Wednesday, October 28, 2015

album review: 'vega intl. night school' by neon indian

So remember chillwave? Remember when that was a thing, a trend that seemed to spring partially from the warped edges of gleaming early 80s synthpop and the gummy, lo-fi production of Ariel Pink? Remember how it was a big thing in the indie scene for seemingly a year or two before evaporating in the hot sun for the next big trend?

Because I certainly don't. Now part of this was just time and place - I was listening to very different music in and around the latter half of the 2000s, and chillwave was one of those nebulously defined genres that completely passed me by, there and gone and I had never cared. But going back to listen through it now, I'm a little baffled why there was so much hype in the first place - yeah, the lo-fi eclecticism of the synthpop was a nifty trick, but many of the synth textures didn't really stick with me or blend into particularly solid wholes. it wasn't that it was bad - although there was a fair amount of mediocre stuff around the edges of the genre that was coasting on the fad - but again, Ariel Pink was already making similar music and doing it with more cohesion both in melodies, production, and lyrics.

That said, I do give Neon Indian a certain amount of credit for at least trying to bring a loose sense of humour and fun to a genre that often proved oddly humourless. The main project of frontman Alan Palomo, his debut record in 2009 got a lot of critical acclaim and buzz - so much so that it catapulted him into the festival circuit where he did surprisingly well for being loose, catchy, occasionally funny, and genuinely fun. So it wasn't surprising that as the backlash towards chillwave came in force, Palomo worked to double down on the bigger, buzzier, thicker sounds - even teaming up with Flaming Lips producer Dave Fridmann to overcompress and add more density to the mix. And yeah, the melodic core was still there and some of the quirkier elements did creep through, but I was among many who felt it was a slightly less satisfying effort, even though I never found much chillwave to be all that exhilarating to begin with.

So when I heard that Palomo was looking to bring in more elements of disco and future funk for his upcoming third album, adapted from the VEGA sideproject, I was interested at least, especially considering the critical acclaim started pouring back in. Did it pay off?

Well, that depends. I've given Vega Intl. Night School a lot of listens and I completely get the atmosphere, style, influences, and tone of this record, plunging into the seedy, flamboyantly neon, unashamedly retro 80s of glitzy new wave and synthpop. In other words, this should be right up my alley - but the more I've listened through this record the more I've felt the chillwave textures muddying and sloshing over otherwise solid, making songs that are not only not as tight, but less enjoyable. That's not saying there aren't good moments - but that's just it, they're moments that seldom coalesce into satisfying songs as a whole, what could have been a great album held back to a merely good one.

I should explain and perhaps the best place to start is Alan Palomo himself - and look, for this breed of 80s synthpop and future funk, you don't need a powerhouse frontman, as long as the vocals can fit the atmosphere and groove. And when this album can leverage his tenor with just enough reverb and the right melody behind him, his delivery can work as the lone, hardscrabble wanderer in the shadow-crossed garish colours of the city, especially when he dips into his lower range. I'm not nearly as impressed by his falsetto, but that's more because the mix often buries it beneath oily waves of synth that are half-swallowed by reverb and half by the gurgling bass. Perhaps if his voice was given a little more room to breathe it might work better, but you have to wonder if it would compromise the claustrophobic, half-heard pseudo-noir vibe, the ragged desperate cool of the gutter in the heart of the city of the very early 80s.

But there's a difference between cultivating a glossy mystique and clumsy production, which is arguably where my biggest issues with this album arise. See, if you were to go back to much of that 80s synthpop and funk that inspires this album, you'd hear gurgling basslines and processed reggae grooves in the vein of The Police, and you'd get gleaming analog synthesizers that flirted with chiptune and snarled, compressed guitars - but the reason why so much of that material worked were solid melodic grooves and a sense of tightness and restraint. And considering Palomo isn't the sort of frontman who can command the mix with simply his vocal line - except for the few times they introduce multi-tracking which actually turns out pretty well - you need those melodies and grooves to have space to establish themselves. But where a band like CHVRCHES cranked up those grooves to razor tight precision and Lower Dens focused on cultivating the sparse, chilly soundscapes that called back to post-punk, Neon Indian instead decides to pile in melodic flourishes in synthesizers and chiptune fragments and tape spooling and vocal snippets and none of it highlights the already strong composition. It leads to tracks that feel cluttered with only snippets that really work, like the dark elastic groove on the outro of 'Annie', or the dark, spiky interlude that creeps in before the second chorus of 'Smut!'. Hell, when this album actually calls back to the darker segments that Palomo pioneered on Era Extrana, he gets some pretty solid results, especially on the back half of this album where he lets tracks like 'Slumlord Re-lease' and 'Techno Clique' and the slower 'Baby's Eyes' get some more breathing room. Sure, none of it has the tightness that characterized the best of 80s new wave and funk - Palomo slathers his gurgling bass and warping chiptune and pitch-shifting over too many songs to really give the rubbery, gummy tracks any sharpness - but in a damp and woozy vibe it mostly works. I just wish that points like the guitar solo trying to cut through 'Dear Skorpio Magazine' or the great bouncy groove across 'C'est La Vie' that abruptly shifts into a ugly staccato progression or the 'Bad Boys'-esque reggae of '61 Cygni Ave.' that feels diminished behind chipmunk vocals and a weedy synth were allowed to flourish. Sadly, I think it's that lo-fi chillwave tendency that contributes most to these choices, which leaves so many of these tracks feeling overdone.

Well, okay, do the lyrics save anything? Well, that depends on whether you find the late night escapades that Palomo describes all that thrilling or exciting. This is arguably where you'll find the biggest shift towards more openly sexual lyricism, which I will state does fit with this instrumentation. Granted, part of it is because with this type of homegrown lo-fi production I could easily imagine many of these tracks playing as background in particularly artistic 80s porn - something that Palomo seems to embrace gleefully, revelling in the seedy sleaze of 'Smut!' or 'Dear Skorpio Magazine', or the trashy veneer that seems to colour the b-list cop show vibe of 'Annie' or the exploitation of 'The Glitzy Hive' or the overly earnest 'Slumlord' or 'Street Level'. And hell, I liked the ending message of despite how much he's eager to see the light, that fleshy intoxicating night is going to keep dragging him back on 'News From The Sun'. And look, the lurid subject matter doesn't bug me - hell, get the right moment and I'd argue the melodrama plays to just the right level of excess to click, even if there really isn't a natural progression from neon party to neon party outside of our protagonist slowly sinking into that night in search of the girl. In a way it feels a bit like exploitation films of the era, using any excuse to set up steamy encounters with the plot to add the flimsiest justification to go over the top. But at the same time, it suffers the problems of that type of exploitation as well: it's indulgent and meandering, when taking the same source material and adding some tighter craftsmanship might have made for a more satisfying payoff, especially considering this record doesn't hit those instrumental or lyrical climax points as often as it should.

So as a whole... look, there's too much about Vega Intl. Night School that I'm naturally inclined to like for me not to recommend it. When you actually dig into the melodic interplay, there's a lot to recommend, and at its best moments, the organic blend of textures and grooves can hit some satisfying points. But again, the muddying blur of sound doesn't always flatter our frontman, his lyrics, or the album as a whole, and I'm not sure how much more material Palomo can mine from this era without amping up his production. So for me, I'm thinking a 7/10 and a recommendation, especially if you're more of a chillwave fan than I am. Whether you're intending this for a run through seedy dive bars or for a trashy late night hookup, you've got yourself a soundtrack. Have fun at night school.

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