The late German photographer Helmut Newton has been a formative influence on Chromeo’s David Macklovitch (stage name Dave 1) and Patrick Gemayel (P-Thugg) for most of the duo’s decade-plus career. After generating early buzz on the basis of “Needy Girl,” from 2004’s She’s in Control, Chromeo became established members of the blog-wave elite with 2007’s Fancy Footwork and then 2010’s Business Casual, the first of the producers’ albums to chart on Billboard. Both of those collections featured Newtonian cover art, the depiction of trim, seductive female legs a nod to the iconic artist’s tastefully erotic mid-’70s portfolio. Now they return with White Women, the title a direct reference to the photographer’s vaunted first book, published in 1976. On its cover, Dave 1 and P-Thugg link arms with a bride who’d rather let her own strong, tanned legs glisten in the sun than bow to any former notions of Victorian marital chic. Noticeably, her face is largely obscured, making her legs the focal point of the shot again. Is it lurid or beautiful? Chromeo made their name exploiting that tension between so-called high and low art, and on White Women they strike the balance in the most convincing manner yet.
In a recent interview, Dave 1 remarked that Chromeo’s music is a “dialogue between the present and the past.” “We love what’s going on right now as much as we adore the music of Chic, Hall & Oates and Fleetwood Mac,” he told the UK’s Daily Star. In this way Chromeo recall another French-speaking duo, Daft Punk, who won 2014’s Album of the Year Grammy for their retro-funk masterpiece Random Access Memories. (Maklovitch and Gemayel hail from Montreal.) Bruno Mars’ “Treasure,” another pop reinvention of decades-old disco funk, also performed very well on the Billboard Hot 100 charts last year. And it’s in this receptive climate that White Women should thrive, despite the fact that Chromeo have been referencing the funk and yacht-rock masters (they’ve even collaborated with Philly legends Hall & Oates) almost since day one. Still, it’s not as if Dave 1 and P-Thugg have any reason to be bitter—they’ve enjoyed the sort of underground success that most acts would be fine maxing out and walking away from. Yet now they’re poised for a highly visible, mainstream-centered Act Two. That White Women, with its barrage of champagne-drenched earworms, arrives just in time for summer all but assures Chromeo will say goodbye to the underground for the foreseeable future.
It’s not just good timing that augurs greater success for the duo, though. Taking twice as long to write and produce White Women than on any of its predecessors, Dave 1 and P-Thugg have finally moved Chromeo from a vehicle for winking at the past to sidling right up next to it. White Women isn’t as pure a revisitation of ‘70s and ‘80s funk/soul flash points as Random Access Memories, but it comes close to that album’s ambition—this is a fully-realized attempt to exist in the collective imagination next to Chromeo’s forebears, not a tepid, ironic distillation of the past, a mode that’s been way too potent among indie circles for the last several years. Not that advanced musicality or compositional chops infer “better” art per se, but Chromeo increasingly exist on a higher plane than most of the duo’s similarly Hype Machine-indebted peers. The archives of blogs like Disco Belle and Gotta Dance Dirty are littered with acts whose lack of nuance or understanding of what’s what in pop music composition ensured they’d never achieve more than being the heroes of their local nightlife circuits.
The single “Jealous (I Ain’t With It)” kicks off White Women with a slight deception. A fairly conventional 4/4 electro stomp enters with glimmering “Since U Been Gone” guitars and innocuous synth stabs, initially giving the impression that Chromeo may have ditched their “Larry David funk” for a crude, uninspired grab at pop radio. But before long the chorus erupts in squelchy, tweaked synths and Morodor-worthy bass arpeggiation, adorning the modern pop touchstones in a fine disco glow. Dave 1 sings from the perspective of a vulnerable boyfriend or lover, reversing the male pop star’s tendency toward hubris. “We wanted to sing love songs from an entirely different perspective, the very neurotic, anti-heroic, spiteful, castrated, scornful, schmucky perspective,” he recently told the Chicago Tribune. “Because frankly, 90 percent of us don’t get lucky. What about those people?” Chromeo don similar looks for several other songs on the album, seamlessly merging bass-driven funk, tasteful disco trappings (see the “I Feel Love” groove beneath “Sexy Socialite”), and light tropicalia with the thrust of expensive-sounding pop production. The ghosts of Michael McDonald, Devo, Prince, Stevie Wonder and Hall & Oates linger, but Dave 1 and P-Thugg are swimming in the deep end unassisted now.
Elsewhere, as on the Solange-assisted “Lost on the Way Home,” “Hard to Say No” and “Old 45s,” Chromeo evoke softer hues in the mold of, say, Cyndi Lauper or UB40, though with subtle disco flourishes intact. In fact, for all the aesthetic pieces Chromeo pull from recent decades, that mode is most prominent here, most noticeably in the way the duo has allowed itself to stretch out for more extended instrumental breaks than before. That confidence is also telegraphed in Dave 1’s vocal melodies, which have grown bolder and more nuanced on White Women—duetting with the younger Ms. Knowles on “Lost on the Way Home,” he sounds every bit as comfortable in his skin as she, soulful and earnest. Indeed, Chromeo seem intent on using the album to answer the long-standing question of whether this whole endeavor is a well-executed joke. “No,” they seem to say: There’s a fine line between irony and referential lightheartedness. We all need a vehicle to convey emotions, after all, and Chromeo’s is more stylish than most.