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Ernest Hood - Neighborhoods Music Album Reviews

A newly reissued private-press curio from 1974 captures the bygone sounds of daily life in Portland, Oregon, in dreamy, proto-ambient form.
In 1975, the Portland, Oregon, musician Ernest Hood pressed his lone solo album, Neighborhoods, in an edition of a few hundred. He passed out copies primarily to friends, and the album, a curious blend of found sounds and proto-ambient, disappeared into the Pacific Northwest mist. Newly reissued by Freedom to Spend (in a much improved pressing, spread across two discs), it’s not the first such rarity to be pulled from the ether in the 21st century, as YouTube’s algorithm accumulates millions of plays for once obscure jazz and new-age records. But it might be the most uncanny, an album that kindles a sensation not unlike watching home videos of your own childhood.



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Chromatics - Closer to Grey Music Album Reviews

Chromatics set their surprise “seventh” album at the witching hour, telling a sometimes-muddled tale of heartbroken lovers reaching out to the spirit realm.

Across nearly 200 releases, L.A.-based producer Johnny Jewel’s Italians Do It Better label has perfected an unmistakable aesthetic. While the music ranges from abstract instrumentals to sugary synth-pop, the design of each record envisions its creators as would-be movie stars and their music as the cult classics we ought to remember them for. Few of the label’s many acts play so directly into the conceit as Chromatics. Since Jewel reinvented his band in the mid-2000s as a dark pop group with a taste for oblique theatrics, Chromatics have imagined their albums as soundtracks, imageless films in the language of music.

It’s impossible to discern clear plots or specific characters from a given record, but that’s not the point. Jewel and his band—singer Ruth Radelet, drummer Nat Walker, and guitarist Adam Miller—excel at constructing settings and engulfing them in dramatic atmosphere. For 2007’s Night Drive, it was a meditative, lamplit film noir viewed through a car windshield. Kill for Love, released in 2012, played like a tumultuous, naive romance in the solitude of a Lynchian suburb. That Chromatics can conjure such elaborate moods with little more than a synth, drum machine, and guitar to accompany Radelet’s uncommonly restrained voice is testament to the strength of their vision.

It may also explain why these albums take so long to finish. Jewel once said that his writing process involves recording multiple ideas at once, waiting for months, and then revisiting them to bring their meanings into focus. Given this circuitous approach, as well as Jewel’s numerous solo records and film scores, a seven-year gap between Chromatics albums is perhaps to be expected. Closer to Grey was announced only a day in advance, and its arrival wasn’t the only surprise: After teasing the now-mythic 21-track opus Dear Tommy for the past five years, Chromatics had instead put out their most modest record to date. Think of Closer to Grey as an auteur’s niche art project—satisfying to the superfans, though not necessarily winning over new ones.

But like clever illusionists, Jewel and his assistants are no less enchanting for their sleight of hand. The subtlest gesture can feel hypnotic or horrific depending on the light. Echoing Kill for Love’s opening cover of Neil Young, Closer to Grey begins with a spooky, stripped-down version of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence.” The sound of a match strike or a record-needle drop opens the song like the final motion in a séance ritual, before Radelet begins her quiet commune: “Hello darkness, my old friend.” It’s a dead-simple rendition—mostly organ drones, distant synth arpeggios, and a soft drum machine kick—yet it sets the tone for an album set at the witching hour, a sometimes-muddled tale of heartbroken lovers reaching out to the spirit realm.

Closer to Grey is most captivating when it indulges these supernatural fascinations. Standout “Light as a Feather,” with its weightless harmonies and shuffling drum groove, feels like a musical ghost story. “I hear a voice, she whispers secrets from the dead,” Radelet sings in her usual demure tone, calling out to herself from beyond: “Nothing lasts forever.” The sense of otherworldly convergence returns on “Whispers in the Hall,” with enough dissonance and tense, Halloween-esque synth loops to qualify as the most ominous song in Chromatics’ catalog. The smoky “Touch Red” lingers beneath wakefulness, slipping into nightmares with the introduction of a distorted guitar. At its most striking moments, Closer to Grey recognizes the importance of pushing at the edges of a tried-and-true sound.

When Jewel’s arrangements become too austere and his songwriting falls back on the overly familiar, the album loses some of its charm. The basic synth melodies and deadpan vocal hooks of “Twist the Knife” are more anemic than even this terminally cool band can pull off. The title track is paint-by-numbers Chromatics—understandably so, since it’s at least four years old. Its palm-muted guitar plucks, 4/4 drum beat, and melancholic melodies don’t sound bad, or even past their prime—but they have little to offer an album that shines when experimenting. The glockenspiel and sweeping strings on lovelorn ballad “Move a Mountain” might feel slightly out of place, but at least they’re unexpected.

As with much of Jewel’s work, Closer to Grey’s ultimate enemy is time itself. He’s not attempting to outrun it so much as wrestle it, trying to bend bygone eras to his will. The five years between Night Drive and Kill for Love resulted in music that transcended an already exemplary blueprint for chilly disco-pop; the next seven were building slowly towards a monumental statement. Then, out of the blue, Closer to Grey arrived with a note explaining that it represents the seventh Chromatics album, effectively turning Dear Tommy (the would-be sixth) into a “lost” record. The switch-up adds a fascinating page to the band’s ongoing mythology, but it also robs Closer to Grey of its own narrative. By the band’s own telling, the best Chromatics record is the one you’ve never heard.

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