Album Review: Johnny Jewel - Music To Drive

Album Reviews
Gerrit Feenstra

This week, it's been five years since Drive came out. If, somehow, you've lived under a rock for most of those, Drive is a 2005 novel by James Sallis, adapted into Danish film director Nicholas Winding Refn's most popular (and probably most approachable) film. Starring Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks, and Oscar Isaac, it's a slow, deliberate, gritty, and at times totally brutal movie about the American Dream and how it goes south. Sallis's novel owes a lot to Wild At Heart author Barry Gifford, and in turn, Refn's eye for beauty and anxiety both give nods to David Lynch's segmented road movie adaption at times. It's a great mesh of talent that hit the streets at the perfect time, and like all of Refn's best films, music plays a massive part in its execution. Early on in the film's history, Chromatics' Johnny Jewel was slated to give the movie its soundtrack. After all, the band's 2007 album, Night Drive, played like a road movie masterpiece, and the cinematic, anxiety-inducing "Tick of the Clock" was primed for inclusion in a tension-mounting chase scene. While Cliff Martinez ended up doing the score, Jewel's influence on the film remains.Both "Tick of the Clock" and Desire cut "Under Your Spell" keep his name in the credits. Furthermore, Drive began the great lifelong friendship that later culminated in Jewel soundtracking Ryan Gosling's directorial debut, Lost River. With French producer Kavinsky and Toronto acts College and Electric Youth beside them, the Italians Do It Better roster had Drive to thank for a huge boost in cultural prevalence, and thus, it's no surprise that they are celebrating the five year anniversary in great style. This week, Italians Do It Better released a totally awesome 12" Drive record, featuring the film's four most memorable numbers. Furthermore, Jewel has assembled a bit of a companion piece to Drive in the form of Music To Drive. Largely focusing its offerings to a similar time period as Drive< and navigating 81 minutes with a similar white-knuckled tenacity, it's a great introduction to the Italians Do It Better catalog for anyone who needs a history lesson before we get something new later this year.

There's no debating the brilliance of the Drive soundtrack or its cultural impact. Nodding to the likes of Vangelis in the score, the pop tracks scream John Hughes, while still maintaining the same cold, sequenced anxiety of Trent Reznor's The Social Network soundtrack. It's inspired plenty of spiritual sequels and compliments, and meta-references have even made their way into rap songs. Maybe that's why there is such a collective guffaw when anyone tries to touch it. It exists in an untouchable place. In a short five years, it's already a modern classic. The good news is, with Music To Drive, Johnny Jewel doesn't do anything to try and rewrite history. The companion piece is just that - a thankful nod to the film that helped put Italians Do It Better on the map, giving listeners, in its own words, "Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, get in the car and let's see the world". It's a collection of some of the roster's most well known tracks, some rare gems, and plenty of atmospheric in-betweens. And for the price tag of a dollar, it's hard not to want to take another dive into these tracks in a reimagined sequence.

Half the fun of Music To Drive is digging through the tracklist to determine which versions of which tracks Jewel gives us here. The classics on Music To Drive come true to form from the two 2007 LPs, Chromatics' Night Drive and Glass Candy classic BEATBOX. But dig deeper and you'll find some rare gems like Glass Candy's "Silver Fountain" and Chromatics' "Red Car". Aside from the Desire one-off of "Under Your Spell", much of the remaining material comes from Symmetry, Jewel's solo venue for ambient instrumentals. The newest material is easily the Symmetry version of "Yes", made famous by Jewel's soundtrack to Lost River, but the version here is older and more subdued. There is one number on Music To Drive that is yet unaccounted for: "Blade Runner". Based on the collection of sounds here (much more modern and expansive than the 808-tied material of Themes For An Imaginary Film), it's possible that this one comes from the much-hyped upcoming Symmetry release Still Life, but there's no official word on that. Otherwise, Jewel has left all Dear Tommy material off the table for Music To Drive. "I Can't Keep Running", the alternate take on "Cherry" from the 12" single, seems Chromatics floating high above their asphalt-bound days of 2007. But it's evident that the band will be moving in new directions with the upcoming record, as the days of Drive lay smoldering at a fair distance.

Celebrate the five year anniversary of Drive on the cheap with Music To Drive, out now on Italians Do It Better. The label has plenty on the horizon, all with no official dates: Chromatics' Dear Tommy, Glass Candy's Body Work, Symmetry's Still Life, and Johnny Jewel's soundtrack to upcoming Belgian film, Home. Keep your ear to the ground by following the label on Facebook.

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