Alan Palomo aka Neon Indian, has had one of the more impressive careers of any independent electronic musician in recent memory, simply by refusing to pigeonholed by the sub-genre he inadvertently helped create. While most acts from the beginning of this decade who were classified as “chillwave” have all but fallen by the wayside, Palomo’s music has outgrown that of his contemporaries to become something that’s accessible enough to have a potential place in the mainstream, but with just enough of a unique tinge to keep its hipster cred.
On his debut album Psychic Chasms, he sounded like a shy wallflower standing at the back of the club, unsure of whether or not he actually wanted to dance. There were hints of disco and full blown electronica, all obscured by thick layer of opaque analog synths – but on his third full length album, VEGA INTL. Night School, Palomo has taken his rightful place in the middle of the dance floor. And boy, does he have some moves.
2011’s excellent Era Extraña demonstrated an impressive step up in terms of production quality, while not completely sacrificing the lo-fi analog aesthetic that put him on the map. In the four long years since that album, he has been carefully tweaking every aspect of that sound, and VEGA truly feels the culmination of everything that’s been released so far. The synths and drums sound more or less the same as they always have, but the layering and arranging is ever so slightly more complex. What truly shines more than anything this time around are the guitars and vocals – two things that always felt like they were buried in the texture of the songs rather than existing on the forefront.
Lead single “Annie” is the first full length song on the album, and the very first thing you hear is guitar. Its effect is similar to that of “The Blindside Kiss” on Extraña, which burst forward with an intense shoegaze guitar lead early on in the album. But unlike the muddier guitar tracks on that album, Palomo’s vocals on “Annie” are crystal clear, and he sings in a full bodied, confident tone about missed calls piling up on a girl’s phone as he grows increasingly desperate about her whereabouts.
While VEGA still has a deeply psychedelic feel, tracks like this are funkier than anything on either previous album. Even more exciting is “Ce’st La Vie (Say The Casualties)”, a thundering glam rock anthem with a chorus that features Paloma wailing “Greet your body downtown!” in pitch-perfect falsetto over stadium-sized dueling guitar lines.
While Era Extraña felt dense and icy, bearing the weight of a recent breakup and heavily inspired by being recorded in Helsinki in the dead of winter, Palomo has said that the most crucial part to the inception of this new album was the time he spent on a Carnival Cruise Ship with his brother, who was a member of the house band.
Indeed, both seedy nightclub torch songs and reggae seem to have a heavy influence on the album, especially on tracks like “Dear Skorpio Magazine”, which features a solo from a cheesy imitation-saxophone synthesizer that would be laughably distracting in pretty much any other musical context. “61 Cygni Drive” pushes the dub influence even farther, but he adds his own unique twist on the genre by employing some Dan Deacon-style pitch bending vocals on the chorus.
At 14 tracks, and a run time that approaches an hour, Night School can feel like a bit much to digest at once. In the hands of a less capable songwriter, it could have easily collapsed in on itself in a mess of glitter. All of his trademark tricks from previous albums are here – brief instrumental interludes, songs with linked titles or recurring melodies – but they flow together in a much more cohesive fashion than before.
The 1-2-3 punch of “Slumlord” fading into its instrumental counterpart “Slumlord’s Re-lease” (a clever reference to Era Extraña’s “Heart: Release”) and then into “Techno Clique” is completely seamless and perfectly encapsulates the feeling of a DJ playing an extended version of a club favorite. Palomo’s idea of the album title is that Night School is not meant to be a literal educational institution, just the things people learn while observing others behaviour at night time. Songs often fade into each other as if they are being scanned on an FM radio – as if the listener is trapped listening to a radio where every single station is playing dance music all night.
As the album goes on, Palomo pushes the boundaries of his music even further – “Baby’s Eyes” recalls late-70’s Pink Floyd, while “News From The Sun (Live Bootleg)” features a pretty remarkable Prince impression, all the way down to his over exaggerated breathing in between. While the reverb is still so high on the vocals that the lyrics are often hard to make out on initial listen, when you can decipher them, they all sound like the kinds of things you would whisper to a girl standing outside a bar in a leather jacket, while smoking a cigarette.
Alan Palomo cares very much about pop music, and about crafting it to represent a very specific part of his mind. When I first heard his debut album 7 years ago, I never expected that he would one day be delivering Ted Talks and designing his own synthesizers, let alone releasing an epic double LP chronicling the ups and downs of a night on the town. In addition to being one of the best albums of the year, VEGA INTL. Night School is without a doubt Palomo’s best work yet – a seasick, voyeuristic voyage into the heart of everything about his music he’s felt unsure of until now.
Neon Indian’s VEGA INTL. Night School is out now via Mom+Pop Music, purchase it on iTunes here.
Words by Nick Hart