Show Review: Neon Indian @ The Masquerade (09/19/11)

Between the popularity of apps like Instagram and Hipstamatic and the resurgence of vinyl record sales, you’d be hard pressed to argue that we don’t live in a present that’s in love with its past. And while romanticism is by no means a new convention, conversations have begun to analyze the extent of our alleged “retromania” – which is to say, our culture’s collective, though occasionally illegitimate, sense of nostalgia and – especially in the case of music – our artists’ tendency to recycle and reappropriate the sounds, techniques, and textures of bygone eras. In his newest book, preeminent music writer Simon Reynolds even goes so far as to raise concerns about the fundamental effects that our alleged overreliance on antiquity could hold for the creativity, originality, and distinctiveness of our modern society. And if you were to simply listen to Neon Indian’s new album, Era Extraña – which has garnered criticism for wearing its influences too boldly on its sleeve, tagged by some as derivative or revivalist – you may well start to wonder yourself.

For the sake of argument, though, let’s disregard all commentary on the album’s sound, and instead focus on mastermind Allen Palomo’s process – for all Palomo’s sonic name checking, maybe this is where the album’s innovation truly lies. Walking into The Masquerade Tuesday, where Neon Indian was set to play a show supporting Era Extraña, I was asked if I thought it notable the number of “bands” today that are actually just monikers for lone artists. Well, in an article for the New York Times*, journalist John Wray explores just that – the rise of a trend he calls the “one-man band.” His focus is “bands” like St. Vincent, Final Fantasy, and indeed, Neon Indian – all single artists who create music alone, without accompaniment but without sacrificing lavishness or spontaneity, and then hire musicians to help them translate their recorded albums into live experiences. Palomo – who locked himself away in Helsinki, Finland to record Era Extraña – expressed a similar sentiment in an interview with Pitchfork,** saying that there’s “no real template to follow these days for what a band should and shouldn’t be,” and that “bands” nowadays are just as often “weird little Internet avatars.” Thus, as home-recording setups become increasingly prevalent and affordable, the traditional idea of a band becomes further subverted. So, how many people does it take to make an album? More so than ever, the answer may be one.

Going one step further, though, the whole one-man band phenomenon raises questions not only about making music, but about then taking that music into clubs. Because they’re forced to rely on a handful of hired guns – mercenary musicians essentially, with little or no creative stake in the music – is it particularly difficult for artists like Palomo to transition their albums into a live setting?

Despite how unconventional his process may seem, though, if you’ve ever seen Palomo and Neon Indian in person, in all their glitch, 8-bit glory, the whole spectacle seems surprisingly, well, natural. Speaking on Era Extraña, a friend described the album’s opening measures as the sound of being birthed from a Super Nintendo, which is oddly accurate, and is no less true of Palomo’s live show than it is of his recorded album. As the band walked out on stage, an abrasive instrumental of distorted bass and old school gamer beeps and clicks slowly filled the venue, and the crowd took a few steps forward in anticipation. Palomo’s music – especially his first album, Psychic Chasms – has been celebrated for its exuberance and playful sense of irreverence. Overall, though, the band seemed to dial-up all of the songs a bit, giving them an extra punch and making them significantly more propulsive live than on record. So even though the tracks on Era Extraña are thematically darker than any of Chasms’ more-jocund jams, songs like “Hex Girlfriend,” “Polish Girl,” and “Future Sick” still kicked out the glam and proved that Era Extraña is no less club-ready than its predecessor.

Not surprisingly, though, the songs that got the most bodies moving and feet stomping, even with the cramped quarters, were from Palomo’s seminal album, and set opener Terminally Chill felt more anthemic than ever as the crowd echoed the verse’s once-understated backing vocals, and Deadbeat Summer was received with a physical surge of excitement and plenty of singing along to its titular chorus. Given the amount of critical and popular attention Chasms has received since its release, I suppose it makes sense that Palomo decided to give each album a fairly equal footing in the set list. But withExtraña hitting shelves less than a week prior to the show, I for one would’ve enjoyed hearing a few more of the newer tunes.

Surprisingly, the most disappointing aspect of Neon Indian’s live show was their encore – ideally, one of the highest highs of any concert. After being called back to stage by a barrage of Atlanta Braves-style tomahawk chops (get it, Neon Indian – concert-goers can be so clever sometimes), a befuddled Palomo (who returned to the mic exclaiming, “I don’t know what that means!”) and company played only one song, the breakout hit “I Should’ve Taken Acid with You.” In some respects, the song was a perfectly logical choice to end the show – it’s the first song Palomo released under the Neon Indian name and the one that placed him in the public eye, so he has plenty of reason to cherish and commemorate the track. But Palomo’s vocals were spiritless to the point of sounding completely blasé, especially relative to the rest of the beefed-up songs in the set, and the band’s encore came off as more obligation than celebration. Although the track did well to get the crowd singing and bumping in place, the choice left a bad taste in my mouth for what had been an overall impressive, albeit brief, show.

At this point, Palomo just seems to want to be taken seriously. And with Era Extrana especially, he wanted to prove himself as an artist, to move past that absurd “chillwave” identifier, and by and large he succeeded. The production is cleaner, the songs tighter, the emotions more sincere. And with the help of a few friends and a healthy dose of charisma, Palomo has adeptly and commendably moved his songs out of a lonely studio and into packed music venues, all the while maintaining what made his music engaging in the first. So let’s drop it with the chillwave, shall we, and just dance. Seriously.

* http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/18/magazine/18bands-t.html?pagewanted=all

** http://pitchfork.com/features/interviews/8664-neon-indian/

Set List

  1. Terminally Chill
  2. Polish Girl
  3. Hex Girlfriend
  4. Mind Drips
  5. Futuresick
  6. 6669 (I Don’t know if you Know)
  7. Fallout
  8. Psychic Chasms
  9. Deadbeat Summer
  10. Ephemeral Artery
  11. Heart Decay
  12. I Should Have Taken Acid With You


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