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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Creating ‘Chasms’ in chillwave genre

Published: March 19, 2010
Section: Arts, Etc.

The blogosphere has become the new arbiter of ephemeral slang and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it microgenres, but that doesn’t mean you can’t also find some fantastic music. The newly-coined microgenre labeled “chillwave” or “glo-fi” is the perfect example; it’s a genre with heavy ambient and synthesizer influences that also combines elements of lo-fi and simplistic melodies, with vague strains of the pop and psychedelic influences that are heard in most new indie music. The two most prominent chillwave artists are probably Memory Tapes and Neon Indian, the latter by far the superior.

Neon Indian is the project of musical dilettante Alan Palomo, also behind VEGA, and Alicia Scardetta. The debut album, “Psychic Chasms,” might serve as chillwave’s mission statement or its last notable work, but it’s just so … catchy.

The album is a half-hour of nostalgia in the truest sense, with an underlying pervasive sense of pain at lost time but in the sunniest beats. Perhaps the cover, a construction paper collage like the kind you made in elementary school, complete with day-glo colors, really captures the aesthetic at hand.

Instant standout “Deadbeat Summer” serves as the perfect introduction to Palomo’s approach of beat-heavy synthesizer compositions with low-mixed, slightly incomprehensible lyrics. It feels like the kind of blurry-eyed sun-drenched lazing that would characterize a deadbeat summer: “Come in blind from the heat … seeing thoughts in repeat.”

Romantic longings, satisfyingly vague, quickly intrude, as Palomo intones “You’re the one that I miss / From my soul you’re the one I still wanna kiss” and embodies his mixture of trippy dreaminess and Proustian longings in the simple yearning of “All my dreams reminisce …”

But the lyrics don’t really matter that much, even when you can make them out. It’s the cassette-based music that makes the album irresistible, heavy on the bass and all fuzzy edges and looping melodies. “6669 (I Don’t Know If You Know)” and reprise “7000” and “Terminally Chill” extend on the themes of “Deadbeat Summer” as Palomo coaxes new and interesting rhythms out of not only electronics and cassettes but his own voice as well. The tone becomes darker and images more abstract, with Neon Indian musing “Everything comes apart if you find the strand / All it takes is a hand.”

The psychedelic elements are pretty obvious, especially in the pulsing, trippy “Should Have Taken Acid With You” which laments a missed opportunity to take LSD and “Touch the stars and the planets too.” The driving beat combines with the wah-wahs and wails of synths that sound oddly like Deee-lite makes “Acid” one of the album’s best tracks, though, of course, the author does not endorse illegal drug use. What makes it so compelling is that the sheer weirdness slides away to leave what is ultimately one of the best recent pop songs. There’s something indefinable in Neon Indian’s hooks; the song plays back in your head even though it’s impossible to really separate out the musical elements that stick.

In that way, it does really sound like the memory of a much clearer hook, like a worn-out cassette that’s been played and recorded over. But that sort of appeal makes Neon Indian’s approach to nostalgia both more palatable and more interesting than the other 60s pop revivals that have become a big part of lo-fi.

Palomo’s past isn’t about specific people or places or things; it’s the faded-out, fuzzy and full sensation of remembering and reinterpreting at the same time. The drifting, looping, toe-tapping flow of “Psychic Chasms” lets the listener connect with the underlying tones of sadness without having to connect with Palomo’s own point of view; the music is oddly specific without being limiting. Neon Indian pushes chillwave to an entirely new level, and this album is unique and listenable without being “experimental” or “difficult.”