Depending on what you want to believe, Leyna Noel’s Psychic Reality project is either named after the Freudian concept for “the force of reality associated with the subject’s internal fantasy life, which could oppose and even dominate perception of external reality” or a “metaphysical retail store” in Oakland, California, right next door to her former home base of San Francisco. Either reason for the name is equally as likely, given the spectral, out-of-body qualities of the music. Moreover, the soul of Psychic Reality communes precisely with the vibes of her label brothers and sisters at the crystal-worshiping, mind-psalming label, Not Not Fun. With names like High Wolf, Sun Araw, and Robedoor, Not Not Fun sounds more like a commune than anything, and in a way it is. The label has always succeeded in finding and supporting those within its particular spiritual space, whether they live next door or half a world away.
Psychic Reality is the solo project of Leyna Noel, former keyboardist in the final incarnation of Pocahaunted. She was a star among stars in that band, intertwining her vocal harmonies with those of Amanda Brown and Diva Dompe, mind-melding with her keyboard as she took it for a walk, and otherwise ruling things insanely hard. Her aura also left an imprint on Pocahaunted’s final recording, Threshold, in which she provided the electrifying surges that help propel the music to and ultimately beyond a fever pitch. If you happened to catch Pocahaunted on their last US tour in the summer of 2010, just as I did in a living room-cum-sauna in Columbia, SC, then you know that some things are just too powerful to keep on existing, and Noel’s move from SF to NYC helped precipitate the end of Pocahaunted, just as they were realizing their potential as a five-piece.
Luckily for serious Not Not Fun devotees and you — the potentially ripe convert to NNF’s psychical overtures — the burgeoning spring brings with it a Vibrant New Reality. After some out-of-print cassettes and a couple of splits on NNF with Sex Worker and LA Vampires respectively, Psychic Reality’s debut solo joint is more polished than any of her other work to date. That refinement partially comes with the passage of time and gained experiences, but it also has to do with the skills of Phil Manley, who has previously worked with beefier-sounding acts like Trans Am and Jonas Reinhardt. His deft touch here has helped to flesh out her sound, giving it more depth, especially in relation to the vocal layering and effects, the album’s more pleasurable features. On previous tracks like “Meta-Prayer” from the LA Vampires split, Noel employed a stark, minimal canvas of drum machine and keyboard, mostly using her voice as the most prominent instrument, bent for better or worse by effects. Those four songs felt raw but full of promise, falling somewhere between Björk and Inca Ore in balancing the sultry with the strange. A small furrow but a fertile one, to be sure.
The album’s high point is undoubtedly the lead single, “Fruit,” with its vaguely otherworldly flourishes and mystical vibe. With trick-turning vocals over a 4/4 beat and desert-sweeping melodies, its perhaps a blueprint for what Rainbow Arabia’s Boys & Diamonds should have been. Its also a track where Noel showcases her sizable vocal chops. While not on the otherworldly scale of Björk, she is capable of approaching the Icelander’s timbre on occasion. In the sensual grandeur of the murky “Expla” and the pensive slow-burner “Soft Script,” Noel also manages to hit something of a stride. These two tracks lean toward a darker-yet-welcoming sound, something like Ruth or Tara Cross in their skeletal beats and lush, distorted textures.
Where Vibrant New Age runs afoul though is when the songs trend towards the ultimately recognizable. “Momo” and “Fanta” could be Nite Jewel outtakes, gauzy synth numbers with formless soprano vocal warblings. The effort is there but not the results, as these songs lack a definite center. They both end with fractured circus music fanfare that seems out of place given the songs’ synth pop leanings. “Hi High,” while a pleasant enough song, is reminiscent of early High Places, in name and in deed, evoking the sunshine nursery rhymes of songs like “Head Spins” and “Sandy Feet.” While I wish High Places had made more music along these lines, “Hi High” sounds more so like a tribute number or a cover of a High Places song I’ve never heard.
Having discovered Noel’s other, more conventional musical persona, its no wonder that Psychic Reality is so vocally-driven. She’s certainly a talented natural singer, capable of being charming and easy on the ear, so its particularly interesting that Psychic Reality often aims for the opposite, obfuscation and roughing up your ear drums, with Noel’s voice often veiled in various effects and processing. She obviously recognizes the power of her voice as the strongest weapon in her arsenal, but she might be misappropriating her abilities in these languid, formless songs. That’s not to say that Psychic Reality needs to cut its hair and put on nicer clothes. Noel can stay as weird as she wants to be while seeking out her true self. As evidenced by the majority of this album, she’s well on her way.