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Italians Do It Better Records Takes Over Tomorrow Never Knows Festival at Lincoln Hall

By Eric Hehr in Arts & Entertainment on Jan 15, 2012 9:10PM

Glass Candy at Lincoln Hall. Photo by Tiela Halpin.

This past week, winter music festival Tomorrow Never Knows celebrated its eighth anniversary in Chicago. What began as a three day-long album release party at Schubas has grown into one of the premier Midwestern festivals for up and coming artists. This year, TNK expanded into a five day-long festival that spreads its reach from Lincoln Hall to Metro to Smartbar and The Hideout.

TNK 2012 kicked off this past Wednesday when Italo Disco label Italians Do It Better took over Lincoln Hall. The bill showcased artists such as Desire, Chromatics, and Glass Candy (all three acts feature Italians Do It Better co-founder, Johnny Jewel).

Each act presents a different perspective of the Italo Disco sound, which is a novelty hybrid of analog dance-pop and vintage film scores in the vein of John Carpenter circa mid-80’s. Within the template of the Italo Disco genre, Desire focuses on hook-orientation, Chromatics favor murky moods and melancholy tonality, and Glass Candy embraces the archaic energy of dance music. However, all three are uniformed in the minimalistic, hauntingly romantic aesthetic of the genre, as well as the overwhelming presence of Johnny Jewel.

While most unfamiliar with Italians Do It Better have never heard of Jewel, he is nonetheless one of the most prolific working musicians today. In between running a label, producing, writing, arranging, and performing for three different bands, Jewel has also embarked into the world of film scoring, contributing music for films such as 2008’s Bronson and 2011’s existential thriller, Drive. Jewel’s cinematic endeavors come as no surprise, as anyone who has heard Chromatics' 2007’s Night Drive can hear a film composer in the making; an album sequenced and structured in such a way that it imposes the feeling of coming down from one too many pills; conjuring up images of late-night DeLorean cruises through empty, neon-lit streets of a ghostly metropolis. For someone who produces music that is so visually lucid, it would be safe to assume that Jewel’s natural habitat is the studio. But as he showed a packed crowd at Lincoln Hall this past Wednesday, Jewel is as much a performer as he is a composer.

Jewel’s triple set header kicked off with Desire, who along with Chromatics have garnished quite a bit of buzz recently for being featured on the Drive soundtrack. Although singer Megan Louise was suffering from a raspy voice, she nonetheless warmed up the stoic audience. By the time the band ended their set with “Under Your Spell,” (which features a playful homage to 60’s spoken-word interludes à la The Shangri-Las) the crowd was revved up by Desire’s lively energy and ready to cut loose.

Chromatics at Lincoln Hall. Photo by Tiela Halpin.

However, instead of the night intensifying, Chromatics brought the vigorous energy back down, establishing a morose mood. The band opened with “Streets of Fire,” which is the closing track to Jewel’s recently released two-hour long instrumental album Themes for An Imaginary Film, a cinematic amalgam of primitive ambient music à la Brian Eno’s Music For Airports and the European minimal wave movement of the 1980’s à la Linear Movement (and some suspect was the original outline for the Drive score, which Jewel recently discussed with Pitchfork). As “Streets of Fire” ended, leaving the audience momentarily hypnotized, Chromatics started into the title track from their LP, Night Drive. Although the live rendition was performed with more power than the studio version, the song still felt like Blondie on Prozac. As the set progressed, it became increasingly difficult to differentiate between songs, as they all shared the same repetitive mid-tempo groove and monotonous 4/4 rhythms. Lead singer Ruth Radelet barely interjected any sense of showmanship sans a lazy two-step during “In The City.” And while the band's languid stage presence played into its gothic, Euro-noir music, it caused a few audience members looking to dance to head to the bar to look for another drink.

Ida No of Glass Candy at Lincoln Hall. Photo by Tiela Halpin.

As the stage was cleared post Chromatics set (which ended with an appropriate cover of “Running Up That Hill” by Kate Bush), Johnny Jewel stepped back on stage for the third time, taking his position behind his keyboard in preparation for Glass Candy’s headlining set.

Unlike Chromatics, which features a full live band, Glass Candy is a duo, made up of Jewel and lead singer, Ida No. In contrast to Chromatics' sullen set—which felt like the first few bittersweet minutes after leaving a club as the sun begins to rise—Glass Candy’s set felt like the blissful beginning of a night out. The duo took the night for a 180 spin with an explosion of pure dynamism, spearheaded by the relentless energy of No, who burst onto the stage like an aerobics instructor: running in place, jumping up and down, consistently clapping, and screaming into her microphone. From opener “Digital Versicolor” to their two-song encore, Glass Candy had the crowd in the palm of their hands.

No’s admiration of the crowds' admiration towards her was a constant motif, causing a slew of abstract stage banter such as, “You are all so beautiful! Let’s fly around the stratosphere together with our beauty!” and “20 years from now, we may not know each other in the physical world, but we will know each other in the spiritual world! I will meet you in the spiritual world!” No’s ferocious energy even caused the somewhat submissive Jewel to leave his keyboard and jump around the stage.

At the beginning of Glass Candy’s set, the crowd was inert and silent. By the end of Glass Candy’s set, the crowd was clapping, dancing, and cheering for more. Glass Candy’s ability to win over an audience—especially considering that they are only a duo armed with little more than a keyboard and a microphone—was far and away the highlight of the night, if not one of the main highlights of the whole Tomorrow Never Knows festival.