My headphones suck. I had a pretty nice pair of Shure ear buds for a while there (still under warranty… I hope…), but of course – what with planned obsolescence in our consumeristic society and all – they wore out leaving me with a two dollar set of black plastic junkers my girlfriend bought for a plane trip a couple of years ago in a seedy airport gift shop, which she is most graciously letting me borrow. I’m no earphone-expert, but these things sound awful. They carry almost no bass, and have literally no noise-isolating/canceling capabilities (making use of them on my daily bus commute almost pointless). To make things worse, these things aren’t just uncomfortable, they are excruciatingly painful. Normally, you couldn’t pay me to listen to music in them. But alas, the due date for this Neon Indian record review is looming over my weary head, so here I am… and somehow, listening to this album with these over-big, hard-plastic pellets stretching out my ear canal isn’t so bad. In fact, with its decidedly lo-fi approach, AM radio aesthetic, patchy synths, and crunchy drum tracks, Psychic Chasms would almost feel wrong on fancy expensive cans.
And there’s a lot of stuff in 2009 that’s been able to get away with sounding horrible. Who’s tired of the glo-fi scene yet anyway? A show of hands? Me neither. With artists like Pictureplane, Memory Tapes, YACHT, and Gold Panda garnering more and more national attention for their bedroom-pop saturated, pirated-software-executed nuggets of dance gold, Psychic Chasms writes a fitting chapter to the musical story of the year. We live in a time where young, musically creative minds have a greater access to information and home recording technology than ever before, and somewhat of a musical explosion has resulted. It’s a scene that simply ignores the news – all this hubub about a failing economy, stocks, unemployment? Today’s underground style and practice feels like a big F-U to a culture obsessed with money and having the biggest and best of everything. They don’t have it, they won’t have it, and they have way more fun because of it. So there.
But whereas a lot of the aforementioned artists are making sounds of a music-of-tomorrow style, utilizing free, DIY technology towards a cutting-edge sound that hasn’t really happened yet, Neon Indian’s take is the first that feels like it’s looking backwards. Like his hero Ariel Pink, Neon Indian’s Alan Palomo pushes his music back to an era of exite-o-color crime shows and blippy Atari video games by using waver-y, old-school synth tones and reverb-drenched vocals. Combined with big, punchy backbeats, some of Neon Indian sounds almost like Genesis blasting out of your Dad’s truck’s tape deck. It’s reminiscent of a time when crappy headphones like mine were maybe the latest in listening technology: a Walkman’s record in an iPod’s world. This makes Psychic Chasms one of the most nostalgic sounding albums of the year. It beckons memories of watching horrible B movies at ungodly hours, high on a mix of weed and Jolt cola. It’s microwave pizza and Slurpees while melting away a summer’s day on the couch playing the same damn level of Super Mario Bros. over and over and over to make sure you get all the secrets.
So there’s an attitude here as well, and it’s that of a youthfully-lazy, “I’m young, I don’t need a job yet, I have no real responsibility, so who cares?” perspective that feels oddly optimistic or at least insouciant. Life is going by at right about a million miles an hour, and it could make no difference in the world. As long as there good friends and sweet sounds, that should be more than enough to inspire getting out of bed in the morning (or staying in it all day). “Deadbeat Summer” absolutely nails this sentiment. With its squishy, syrupy mix of synths, drums and vocals Palomo gobs up a viscous texture more likely to slows the listener down than it might amp-n-ramp up a dance party, despite its enslaved reliance on a heavy pop groove.
Nowhere is the lo-fi recording style more present than on the album’s title track. The song begins with a glittery, glockenspiel-like vamp before dropping into the track’s heavy, four-beat stomp. The melody slices through via a flexible, static-laden synthesizer that buzz-saws its way straight into the back of your subconscious with a horrifying shriek and stays there. The song highlights another reason for Psychic Chasms’ ultimate success: Palomo has a knack for melody, and even though you can understand maybe 20% of what he’s actually singing, there’s a catchiness to these compositions that’ll have you mumble-humming for days.
The only problem is that these twelve tracks are ultra-homogenous, utilizing similar (if not exactly the same) drum and synth samples throughout. By the end, some of Palomo’s tricks are already tired – there’s tons of mod-wheel vibrato and pitch-bending in the synths, for example. As a result, regardless of how catchy it is or the head-nod factor of the beats, the potential for Psychic Chasms to retain any real lasting power is sketchy at best.. But the thing is that these tricks are really fun (just try to not love the ripping keyboard-as-guitar solo in “Terminally Chill”) and the music comes across as self-referentially ironic. There’s almost a joke to how old and battered the music sounds, and these techniques in performance are there as a smile-raising punchline. There’s also no questioning the fact that Palomo, when given the proper tools, is indeed a musical talent. The fact that he’s already gone through two other musical projects makes Neon Indian feel like a lovable pitstop on the creative highway to a long, successful career. Psychic Chasms does little more than point toward a promising future of consistently rewarding adventures in audio.