grand conceptual narratives arrived a lesser-known gem in the Italians catalog. On their first 12” for the label, Twisted Wires — a quartet, half based in Houston and half in L.A. — offered a seven-minute synth odyssey that’s equal parts breezy and somber. ‘One Night at the Raw Deal’ had the mood of an off-season beach day, with water-logged guitar reminiscent of Durutti Column-style dream-pop and vocals choked with reverb like Disintegration-era Cure. But what seems like a buttoned-up British post-punk homage takes off, in the second half, into a super-percussive house breakdown, like Mr. Fingers scoring a horror film. It’s a curveball but a classic all the same.

‘Under Your Spell’
(Desire, 2009 / Drive OST, 2011)

Though the majority of Jewel’s music for Drive went unused in lieu of Cliff Martinez’s score, Desire’s ‘Under Your Spell’ soundtracks two of the film’s most emotional scenes — a welcome home from prison party and the infamous elevator stomp. Dream-pop power ballad sounds like an oxymoron but if there’s any song that fits the bill, it’s this one: “I don’t eat, I don’t sleep, I do nothing but think of you,” Megan Louise cries over a symphony of synth drones.

But there’s a bit of a wink alongside all the melancholy as the track’s interrupted by campy spoken word dialogue, delivered with the faux-naivety of a ‘60s girl group: “Hey! Do you know the difference between love and obsession?” “No!” There’s even a brief Outkast interpolation that’s so weird it works. (An alternate version of the track strips it down to just vocals and synths, for anyone looking to ramp up the desolation factor.)

‘Streets of Fire’
(Themes for an Imaginary Film, 2011)

Alright, so technically it’s not a totally imaginary film: here, Jewel and Walker gesture toward Drive (though Jewel has said their original soundtrack was drastically re-worked) for two and a half hours of eerie, poignant ambience. But the fog clears on the last track: Radelet of Chromatics sings practically a capella, sadder than ever. Passivity is a major theme in the Italians universe and on ‘Streets of Fire’, a frozen Radelet watches traffic rush by as she waits for someone who’s not coming back. (“I really like the sense of suspended time,” Jewel said in an interview around the same time. “I’m obsessed with clocks and watches and the sense of ‘tick tock, tick tock’ as music.”)

Even if the film in question isn’t completely imaginary, think of the title as going both ways: IDIB’s music evokes the feeling that the movie of your life is playing out in real time, and that the right song can heighten the drama of all of it. In the Italians universe, what is life but an imaginary film with a soundtrack to die for?

‘These Streets Will Never Look The Same’
(Kill for Love, 2012)

It’s damn near impossible to pick one standout track from Kill for Love — Chromatics’ long-awaited follow-up to Night Drive that Jewel claimed to have recorded nearly ten different versions of in the five years leading up to its release. Night Drive had arrived just ahead of the late-’00s moment when indie bands all discovered house and disco at once; so for Kill for Love, Jewel and company returned to the idea of rock music as its own American mythology. (It’s no coincidence that the album art centers around a guitar, or that it opens with a Neil Young cover.)

The results were incredible: 90 minutes of nocturnal throb, lonesome and glazed-over as ever but with newfound warmth and texture. And though it arrives early on, ‘These Streets Will Never Look The Same’ is the album’s climax, a nearly nine-minute slow-burner that perfectly renders Chromatics’ dystopian vision: isolation, urban dread, digital fatigue, broken hearts. It’s simultaneously empty and epic in the way that only Chromatics can pull off.

Johnny Jewel
‘Tell Me’ Feat. Saoirse Ronan
(Lost River OST, 2014)

Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, Lost River, may have been zealously booed at its Cannes premiere, but whatever: Jewel’s score for the film is enrapturing, striking a balance between chilling ambience and emotional indulgence. Its highlight, ‘Tell Me’, is a minimalist ballad that yearns with wide-eyed ’50s innocence.

In the film, it’s sung by Saoirse Ronan’s character Rat: “It’s her way of dealing with the pain of her surroundings and transcending that heartbreaking dragging of time we all feel through the endless nights of our youth,” Jewel wrote in a lengthy SoundCloud description of the track.

Ronan herself had never sang in public before, so to make her feel safe and completely alone, Jewel and Gosling barricaded themselves and Ronan in a dark kitchen, empty but for an 8-track. “We recorded it in two takes with a single microphone and no headphones,” he wrote. “There are no words to describe that moment.”

‘Lonesome Town’
(Lonesome Town EP, 2017)

Here’s the pitch Heaven’s Lonesome Town: “Imagine Lana Del Rey, but on Italians.” The debut EP from the mysterious group (Nona Francine, Nick Nightingale and Jewel as executive producer) captured all the dreamy, tear-stained tragedy that the description implied. Heaven led with the single ‘It’s Not Enough’, a perfectly wallowy artifact to failing love but their best showing is ‘Lonesome Town’, a cover of the 1959 hit by Ricky Nelson.

Nelson was the Justin Bieber of the rockabilly era, a wholesome mini-Elvis who sang terribly sad songs about the pitfalls of fame, love and loneliness. He was 19 when he recorded ‘Lonesome Town’ singing: “In the town of broken dreams, the streets are paved with regret.” It’s a song that basically begs to be re-worked in Italians fashion.

(Windswept, 2017)

Released a week before the premiere of Twin Peaks: The Return last year, Windswept corralled Jewel’s productions for the series with songs from Glass Candy, Desire, Heaven, Symmetry and Chromatics (whose cover of ‘Blue Moon’ is up there with their best). It’s Jewel’s best full-length solo work to date — a perfect companion piece to Twin Peaks with its gloomy jazz and jukebox noir but that can also completely stand on its own. Its highlight is ‘Saturday’, a swelling, aching synth-pop ballad that feels, like most Desire songs do, as though Megan Louise is singing them to a lover in a phone booth after midnight.

‘Shadow (Last Dance of the Night Club Edit)’

Jewel has a habit of releasing Chromatics tracks with a handful of altered versions to complement all possible moods: on Spotify, recent Dear Tommy single ‘Blue Girl’ is accompanied by no less than four variations. This edit of the group’s 2017 single ‘Shadow’, which appears on the excellent Twin Peaks: The Return soundtrack, is unparalleled. It was once available on streaming but now remains only on the physical 12” along with four other iterations. The Italians roster has a well-earned reputation for melancholy but within the label’s catalog are buried moments of pure ecstasy. ‘Shadow (Last Dance of the Night Club Edit)’ is one of them, turning the grim determinism of the original into a neon-lit dancefloor filler that ultimately fades into oblivion after nine euphoric minutes. The title doesn’t lie: they really did save the best for last.

The list is also available as Apple Music and Spotify playlists.

Meaghan Garvey is a freelance writer and illustrator based in Chicago. Find her on Twitter.

Read next: Tess Roby’s operatic Beacon is a synth-laced tribute to family and loss



Share Tweet