San Francisco – Alan Palomo’s Neon Indian project is a hard one to pin down when it comes to genre. Generally, the whole concept of genres—in terms of modern musical expression—are thought of in either one of two ways: there are those that find comfort in their specifications, and there are those who see those restrictions as a hindrance. These are the sorts of artists or bands that flourish in ambiguity, gleefully blurring the boundaries to be able to romp aimlessly amongst several different categories at once. Neon Indian’s earlier work, while captivatingly idiosyncratic, did not do much to venture outside of the blossoming genre of “chill wave,” but with his third LP, VEGA INTL. Night School, the fences have been burned to the ground, leaving fertile ashy ground from which new prospects can grow. With Night School, Palomo has shattered all expectations by providing his audience with an electronic album that is at the same time calculated, absurd, heartfelt, and very much worthy of the dance floor.
Neon Indian’s last release, 2011’s Era Extraña, peeked curiously at the possibility of transferring to the mainstream, especially with the piping hot single “Polish Girl.” Still, Era Extraña remained very much in the sphere of the esoteric, thanks to its goopy production and numerous, fairly incomprehensible interludes. This isn’t to say that it isn’t a great album—it is, very much so—but its eccentricities outweigh its accessibility. Night School still toys with these ideals, yet does so in a much more cautious manner, as if Palomo is intimidated by the possibility of alienating his audience further. What ends up being presented is a mish-mash of peculiar, engrossing pop and blatantly bizarre interjections of experimental music. Often the two are placed right next to one another, and through juxtaposition basically force the listener to appreciate these contrasting elements separately, as it is often difficult to compare two of these tracks side-by-side. The obvious exceptions are the first two tracks, “Hit Parade” and “Annie.” “Hit Parade” is more or less a brisk overture that hums and scratches in its first few seconds before oozing into a brief nu-disco piece that basically paves a golden path right into “Annie,” the first track released for the LP. “Annie” is pure pop magic: Palomo’s lyrics place him in the role of a gumshoe, seeking out a mysteriously absent object of affection. The instrumentation is funk-laden and breezy, and may be Neon Indian’s most straightforward piece as of yet. Still, we get a sense of Palomo’s more experimental roots as they tickle each chorus and verse with rough albeit sunny synth tones and warped spoken recordings that sound like voicemails played in some dimension where time moves slower than normal.
There are several tracks that play to Neon Indian’s strengths as a musical oddity. Third track “Street Level,” which is founded upon Palomo’s signature use of murky blobs of synths that mingle brazenly with beams of slobbering beats that push the track forward. Following track “Smut!” is almost equally unusual, only because the production takes a step back to allow for Palomo’s weirdly comforting vocal dissonance to trace oily, reverberated silhouettes above the fray. The shorter “Bozo” follows suit directly after, gurgling through its instrumental minute and a half with carbonated glee.
Most of the rest of the album plays out in an unexpectedly reachable manner, with each successive track leaning more and more into the earworm trend. The easiest ones to get stuck in your head are the ones surrounding second single “Slumlord,” which kicks off with a somewhat melancholy synth-organ intro that initially sounds like the first few chords one might hear entering the last level of a Nintendo 64 game. It isn’t long before the sinister edge is shed and the tempo picks up, tossing the listener into a machine of neon keystrokes and grinding bass-tones. “Slumlord” is Night School’s crowning achievement, as it is both seamlessly produced while allowing the listener to have a lot of fun with it. Palomo is very noticeably having fun with it too, stealthily sneaking in lyrics like “It’s easy to be the miser, when no one’s the wiser,” and “It goes on and on and (as long as you got the money).” The song itself is somewhat of a jab at gentrification and millennial culture in general, but the way in which it is executed allows us to dance freely to its infectious beats without being bogged down in its heavier message. It’s somewhat of an uneasy feeling—as exhibited in its slightly erratic arrangement—but it’s a feeling that is welcome and necessary. “Slumlord” barrels right into “Slumlord Re-Release,” a shorter, instrumental take on the single that also acts like an extremely effective bridge into another of the LP’s catchier tunes, “Techno Clique.” “Techno Clique” is detached and sobering, with the lyric “Just you and I,” repeating shamelessly over and under a maze of instrumentation that is far from subtle. Each note pecks at the ears of the listener, but the image of blissful solitude that is repeated in that simple lyric is romantic and relatable. The shimmering synth tones that hang overhead seem to take the form of some sort of audible disco ball, bouncing vibrant rhythms and tones into each corner of the song as Palomo and his subject dance underneath, enveloped in their own universe.
The remainder of the release draws attention through each song’s boisterous eccentricities. “Baby’s Eyes” is a Pink Floyd-like departure that is patient and sly as it oozes into the eardrums. “Dear Skorpio Magazine” and “C’est La Vie (Say the Casualties!)” are well-footed in glam rock, while “61 Cygni Avenue” is the nuttiest track on the album, a party anthem that seems to take place on the edge of someone’s sanity, blasting heavily distorted horn noises and indecipherable snippets of digitized conversation, like some LSD-ridden invitation to the weirdest celebration on Earth.
Having recently had the pleasure of seeing this new material played live, it can be attested that this material really finds its true home on the stage. The LP is great, yes, but at times it feels like its being held prisoner in this format. These are songs that are meant to be enjoyed as performance pieces, because that is where they really shine. Their ostentatious nature give each track a certain kind of urgency, as if they are trying to break free from their state of digital incarceration. Nevertheless, Night School is an LP that has us virtually witnessing an inner battle between two sides of Neon Indian: the one akin to the safe, droopy orchestration we’ve come to know and love; and the bouncier, more jubilant Neon Indian that has taken upon himself to embrace spontaneity through structure. It’s an interesting dichotomy being presented here, but rather than letting them duke it out, there are no winners or losers, just someone finding new joy in their work as an artist. There are so many bad school-related puns that could be inserted here but that’s not the kind of attention this album deserves. The kind of attention it does deserve is a few good listens, a couple of dance breaks, and a few inquisitive looks between friends.