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How Neon Indian Disrupted and Grounded My Life

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Okay, full disclosure; I’m supposed to be writing an article for Hi-Fi Lives about the new Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks record. Actually, I originally planned on finishing it about 4 weeks ago, but…something else came along and changed things.

I could go on for hours complaining about the myriad of academic stuff I should be spending my time knocking out. I’m also moving at the end of this week, so I should probably be filling and sealing the boxes creating a labyrinth of obstacles around my house. The backlog of podcasts that I normally would’ve listened to by now is starting to collect well beyond what I’ll be able to get to before their timeliness expires. My August consisted of 2 funerals and a wedding. There’re plenty of other things on which I could be spending my cognitive energy, right? Instead, I have to take the time to explain the nuances of a record, to which I absolutely cannot stop listening, to the internet. It has simultaneously disrupted my life and grounded me to a place where I can focus on the things that need to get done. Thanks a lot (meant both sarcastically and sincerely) Neon Indian

Calling back to previous articles I’ve written about the serendipitous nature that comes along with modern album releases, as well as my article about the affective nature of music in the fall: The new Neon Indian record, Era Extraña, hits both of these beats. I knew the record would be released at some point in the fall, but I’m not diligent enough to remember, or search for, release dates unless there’re multiple things happening on that day to give me an unrelated point of reference. In short, I’m terrible with dates. Discovering this album’s availability amongst the new releases of the day, when I wasn’t expecting it for another month or so, added an extra element of excitement to my already high level of anticipation.

About the autumn release thing; yes, I have a feeling that this will be remembered as a part of my soundtrack of this year, and it’s not the first time Neon Indian’s done this to me. I happened upon the initial release from Neon Indian, Psychic Chasms, literally en route to my modest Tuesday night DJ gig back in October of ‘09. I was so moved by the tonal atmosphere of legitimate synth-pop which sounded like it was being played on a warped cassette that the patrons of the club that night were subjected to my own personal game of “How many songs can I get away with playing off of this record without it being obvious?”

I should elaborate on the aforementioned “warped cassette” aspect. I think there’s something particularly significant to the instant nostalgia that comes along with the batch of chillwave acts that have popped up in the past few years (e.g. Toro Y Moi, Small Black, Washed Out, etc). Those of us born in the late 70’s and early 80’s were more or less the first generation to grow up hearing synthesizers as a normal aspect of pop music. The use of analog synths and antiquated technology are the new low-fi standard, so these type of acts elicit a nostalgic response even though the songs are new. We’re also familiar with the phenomenon of leaving one’s tapes in the car or outside by the jam box in the heat long enough to alter the sound quality. To this day, when I listen to Radiohead’s The Bends, I still expect particular parts of “High and Dry” and “Black Star” to emit those same three-second backward and warbled bits that occurred where the magnetic tape in my copy somehow switched polarities (as they were on opposite sides of the cassette).

There’s another technical aspect of this record that evokes a feeling of neo-nostalgia. A great deal of the melodies on this record come from synthesizers that are looped and/or arpeggiated rather than played out manually. This is nothing new, of course, but it does a lot to negate the old argument that these technical tools take the emotional element out of music. I think I’m also in that first generation of music listeners that’s become so accustomed to automation that there’s an element of soul bleeding through the electricity.

Ironically, the tone of this record reminds me a lot of My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, which was constructed–with great pride back in 1991–without the use of synthesizers. It’s easily one of my favorite records of all time. However, very similar emotional tones rhyme between Loveless and Era Extraña, in spite of their juxtaposed composition methods. The similarity is probably what’s made Era Extraña so compelling and has placed it in a state of constant repeat on my iPod. It’s something close to my heart, where music belongs–simultaneously new and familiar. I feel as if these types of records are an example of history proving wrong a popular opinion of the past.

Look, my life at the moment is completely in flux. The only consistent piece on which I’ve had to ground myself has been this record. As disruptive as it’s been to my listening habits, it’s comforting to have something that remains constant during the upheaval. I needed Era Extraña more than I realized. Sure; things are finally starting to settle a bit, I probably should finish some of the many projects on my plate, and the new DJ Shadow, Mayer Hawthorne, and J. Cole records are burning a hole in my iTunes. It’s probably time to move on…but maybe just another listen or two wouldn’t hurt…cheers…


Find more artists like Neon Indian at Myspace Music.

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“Goth Star” — HEALTH (Pictureplane cover)

Something quite magical typically happens around September. I’m old enough now to anticipate it happening, but I’ve yet to be able to accurately target from where the feeling will come. I’ll usually start pulling out my favorite autumn classic records (which I’m sure I’ll post about in the future) to let the mix of nostalgia and welcome weather change trigger the emotional blooming season. Normally, the new addition to my ever-growing collection of fall records doesn’t really manifest itself until around October and I’ll not realize its memorable impact until long after the fact. This year was an exception.

This past Monday, for the first time post summer heat and humidity oppression, I got to throw on a hat and hoodie to start my day. During my morning internet rounds, I found a free download (via Last.fm) of the band HEALTH’s cover of the Pictureplane tune “Goth Star”, and the feeling of fall came much sooner than I was expecting. It was perfect, and everything fell into place.

There a few aspects I find interesting about this piece. For starters, I’m not really someone who focuses so much on lyrics.  For me, the evocative aspects of music lie in the soundscapes. I think it’s why, as much as I love rock and roll, I’m just as much moved by a well produced hip-hop track or electronic piece. (Pick your sub-genre. I’m pretty open to all of them.) The original version of “Goth Star”, sans the R&B vocal sample that’s essentially unintelligible, had no lyrics. HEALTH’s version adds subtle lyrical vamps which add to the melancholy feel of the tune.

All we have is lost…

Beg for what you want…

I find it interesting that so many current bands cover the songs of their contemporaries. Another good example of this is Small Black’s cover of Best Coast’s “Sun Was High(And So Was I)”. Certainly this isn’t some new phenomenon, as it was more commonplace pre-MTV era. However, the prior practice was more about songs being sold by dedicated songwriters to performers, rather than the current model of bands writing their own music (mostly…at least as far as rock bands are concerned). Unlike this former “business model”, these covers feel more sincere and facilitate a sense of community amongst indie acts. It hearkens back to Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones covering Bob Dylan songs (“All Along The Watchtower” and “Like A Rolling Stone”, respectively). What makes this instance unique, to me, is the genre crossing. Pictureplane is primarily an electronic act, where as HEALTH is a traditional rock 4-piece (think Nine Inch Nails with more colorful clothing and less overt religious imagery). The de-stigmatization of using synths and samplers in rock and roll enables a lot of this cross-cultural tributing and allows for more accurate recreation of the original pieces.

Look, I live in the American Southeast and I know good and well this bit of cold snap is just a tease. It’ll be 90 degrees again, most likely within the week, and proper autumn weather won’t settle in ‘til most likely late October. However, with all of the other auxiliary aspects of fall kicking off (pun half intended) like football and a new school year/semester, it’s nice to have a soundtrack to welcome in my favorite part of the year. Lucky for me, it’s a cover of a song I like by a band I like. Cheers…


Find more artists like HEALTH at Myspace Music.