Nite Jewel Am I Real? [EP]

[Gloriette; 2010]

Rating: 2.5/5

Styles: 80s synth funk, singer songwriter,
Others: Teen Inc., Dam-Funk, Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti

The cover art for Nite Jewel’s latest EP frames her — or, rather, purposely deigns to frame her — alternately on the porch of a large house and under the shade of a broad tree in the house’s backyard. Ramona Gonzalez, a.k.a. Nite Jewel, stands far enough in the background of these wide-angle shots that she’s slightly out of focus. By portraying herself this way, she subtly refuses to be part of the simple objectivity that is one of photography’s inherent traits. For this reason, the photographs that serve as her cover art are terrible photographs, but that’s not the point; with Nite Jewel, both on her EP’s cover art and with the music contained in its six gentle tracks, any claims of technical competence have already been rejected. Am I Real? concentrates Nite Jewel’s exploration of subjectivity and, in a manner that is surprisingly self-consistent, treats subjectivity not as an object itself, but as a present reality.

Much like her debut Good Evening and the work of several other indie outfits operating out of California, Am I Real? betrays a fascination with a lounge-y, synth-driven, nocturnal brand of funk that bears the unmistakable stamp of the 1980s. The half-buried sonics are cleaner and clearer this time around, which somehow only heightens the strangeness of the deliberately weird synth sounds that poke their heads into the mix every so often for a fill or a solo. Gonzalez mumbles half of her lyrics, although on songs like “Another Horizon” you can tell by the way she lays into the melody that her voice — adorned with requisite reverb and blending in with the aural scenery like Gonzalez herself on the album cover — is more of a textural element than an agent for verbal meaning. The songs that feature intelligible lyrics somehow also beg the listener to direct his attention elsewhere: “Forget You & I,” unsurprisingly, begs forgetfulness, and the title track “Am I Real?” engages in formless, self-effacing Cartesian philosophical reflections along the lines of “How did it get so wrong with me?” and “What can I say for myself?”, all while fellow 80s fetish band Teen Inc. deliver the EP’s only convincing and self-assured stretches of guitar and bass playing.

With vocals so willing and able to question and negate their own presence, the EP forces the listener to ask: what, exactly, is the focus here? Because of her reticence as a vocalist, Gonzalez puts a lot of weight on her instrumentals, which, perhaps because of her all-but-explicit apathy for technical sophistication, flounder in effect as often as they survive on charm. The beats range from a genial retro-robotic thud in “Falling Far,” to a gentle atmospheric wash in the verses of “Forget You & I,” to an unsettling, borderline corniness in both “White Lies” and the instrumental refrain of “We Want Our Things.” At several points, Am I Real? devolves from a quirky paean to the lost, hidden magic of 80s synth music, to a misguided revival of all its bizarre aesthetic weaknesses. And although it sounds agreeable enough of the time, this collection fails to offer anything as catchy or even remotely danceable as Good Evening’s “What Did He Say” and fails to argue the case for Nite Jewel’s share of popularity in the burgeoning world of bedroom indie nostalgia. It’s not a failure at what it set out to do, but the reason it’s underwhelming is because, as a whole, this EP spends more time trying to be existentially transparent than anything else.

Links: Nite Jewel - Gloriette

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