When Neon Indian mastermind Alan Palomo says that his second LP, Era Extraña, was an attempt to make shoegaze from chiptunes, the idea sounds like it's incongruous: using tinny digital sounds to author those booming sonic symphonies Kevin Shields and co unleashed from six strings and plenty of pedals? Those who treat the guitar as totemic object —not so much a symbol of rock'n'roll, more its very spirit— may snort, but Palomo's attempt at genre-fusing doesn't feel like some musical Wuzzle, but a natural cross-breeding of related strains.
After all, the similarities between shoegaze and chillwave —the genre Palomo effectively helped invent on 2009's Psychic Chasms— are many. Both use a sheen of effects to wash out the songs underneath. Both create elusive, cloudy, swirling atmospheres. And both have a hazy quality born of dreams, daydreams, memories, and nostalgia; running rock'n'roll's familiar form through obfuscating filters that distort and bleed sound into irregular soundwaves.
When Powergloves Cry
So Palomo's 'step up' record —whilst bigger, brighter, louder, and more accessible than its weird, wobbly predecessor— feels like more of the same. Once more, Palomo is exploring crumbling, faded technologies; the guy who once brought the Powerglove into indie-rock mining all kinds of synthesizers, sequencers, and old video game consoles. On "Arcade Blues," he fries wiring and litters crunchy 8-bit sound-effects through a ghostly disco ghostly with a "morbid fascination" with faded technologies.
Where electronic music was initially minted as pure futurism —thus becoming the soundtrack to a space-age 21st century of the mind— there's heavy nostalgia, now, in synths. To make a synth-pop album in the '10s is to harken, in some way, back to the '80s, and that dialogue —revisiting the past's music of the future— is a fascinating study in the new millennium's online phenomenon, where all past is present, and all present instantaneously past.
In the compressed telescopic timeline of human awareness, chillwave was passé before 2009 was even over. Era Extraña is Palomo staking a place away from that summer-of-chillwave (which, ironically, people are now nostalgic for). If that micro-genre was music made, disseminated, and consumed entirely via the internet, these new jams are made to be played in the 'real world': forged whilst touring, ready to be broadcast from festival stages.
Does that make Era Extraña better than Psychic Chasms? Well, yes and no. Whilst it has genuine sonic heft and greater dynamic range, the wonky, homespun, handmade charms of the first disc feel lost. Where the first album's tape sheen was warm and reassuring, a haze akin to faded polaroids or washed-out super-8 footage, here the surface noise seems more cold, distancing, isolating.
Of course, that was the likely intent; after all, Palomo worked on the album in Helsinki in winter, and there's disconnection and distance throughout the lyrics. "Polish Girl" —which almost sounds a little Postal Service-ish— is a song about a lost love who exists, now, as but memories and pixels on a social network, each fleeting, saddening, elusive. "Every photograph and story/trickled through the lengthy web of friends," Palomo sings; "Do I still cross your mind?/Your face still distorts the time."
That same sense of sadness, loss, and people left behind is a recurring theme, best articulated, mid "Halogen (I Could Be A Shadow), when Palomo sings "it's just how I feel/and the absence is too real." Where electronic music was once supposed to be devoid of emotion, here things border on emo: the lyrics all heartache and half-remembered flirtations, the tone filled with longing. But, beyond that, Palomo understands the profound nostalgia of faded technologies; only, this time, the memories evoked are less heartwarming, more heartachin'.
Record Label: Static Tongues
Release Date: September 13, 2011