Alan Palomo’s debut as Neon Indian, 2009’s Psychic Chasms was not first and foremost a smart album or an emotionally resonant one. Above all things, it was an album with a strong sense of fun. It was a collection of quirky, fuzzy tracks full of intentionally cheap, eccentric sound effects, with lyrics that told stories of lazy summers and missed acid dates. Era Extraña finds him in different terrain. Gone (for the most part) is the whimsy, and in its place lies several exercises in a distinctly American combination of confessional song craft and analogue synth worship. Also lacking is any sign of slacker malaise, now substituted by a more focused sense of musical intent.
The opening instrumental swell of ‘Heart: Attack’ and the detailed strata of the wistfully romantic ‘Polish Girl’ instantly show that the album is a work of craft and dedication, all delicately honed for better or worse. ‘Polish Girl’ shows Paloma at his most sincere, as he plaintively laments “With heat struck afternoons long through / Those idle dreams go back to you”. From here on in, the variance in quality takes an upward swing. ‘The Blindside Kiss’ and ‘Halogen (I Could Be a Shadow)’ have a certain dreamy charm, but the debt they owe to M83’s personal brand of electronica is of Grecian proportions. ‘Fallout’ plods along, building a minimal amount of atmosphere and little else.
It excels when one least expects. Only on ‘Future-Sick’, a seemingly purpose-built anthem for the nostalgia set, does Palomo effectively channel the playful ghost of his debut. As well as having the catchiest microtonal synth melody you’ll hear all year, it moves along with an addictive bass groove and a twinkling mid-song break. Strangely, it takes three short, connected instrumental pieces (‘Heart: Attack’, ‘Heart: Decay’ and ‘Heart: Release’) to fully demonstrate the range, both sonically and expressively, of what Palomo can achieve.
Era Extraña is defined by its one big risk with Neon Indian’s sound. Eschewed of a sense of mischief, its appeal relies on the listener making an emotional connection with the material here. Disappointingly, how easy that is to do is too inconsistent for the record to really make an impact.