The combination of 80s synthpop samples, a homespun sound and drowned-out vocals in Neon Indian’s 2009 debut album Psychic Chasms emphatically launched the band onto the musical map. The cost? A close (and hard-to-break) association with “chillwave,” a trendy genre that captured the zeitgeist of the late 2000’s, distinguished by an unrefined sound, heavy synthesizer, processed effects and looped samples. Despite this connection, Neon Indian’s humorous and refreshing take on chillwave sound, paired with an intense and compelling first tour won the hearts of many, leading to great anticipation for the group’s follow-up.
Above all, Neon Indian’s sophomore effort Era Extraña illustrates the band’s musical maturation and showcases the evolution of their style, departing from their ambient, sample-speckled debut without losing its defining characteristics. While the cascading synthesizer lines, electronic fills and looped effects are as prevalent as ever, in Era Extraña Neon Indian adopts a tighter, slicker sound without dramatically altering the complexity or relaxed feel the band explored in Psychic Chasms. Part of this development can be attributed to the direct involvement of producer Dave Fridmann, who has produced a number of alternative/indie rock staples, such as The Flaming Lips, MGMT and Mogwai.
Fridmann’s influence is clearly felt as Era Extraña presents a more accessible, alternative-rock leaning sound. From the placement of effects to the clarity of Alan Palomo’s vocals, the producer’s presence can be felt all over the album and has undoubtedly influenced a young band still striving to find its musical niche. However, apart from the Fridmann’s contribution, Neon Indian continues to build on the changes seen in the 2010 release of one-off single “Sleep Paralysist,” a track bridging the musical gap between the band’s first and second albums. Specifically, no samples are used anywhere within Era Extraña, and the tone is more serious, professional and emotional than in the band’s self-produced debut.
Contrary to the detached, distant and murky vocals definitive of Neon Indian’s early style, on Era Extraña frontman Palomo’s voice oscillates between acting as the lead instrument and blending completely into the rich, textured layers of each track. By replacing much of the 80’s nostalgia so prevalent in Psychic Chasms with a shinier electronic sound and catchier hooks, Palomo and his band-mates not only open themselves up to a more diverse musical audience, but also take large strides toward distinguishing themselves as an alt/indie band with an original and definitive style. Overall, these changes maintain the chillwave feel of the album while catapulting the band’s sound forward in time.
The album’s lead single “Polish Girl” epitomizes the mood of the entire album while serving as a prime example of the stylistic growth Neon Indian has undergone. In this track, Palomo strikes a cautious balance between the feelings of isolation and loneliness he felt in Helsinki while writing the record and Neon Indian’s overarching goal to create a catchy, rhythmic album. Melancholy lyrics like “Do I still cross your mind? Your face still distorts the time,” balance with an upbeat, effects-heavy instrumental background. While Psychic Chasms utilized humor to deflect heavy emotions, Era Extraña achieves a new level of depth not before seen from Neon Indian, embracing feelings of desolation and sorrow without being consumed by them. Palomo and his band are thus at a crossroads of sorts, in an “era extraña,” or “strange place,” between the music and the sentiments behind it.
While this album certainly stands as a testament to Neon Indian’s musical maturation, the band still has a lot of room for improvement. In particular, poor transitions between tracks and an overall lack of cohesion across the album suggest that the band is still unsure of itself musically. Though Palomo and company have certainly taken the right steps to distinguish themselves from the typical chillwave band and ultimately reach a new audience, Neon Indian’s focus throughout Era Extraña still seems lost between the band’s “recorded-in-the-basement” past and the accessible alt/indie dimension production value Fridmann brings to the table. Between this confusion and the band’s reliance on boring fade-outs to transition songs, the result is a collection of disjointed tracks that, while fun and exciting to listen to, lacks the continuity and togetherness of a truly noteworthy record.
Nonetheless, track-by-track, Neon Indian’s sophomore release introduces a band starting to find its stylistic footing under the wing of an experienced producer. The average listener will find Era Extraña an accessible, thought-provoking album that traverses genre and emotion simultaneously without becoming too obscure. As a band Neon Indian’s greatest challenge lies in further refining and defining its sound, and writing a record that stands alone as a single, cohesive work from start to finish.