Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Neon Indian Review

Originally posted on Blogcritics

There's a great scene from Breakfast At Tiffany's where George Peppard's character Paul comes to a party at Holly Golighlty's apartment, and agent O.J. Berman asks him if he thinks Holly is a phony. Paul says he doesn't think so. "She is," Berman says, "But on the other hand you're right, because she's a real phony. She honestly believes all this phony junk."

Adam Palomo's Neon Indian project is, in some respects, phony. It's all predicated on retro synth sounds, and echoes 80s video games and has-been New Wave artists whose music has dated worse than their haircuts. Neon Indian is also part of a genre that has been given the tremendously irritating name chillwave. I want to kick my own ass every time I type that. Palomo didn't come up with the name, of course, and you can't fault him for an adjective some over-Adderalled blogger came up with, but still. Chillwave. Yuck.

Neon Indian is real phony, because Palomo honestly believes in the phony junk he's doing. Behind his phony veneer he actually means what he's doing. Any kid with a computer and neon Ray Bans can channel some Tron sound effects and cop an attitude of bemused irony. That's not Palomo's deal. Yeah, he's using a cheesy sound palette just this side of chiptunes, but he's using it to write actual songs with actual emotions.

Exhibit A: "Deadbeat Summer," whose goofy synths are redeemed by the melancholy singing of a lovesick boy stuck inside on a hot summer day doing bong rips and pining after a girl he can't have. In fact, the whole album is imbued with the ennui of a recreational drug user who gets high because he can't get laid. There is a hazy, druggy, bored quality to Psychic Chasms, which is fitting: The first song Palomo wrote for the album, "I Should Have Taken Acid With You," was about a canceled appointment to drop acid with Neon Indian's visual artist, Alicia Scardetta. That song would be immensely lame were it not so damn good. What could have been a cheeky, winking nod to LSD becomes a bittersweet lament about missed opportunities. This is largely due to the longing in Palomo's voice, which comes across in the same pretty but muted way as Kevin Shields' vocals in My Bloody Valentine.

Palomo's influences are pretty obvious. The title track could be a New Order cover, "Terminally Chill" could be a B-side off of Daft Punk's Discovery and "Ephemeral Artery" could be any number of New Wave bands that hit it big on MTV in the 80s. All that means is that he's got good taste. I'll admit that part of the fun of this record is noticing all of those antique sounds that you haven't heard since your Speak & Spell ran out of batteries in 1986, or you upgraded from the NES to the Super Nintendo in 1991. Of course, Palomo was born in 1988, so this album isn't so much a nostalgia trip for him as it is an exploration of an era that he missed out on. In that sense, it's not much different than Jack White playing analog rock n' roll or the Animal Collective riffing on the Beach Boys. The artists are using the sounds of a bygone era as a jumping off point for their musical explorations.

While the dated synths may be a selling point of Neon Indian, the real reason to buy Psychic Chasms, however, are songs like "6669 (I Don't Know If You Know)," with its gorgeous melody and haunting refrain of "But you wouldn't understand." It's proof that Adam Palomo is more than just a smart-assed stoner with vintage gear. The vintage gear is decoration, complimenting strong songwriting that makes Psychic Chasms, much more than a THC-laced trip down memory lane. Neon Indian may be phony, but they are real phony.

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