Top albums of 2015 advent calendar: Day 18
Neon Indian - VEGA INTL. Night School
VEGA INTL. Night School is something of a concept album about a small American town in the 80s and the seedy activities that they get up to there after nightfall. It's full of drugs, mystery, sex and murder, and is all brought to life by Alan Palomo's unbelievably exquisite rendering of sounds from the era updated for modern day consumption.
The opening "Hit Parade" sets up the album perfectly, introducing the loping, elastic beat that Palomo doesn't let drop through the album. The 80s sheen is immediately noticeable and the inducement to start bouncing along is as irresistible as if you're listening to hit radio from a golden era. The intro segues into "Annie," a neon-lit pop teaser in which the titular character has gone missing and Palomo can only leave questions on her answering machine - his desperate pleas about this retro device forming an irresistible hook.
Palomo then takes us on a grimier trip through the neighbourhood on "Street Level" where he points out "red lights like blood clots, red eyes like gunshots." Things don't get any more comforting on "Smut!" where he takes us into an adult video store with a song like a funkier, more fleshed out porn soundtrack.
Throughout VEGA INTL. Night School and its descriptions of the uncongenial people and places through which we wade, Palomo is always celebrating these people - never admonishing them. The album is always set to funk, and the urge to dance springs up in every one of his interwoven melodies and squelchy beats. The peak of these moments are when the album gets to its sluttiest, as on "The Glitzy Hive" where a guy goes looking for the starfucking object of his affections "at the monster party." On "Slumlord" we're taken around a run-down apartment block where we see the residents hustling their way through life to pay the rent and not get beaten up. Meanwhile Palomo lays on a blockbuster hook blown up by a monstrous bassline and tropical synth melody so good it expands into the extended outro "Slumlord's Re-Lease."
Then there's the murder mystery epic "Baby's Eyes," in which a young female killer goes on the run while Palomo still yearns and searches for her. The song is a slow build of vintage synth sounds gradually intertwining to create a large tapestry reflecting the conflicting emotions of Palomo as he tries to make sense of "the violence in her pretty eyes."
There are so many more tracks on VEGA INTL. Night School that I would love to talk about, but it's best that you go and experience them. Palomo takes the tales of seduction, sex and betrayal and puts them into clubs, bars and backalleys that you can see illuminated by neon lights catching on obscuring fog. These people are run-down, cheating grifters, but seen through Palomo's 80s-inflected vision they're vibrant and compelling. This makes this album into one of the most consistently fun and lively albums I've heard in a while.
Have I bought this album?: Yes, on lovely translucent yellow vinyl.
Jenny Hval - Apocalypse, Girl
Jenny Hval's Apocalypse, girl is a sci-fi story about the ever-impending end of the world - on the inside of one woman. It's an album about self-doubt, identity, disorientation, fear of aging, paranoia, sexual repression and just about every other neurosis that seems to pervade our consciousnesses in the modern day. This is Jenny Hval's account of coming into contact with these feelings and the resulting imagery and music is fascinating.
The album starts with "Kingsize," a spoken-word speech that starts empowering ("think big girl, like a king"), but quickly becomes confused ("I've placed four big bananas in my lap"), then doubtful ("I always wanted to be less subculturally lonely"). Finally there is the immortal question "what is SOFT DICK ROCK?" If you're confused it's ok, Hval gently takes you by the hand and guides you through her mind tunnel on a pathway of turquoise luminescence. This leads you to "Take Care Of Yourself," which hones in harshly on one of depression's harshest realities, self-neglect, and gently asks "am I loving myself now? Am I mothering myself now?"
Hval's voice is so delicate and beautiful at most times, but can be turned on a dime into a much harsher, cutting instrument. She ensures that she gets full mileage out of both ends of this range, using the sonorous tones to layer up gorgeous instrumental tracks like "White Underground" and "Holy Land." However, my favourite of Hval's vocal modes is when she's teasingly untamed, as on "Heaven" where she gracefully alludes to her own death singing "I went to climbing the ladders just to fall uncontrollably to Heaven!" On the gothic "Sabbath" Hval reminisces about a day from her childhood when she saw a naked boy and suddenly became one, devilishly announcing "he is contagious!" Later in the song she uses her brilliant instrument to wearily reveal that "some days I feel like my body is straightened, held up by thin braces, metal spikes embrace my spine, my face, my cunt" - spitting out that last word irreverently.
I listen to so much music these days that it's fairly rare that I get addicted to a single song, but in the case of "That Battle Is Over," I was absolutely in love for weeks. It's immediately engrossing as the rhythm provided by wooden drums shuffle along beneath a placid lake of hovering synths, while Hval takes centre stage expressing so much worry and taking her magnificently malleable voice all over the map with emotion. She tells us "that newspapers and statistics tell me that I'm unhappy and dying," elsewhere she hears "our mothers softly humming: you're at the end of history." She finally breaks down completely begging "WHAT'S WRONG WITH ME?" high and uncontrolled, echoing viciously as the rest of the song breaks with its passion.
Apocalypse, girl is an album of purest human intent; that of sharing the deepest feelings and personal revelations in a way that exalts them through music. Hval has laid out her entire mental state here, full of repetition, self-doubt and wild imagery. It's a journey through modern day existence from the point of view of one person, but so warmly and richly presented that we feel a deep and comforting empathy when we listen.
Have I bought this album?: Yes, got it at her absolutely stunningly strange gig at Cafe Oto.