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.