Review: Neon Indian – VEGA INTL. Night School

NEON_INDIAN_AUG_11_417%20by%20Ben%20Rayner

Across the course of two albums, Alan Palomo has managed to construct both an almost airtight signature sound and make other purveyors of psychedelic dance music look just a bit limp by comparison. Back when debut album Psychic Chasms was released, Palomo made a statement with wobbly synth lines and fuzzy logic. The name of the album alone was an indicator of what you were letting yourself in for: a mind-bending leap across the synapses of the brain, connecting up the physical and mental receptors with music that made you want to both dance like there’s no tomorrow and get so stoned you’d find moving your limbs a challenge. Indeed, one of the highlights of that album was the sweeping grandeur of ‘Should Have Taken Acid With You’ and ‘Deadbeat Summer’ was a microcosm of the slacker logic embedded within a lot of Palomo’s early work.

When Era Extraña came out four years later, Palomos project had already been placed unfairly into the camp of chillwave, a movement whose often languid motions didn’t really seem to fit the overarching ethos behind Neon Indian. So this sophomore effort still resisted the labels others wanted to force upon him and the Texan continued to plow ahead, albeit with a more streamlined, less DIY sound engineered by Dave Fridmann, responsible for works by The Flaming Lips and MGMT. Neon Indian had managed to build a pretty large cult following, filling gigs with a party atmosphere and a cheeky sense of humour – even Era Extraña’s biggest cuts crammed in a found sound or bonkers sound effect here and there. Perhaps the biggest leap on that 2011 effort though was how this new work seemed to embrace a loose sense of romanticism, and while it wasn’t strictly about love or its many facets, it was difficult not to notice a glassy-eyed sense of wonderment in the LP, mostly spurred on by Palomo’s own vocal performances.

That sense of romanticism has been put into overdrive on Neon Indian’s third album, VEGA INTL. Night School. And when Palomo puts any of his emotions and sounds into high gear, you’re in for an exhilarating ride. VEGA is 50 minutes of crushingly bombastic dance music built on a ridiculous amount of ideas and the lingering sense that Palomo has been listening to just a little bit of Prince and Giorgio Moroder here and there. It’s certainly not a record for anyone looking for subtlety but on an album by Neon Indian, who would want it any different?

After the now common prelude on the form of ‘Hit Parade,’ ‘Annie’ might leave you thinking that you’re in for an album in which the frantic synths are reigned in a bit, thanks to its tight tropical beats. But all of that is blown out of the water by the warped nature of ‘Street Level,’ which reintroduces the elastic synths, modulation and warped melodies and you realise you’re on familiar ground. ‘Street Level’ has a chopped and skewed feel but is still very much a pop song, four minutes of your classic verse-chorus structure simply hiding under a love of nostalgic sounds. There’s a constant towing of the line between the deepest recesses of seemingly uncool and unloved electronic genres of the past and the effortless steel and poise of contemporary dance music.

Indeed, everything Palomo touches on this record is a hazy blurred line between high and low culture; a bold step into the postmodern. Take dear ‘Dear Skorpio Magazine,’ which sums Neon Indian’s passion for cult ephemera up beautifully in its title alone. Skorpio magazine is a now defunct Italian magazine originating in the 70s – imagine FHM, Maxim or the ilk and you’re halfway there. But then ’61 Cygni Ave’ references a binary star system within the Cygnus constellation.

As such, ‘Slumlord’ embodies everything that VEGA is brilliant at evoking in the listener. Its opening salvo is a brash but mournful and almost baroque lone synth that Vangelis would be proud of, morphing into what might be Neon Indian’s most mainstream effort yet. It’s certainly dancefloor ready thanks to a nagging beat and a deceptively simple melody that flourishes here and there but is held back and restrained. The crowning glory that embodies all of the juxtapositions of theme and sound on the record here is Palomo himself. He lends the track an emotional depth that belies its glossy, polished sound. “You can go on and on and on/ As long as you’ve got the money” he sings, although the latter line is almost imperceptible. Without keen ears you’d probably miss out on the desperation sitting in plain sight lyrically, but luckily Palomo’s voice is one that conveys this melancholia with aplomb.

It’s something he must be aware of, as he uses his own voice with more passion than on Psychic Chasms and Era Extraña. Though ‘Slumlord’ might be the finest example of Palomo’s vocal talent shining through, there’s plenty of evidence elsewhere to suggest that without him, VEGA would be lacking in heart. It’s the vocals, which often juxtapose against the sunnier backdrop of the melodies, that means VEGA takes the step from the romanticism of Era Extraña to Romanticism, with a firm capital ‘R.’ Palomo himself lends a sense of adolescent innocence to ‘Annie,’ the oddball yet sensitive yearning of ‘Street Level’ and the burgeoning sexuality of ‘Smut!’ while also being the seemingly dissenting counterpoint on ‘The Glitzy Hive.’

Admittedly, there will be some who feel like VEGA overstays its welcome somewhat. After seemingly beginning to wind down with the unusually restrained ‘Baby’s Eyes,’ there’s a sudden one-two punch in the form of ‘C’est La Vie (Say The Casulaties’ and the aforementioned ’61 Cygni Ave.’ ‘C’est La Vie’ is an odd Frankenstein of a song, stitching together two entirely different tunes at the halfway point in a manner that’s jarring. Palomo’s voice also happens to be pretty irritating here as he adopts a crazy, scratchy falsetto that’s probably meant to be funny, knowing wink but comes across as try-hard. ‘Cygni Ave,’ on the other hand, is just a bit tedious and repetitive, and while there’s some interesting warped vocals you can’t help but think it might have been worth trimming this one down a bit.

Really though, by the time ‘News From The Sun,’ the most shameless tribute to Prince found on the album, ends this dizzying stumble along the fine line between euphoria and desperation, it’s easy to forgive VEGA of its sins. It’s an album that continues to build on the distinctive niche of sound that Palomo built with his first two efforts. It’s ridiculously layered in feeling without seemingly trying, a fluorescent streak of almost bipolar extremes that pushes and pulls at your emotions while also being an infuriatingly good dance record. It’s undoubtedly Palomo’s best to date and might be in serious danger of upsetting some album of the year lists.

VEGA INTL. Night School is out now.

This review was originally written for Queen Mob’s Tea House.

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