The Texan synth-popper follows his playful 2009 debut with an album that has little time for play...or for hooks, melody, or discernible emotion. Well-assembled, though. (Note: review does not contain the phrase 'chillwave.')
Whimsy's fleeting. We knew that Alan Palomo's band-in-name-only would have to release a sophomore album that sounded somewhat different from the debut's jumpy mischief. What we might not have expected is that he'd get rid of the jump and get rid of the mischief -- Era Extraña is a pragmatic sophomore album if ever there was one. The words, and delivery of them, are more "serious"; sonically, it's filled-out, less perky. But in abandoning the perk, Palomo's second comes off weirdly indifferent and even dull -- something his debut, 2009's Psychic Chasms, never was, even at its most arid. Put it this way: if released in 2011, Psychic Chasms would still sound nifty and even unique. But an Era Extraña in 2011 sounds downright regressive.
Extraña was put together in a lonely Finnish winter, with Palomo describing the process in an A.V. Club interview as something close to sensory deprivation. You can tell: the digital swoops and introverted murmuring (someone's been up on his Jesus and Mary Chain records) aren't just serious, Palomo wants to make it all dramatic.
Sometimes he pulls it off. Palomo's a fine constructionist, and his synths are consistently well-programmed in their skirts of melody running and throbbing through the -- sorry -- wave of the music itself: the heavy thwack of "Future Sick" gives a nicely abrasive bed for bits of arena rock guitar and girlish harmonies to stand on the same stage, and though "Polish Girl"s general sound is familiar, kudos on managing to shift the synths from blips into whispy blips, which is apparently not as oxymoronic as we might've thought. "Fallout" might be the record's peak, sonically anyway: there's a haunting vagueness to its molasses pace, with subtle synth-disguised-as-choir tactics used to help the song break unexpectedly from slow Joy Division-esque pummel to a bridge that reaches into bliss...if only for a few seconds.
The lack of stand-out songs on Extraña isn't necessarily a liability; the album's got similarly-titled interludes and a clear opening, which presumably means that it's meant to be taken as a conceptualized whole. In that respect, the coldness of Palomo's winter has stayed behind -- this still sounds like very summer-y music. But his introversion is certainly apparent, and even the record's sprightliest melodies are rigidly grafted to both rhythmic thrust and hooks more anxious than comfortable. Where it's all going, though, is pretty indiscernible, and since Palomo’s singing is now awash in reverb -- sans the quirky cheep of Psychic Chasms, a loss -- his hazily-defined details of something like heartbreak (?) make the album's back-half pretty slow-going.
(Side note of possible interest: on September 13, 2011, Neon Indian released their/his second album, featuring "Suns Irrupt", a song with a near-lift of the rhythm from LCD Soundsystem's 2007 song "Someone Great". On the very same day, Gui Boratto released his third album, III, featuring "This Is Not the End", a song with a near-lift of the melody from LCD Soundsystem's 2007 song "All My Friends". Coincidence? Probably, yeah. Moving on.)
That an artist's introversion sometimes has to come at the expense of catchy songs is fine. It's the record's lack of variation (à la playful ditties like "Laughing Gas") that weighs down the proverbial whole. Appropriately, the funnest cut on the album isn't really on the album at all: "Arcade Blues", with its "Blue Monday" synth patterns, effective high bend of a hook, and punctuating samples from an arcade fight game, comes after a pause; it's meant to be taken as a bonus track, and so be it. The rest of the songs may still be warm, but that doesn't mean they're friendly.
Having the benefit (or not) of being able to scan Metacritic's collected reviews of Era Extraña in its first week of release, I would defer to Luke Winkie's summation of Extraña, writing for Prefix: "It’s certainly more adorned than Neon Indian’s elementary roots, but it’s also a hell of a lot less likable. Palomo doesn’t seem to be interested in making pop music anymore, and while his unique aesthetic keeps him savvy, his melodies are missing."
I'd agree. But I'd add that it's not only the tunes that've gone missing: the unique aesthetic itself has disappeared, too. On Psychic Chasms, the band knew how far they could dangle their self-aware glitch-n-frisk, and though the tracks themselves weren't all stellar, each felt like getting to open another piece of candy. Era Extraña feels more like opening one of those refrigerated boxed sandwiches from the grocery store. I mean, yeah, sure, they're fine. Healthy enough. But are we that hungry?