Neon Indian VEGA INTL. Night School

[Mom + Pop; 2015]

Styles: glam, electronic schmear, rocksteady, not-so-chill-anymore-wave
Others: Ariel Pink, Daft Punk, Black Bananas, of Montreal

As much as I support the resurgence of cassettes as a tool for cheap distribution, I’ve always been more of a sucker for the way music sounds coming out of my iPhone speakers. I mean, right here in my pocket I have a bona fide sonic filthifier that doesn’t require the use of 20-year-old technology to give my jams a relatable sense of scuzz. Especially nowadays, when everything is captured in pristine HD, it’s comforting to know that there’s still a beautifully imperfect method of transmitting music that our generation can call its own.

I feel like Alan Palomo understands exactly what I’m talking about. The best Neon Indian songs exist in an uncanny valley between retro-junkyism and cutting-edge invention, the kind of bargain-basement bangers for kids raised on high-speed Wi-Fi. The synthesizers in Neon Indian songs are wily, untamable things, flailing about and bubbling up to the surface in ways that laugh at the constricted precision of other artists working in the same territory. Palomo packs so many of these sounds into each of his songs that it actually creates an effect not unlike that of iPhone speakers: everything becomes so compressed and blown out that his music seems to push itself forward with a kind of blitzed, nuclear tension.

However, the first two Neon Indian albums were very different beasts from VEGA INTL. Night School, his first offering in four years. Where those albums rode a steady, casual buzz, VEGA INTL. is a calculated stab at high-octane disco cool, the kind of drastic vibe shakeup that comes from an artist with something big to prove. Even in his previous forays into disco pastiche under the VEGA moniker, Palomo never attempted the kind of sultry, self-conscious presentation on display here. It’s all right there in his album covers — Psychic Chasms and Era Extraña bore abstract images, objects of pure imagination and open-ended interpretation. On VEGA INTL., Palomo strike a pose, surrounded by a rigid frame of symbols with specific and contemporary cultural meanings (Japanese text, Robert Beatty).

The rules of the Night School are laid tall from the get-go. “Hit Parade” could be an alternate title for the album, as Palomo paces everything with the relentless thump of a DJ set. Palomo sets up a strict environment: tall buildings, gritty streets, “techno cliques” filled with sweaty bodies. Similarly, all the songs follow a uniform vibe of sleazy synth funk, with a few stray divergences into summery rocksteady (“Annie,” “61 Cygni Ave”) and chugging power-pop (“Dear Skorpio Magazine,” “News From The Sun”). It’s easy to get lost among the haze of laser guns and handclaps, and it certainly feels like Palomo does as he bangs out homages to The Jackson 5 and Daft Punk, one after another. Neon Indian has always been a project obsessed with re-energizing sounds of the past, but up until now, Palomo wrote songs on his own terms, as if any alternate version of pop music history wouldn’t have affected the overall Neon Indian vibe. Meanwhile, even though uplifting tracks like “Annie,” “The Glitzy Hive,” and “Slumlord” might have Palomo’s trademark coating of thick, syrupy analog, something in the songwriting leaves me feeling amiss, like behind all the heavily constructed boogie imagery lies a disheartening lack of ideas.

It’s funny that a seemingly carefree dance album would strike such feelings of concern in me. It’s not like there’s anything wrong or even unusual about Palomo putting on a silly costume to shake up his upbeat downer shtick. But the character that he’s trotting out now feels less interesting than the Palomo from before, when he seemingly wasn’t sweating his profile. It’s a bummer to think that perhaps Palomo feels the need to play some part in order to pull off his “party” album, when in the past he’s delivered perfectly righteous singles entirely using his own confident, laid-back toolbox. And that’s the ultimate disconnect going on in VEGA INTL. Night School: it’s a perfectly respectable, fun dance record, but I just wish its grooves came more naturally.

Links: Neon Indian - Mom + Pop

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