There are two things that your father thought would never again see the light of day when he put them in the basement circa 1990. One is the synthesizer he played during his own glorious college days; the other is the pinball machine he retired as soon as he purchased a Sega Genesis. And they’re both coming back in a really big way — all thanks to Neon Indian, the allegedly chillwave band led by Alex Palomo.
In fact, the pinball machine might be the best metaphor to describe the alternatively smooth and spastic world of the band’s sophomore album, “Era Extraña.” Take it either as a digressive dalliance or an object of obsessive pleasure, the album unleashes all the zig and zag of the pinball world, using its looping synth beats and bloops to make listeners feel that they are the metallic ball bounced around by a gaming master. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge — Neon Indian is one arcade rat you need to take home so that he can see your Xbox.
Of course, the pinball metaphor seems obvious as soon as the first track, “Heart: Attack,” begins its static-riven, satellite-intercepting journey through the Day-Glo sky. An instrumental track that lasts under a minute, “Heart: Attack” acts as a thesis for the rest of the album — already we sense Neon Indian’s attempt to discover what can bloom from disorder, what can plume from cycles, what can emerge from static.
Such experiments continue in “Polish Girl,” a sleek and sexy track which is underscored by the ominous daydreams that result from heartache. Most important of all, however, is frontman Palomo’s voice — an entity forever lustrous and crooning. Sure, perhaps Palomo doesn’t sound as sunstruck and carefree as he did on Neon Indian’s first album, “Psychic Chasms,” but he’s become more intimate, less computerized.
Another important development is Neon Indian’s ability to settle into a sound. Whereas some tracks on
“Psychic Chasms” sounded like an Of Montreal tune reigned in with Ritalin and electrocuted by the discography of New Order, “Era Extraña” offers a more mature, albeit more conventional, approach to songwriting. Neon Indian is now willing to explore a space and to discover what frictional energies might be produced by moving over a single phrase again and again. “Hex Girlfriend” seems a perfect example of this — emerging from a general static, Neon Indian reigns in the distortion in order to explode with a song that is as cyclic as it is danceable. This, friends, is a song where tripping the light fantastic is required.
Wrapped in the aura of this sound — which obviously tips its hat ‘80s-ward — one can almost sense the appropriation, the collage, the mosaic; but there is something rambunctious, explorative and pioneering in Neon Indian’s sound as well, something that seems firmly pleased with the now. Unlike other efforts this year — say, Destroyer’s “Kaputt” or Craft Spells’ “Idle Labor” — or the glo-fi, chillwave world in general, Neon Indian avoids wistful nostalgia, and instead uses the momentum of the past to throw themselves into the future. Thus the album’s title — Era, as in epoch — Extraña, as in strange, but also as in “extrañar,” to miss. Combining nostalgia with mutation, “Era Extraña” seems especially pertinent now, when everything, as Palomo told Spinner, “Is just a weird amalgamation of everything that came before it.”
That said, maybe my arcade metaphor needs some work — Neon Indian is no dime-powered machine, but a pinball app you can download to your iPhone.