There were a surprising number of people in Union Park at 1:45pm on a Sunday, but I suppose that’s what happens when quality acts are booked to start the day. Porches kicked things off on the Red stage with what can best be described as dance music for lonely people. Indeed, Aaron Maine and his band used synths, bouncy bass lines and the occasional saxophone assist to settle into a groove, and the modest crowd shuffled around entranced while staring at their feet. Many of them may have been nursing hangovers or were simply tired from the previous two days, but at the very least they were moving. While the songs would undoubtedly have sounded even better under the cover of night, Porches still managed to inspire and help people get motivated for one more full day of music.
Tag: neon indian
Considering the increasingly short life cycles of trends in music these days, it’s gotten almost difficult to remember that there was once a subgenre of music known to many as chillwave. It’s been nearly five years since that word introduced us to artists like Neon Indian, Toro y Moi and Washed Out. Two years after it started, the sound got tired, produced diminishing returns, and artists were forced to adapt/innovate or die. For Ernest Greene of Washed Out, he spent his 2011 debut album Within and Without both perfecting and updating the sound of his earlier EPs. While it wasn’t a record that lent itself to any particular distinction among its nine songs, what it lacked in establishing singles it more than made up for in cohesiveness of sound and structure. It’s exactly the sort of evolution that was needed at the time, and the increased clarity on the production and vocals spoke to a much greater clarity of overall vision for the project as well.
Now in 2013 with that sound even further removed from many radars, Greene makes yet another stylistic leap on Paracosm in a bid to keep things interesting. You’re certainly not going to mistake his work for any other artist, and these aren’t earth-shattering changes by any means, but subtle shifts in tone and instrumentation do show us a new side of Washed Out. The new album sounds so warm and tropical it’s practically the opposite of the icier textures chillwave became known for, and it’s so lush and crisp that affixing the name Washed Out to it feels like you’re mislabeling it. Of course in case you need to be hit over the head with this idea, one look at the floral arrangement on the album cover or watching videos for “It All Feels Right” and “Don’t Give Up” will do everything but physically take you out into nature and prove it’s a great pairing with this music. Hell, when it’s not little snippets of indiscernable conversations from a crowd of people that’s plays at the beginnings and ends of most tracks, you get birds chirping and the basic sounds you hear when you hit the “jungle” setting on the white noise machine next to your bed. Obvious though it might be, the visual (and in some respects sonic) representations associated with this album are intended to enhance what’s already there, which it succeeds at doing in spades. If you think you’ve heard Paracosm because you played it through headphones while sitting at your desk or on your couch one afternoon, the experience changes dramatically if you’re laying on the grass in a park on a sunny day or wandering through a local forest preserve.
Beyond all the physical representations injecting additional mood and meaning into the music, one of the key influencers on this record is the use of more than 50 total instruments rather than sampling. The early recordings were extremely sample-dominant, and while Within and Without started to incorporate a wider variety of organic elements (particularly as part of the live show), this is really the first time guitars and live drums have been used on a Washed Out album. There’s also a host of other, stranger instruments that were used on various songs that might not be so easy to pick out unless you’re really listening closely. Some of those instruments and sonic influences have been chronicled as part of a short documentary by The Creators Project (Part I, Part II), which is insightful and worth your time to watch if you like geeking out about that sort of stuff.
Focusing on the actual songs of Paracosm, as with most albums this one is front-loaded. Outside of the 80 second instrumental intro “Entrance,” the first four actual songs on the record could each serve as potential singles. It’s fitting that “It All Feels Right” really kicks things off, as the track is a spiritual (but not really sonic) cousin to the most popular Washed Out song to date, “Feel It All Around,” which you may recognize as the theme to Portlandia. Both are relaxed but bouncy in their tempo, and lyrically invite you to “feel” positive about life. One of the things that’s more apparent on the new album are Greene’s lyrics, which are never without a touch of reverb but are still clearer than any previous records. If you pay close enough attention to what’s being said, there is some realization that maybe these words would be better if we couldn’t hear them so well. Lines like, “Weekend’s almost here now / It’s getting warmer outside / It all feels right,” might as well appear on the next Black Eyed Peas single because they’re so pedestrian. This has been Greene’s biggest problem since day one, and unlike the forward progress in composition and live instrumentation, he doesn’t seem to be making any effort to improve his writing skills. We understand the theme, along with the overall vibe of a song, is going to place emphasis on laid back, fun in the sun with friends. It’s a great thing to be known for, but it starts to come across as really repetitive the closer you look.
What saves “It All Feels Right” and many of the other poorly worded songs on Paracosm are the arrangements. Official single “Don’t Give Up” does a particularly spectacular job with this, resulting in such a complex melody you’ll keep discovering new layers buried within it several listens later. That chorus is an incredible earworm too. While “Weightless” may not be the most engaging track from the first half of the album, the mixture of synths creates an overall sound that skirts the line between M83 and Cocteau Twins. If it’s commercially viable you’re looking for, “All I Know” might just be the poppiest Washed Out song ever, and it doesn’t feel like anything was sacrificed or lost to get to that point. It’s impressive in its own way, and gives us a glimpse into a potential future for this project where commercial accessibility leads to a broad fan base and hordes of commercial opportunities (see again, M83). “Great Escape” does a fantastic job of tapping into the more soulful side of Greene’s vision, even if that means conjuring up memories of Marvin Gaye classics in the process. Sure it might draw some unfavorable comparisons, but at the same time it adds layers to what we’ve already heard while not straying very far from the overall relaxed and tropical vibe.
As Paracosm starts to wrap up around the lengthy title track, the tempo slows and the synths pretty much take things into cruise control. It doesn’t necessarily get boring, but it can feel a bit whitewashed (word use intentional) and eerily reminiscent of some moments on Within and Without. You could argue that these final songs help to balance out the record, set against the pop-oriented first half. It all flows well thematically, but just because you have that doesn’t automatically make it good. It just makes it more bearable. The positive outlook is that this is the overall best and most advanced Washed Out record to date. It’s issues involving poorly written lyrics, Greene’s limited/always obscured vocal range, and pacing issues towards the end all ultimately pale in comparison to the goal of this music, which is to provide a soundtrack to your relaxing day of fun in the sun. That’s one thing it definitely succeeds at, and what kind of people would we be if we yelled at him for it?
Of the many chillwave/glo-fi acts to emerge out of that hype cycle a couple years ago, Neon Indian was easily one of the most unique. Sure, the Alan Palomo-fronted project had that distinctive 80s washed out bedroom electronica feel to it, but there haven’t been a lot of artists that incorporate 8-bit video game noises and distorted guitar lines. Throw Palomo’s overly soft-on-the-ears vocals in as well, and Neon Indian’s debut “Psychic Chasms” turned him into a proverbial indie star. Last year he did a one-off single for Green Label Sound called “Sleep Paralysist”, and a couple months back he recorded a psychedelic freak-out EP with The Flaming Lips. Both of those things marked shifts in direction for Palomo and Neon Indian, yet none of those things quite encapsulate what is going on with his second long player, “Era Extraña”. Then again, if you’ve been paying attention to how things are going with other chillwave artists these days, you’re surely aware that like any hype cycle, it’s lifespan is running short. Changes are all but required to survive, and it’s fascinating to hear how the artists within the genre are reacting individually. If you’re Palomo, you go to Finland by yourself and see what sorts of batshit ideas fly out of your head. Rather than putting him in a straightjacket though, “Era Extraña” actually winds up bringing a greater focus to his unique sound.
As it has played out with a number of other chillwave artists, “Era Extraña” boasts a marked step forwards in production style. “Psychic Chasms” was crafted and recorded primarily in Alan Palomo’s bedroom, and you could pretty much tell that from the way it sounded. Now utilizing an actual studio and with actual producer Dave Fridmann, the new album sounds cleaner and bigger than ever before. There are still a handful of woozy, fully retro-fied moments, in particular the 3 instrumental “Heart” interludes, but while the era remains firmly entrenched in the 80s, we’re now dealing in technicolor rather than something paler and more faded. If this were the last record, a track like “Hex Girlfriend” might otherwise have vocals buried in the mix and filled with so much lo-fi reverb that the lyrics border on indecipherable. Now better produced and devoid of any vocal effects, the vocals come across as clear and dominant, a positive when placed among shoegazey guitars and woozy synths. In almost direct opposition to that, the album’s title track features highly polished synths and strongly driven bass, a combo that feels markedly M83/New Order-ish, but then the vocals wind up lowest on the totem pole and oozing with so much reverb that they’re nearly pointless. A huge positive is that the song is paired next to “Halogen (I Could Be A Shadow)”, a track that is a spiritual and sonic cousin but does a far more interesting job blending textures and pulling off the M83 style. In fact, the sequencing on the entirety of “Era Extraña” is rather inspired, as the grungy, guitar-heavy shoegaze numbers “The Blindside Kiss” and “Hex Girlfriend” wind up neighbors, while there’s an almost LCD Soundsystem-like quality to “Future Sick” and “Suns Irrupt” even if neither track ever quite gets to that level of brilliance. Palomo even has “Arcade Blues” tacked onto the very end of the record with the word “single” in parentheses because he wanted to include it as a bonus track even though it didn’t fit in stylistically with the rest of the record. He’s right about that, and it makes for a great little addendum to everything that came before it.
Palomo also shows off his expanding skills as a composer, building more creatively stimulating and intricate melodies than ever before and utilizing an army of sound effects to accent increasingly complex choruses. First single “Polish Girl” experiments a little with verse structure, namely by placing a bit of instrumental space between the chorus and verses that serves as its own hook. It’s not noticeable unless you’re really looking for it though, which is one of the reasons why the song works so well. In other spots, it’s little moments that make you sit up and take notice. The static-filled, bubbling synth open to “Hex Girlfriend” and the twinkling synths that bring the title track to its conclusion are just two of the more soberingly beautiful bits that bring an extra dose of charm to songs that are far more expansive and party-oriented than most of Neon Indian’s earlier stuff. Yet it never wanders from the singular path it appears to be on, streamlined and to the point more than ever before. And while some of the textures and approaches to most of the songs have changed on “Era Extraña”, the lyrical topics stay within the ballpark. Yes, there’s the inevitable topic du jour of relationships, primarily failed ones, that Palomo gets down about from time to time. That comprises much of the first half of the album, while the second half is more about distancing yourself from the world at large primarily through disconnection. “Future Sick” is all about falling behind the times technologically, while “Halogen (I Could Be A Shadow)” is about the need to carve your own path in life or risk being left in the dark. The melodies themselves may be uplifting and danceable, but by no means do all of them project positive messages.
If there’s one thing “Era Extraña” lacks, it’s a more lighthearted approach. It’s a big part of why “Arcade Blues” doesn’t fit within the solid structure of the rest of the record. Not that “Arcade Blues” is a single overjoyed moment on this album – from the title alone you can tell it’s not a happy song. What it does right though is through the smart and liberal use of video game samples, remind us of those afternoons after school or weekends in which we’d go to the arcade with friends and have a blast pumping those machines full of quarters. Palomo may have preferred another method of distraction, but there was a certain satisfaction to be gained from everything as classic as Pac Man to putting the pedal to the floor in a driving game or knowing that your parents didn’t want you playing Mortal Kombat. That he only finds sadness in an arcade while simultaneously exploiting video game sound effects is almost counterintuitive. This, coming from a guy that used to perform in his early pre-Neon Indian days while wearing a Nintendo Powerglove. It’s that uncertainty, that push towards something darker as the music itself sounds lighter than ever, that makes “Era Extraña” weaker than its predecessor. For all the advances Neon Indian has made sonically, verbally and psychologically Palomo has run the other way. He’s retreated into this more pessimistic and serious place but can’t even be bothered to try a little sarcasm on for size. The record is still a success, but not nearly what it could have been had the outlook been a little brighter. With big, fun-sounding music, you want to have the artist reflect that back at you with their words. LCD Soundsystem had their fair share of sadder songs (“All My Friends”, “Someone Great”), but those were often balanced out with silly numbers (“North American Scum”, “Drunk Girls”). Once Alan Palomo is able to find that same dichotomy, Neon Indian will truly hit the big time.