The first time I heard Neon Indian was in 2005 when I heard “Terminally Chill” while shopping at American Apparel and had to Shazaam this awesome retrowave tune that was undeniably hip. The rest of their first album “Psychic Chasms” was right up there on the same level. Lo-fi production jam packed with weird sounds, crude drum machine, and old-school synths. Ten years later, they are releasing their 3rd album “VEGA INTL. Night School” and after listening to it many times now my geekout level has reached critical mass.
The first thing I’ll say about this album is that it genuinely surprised me. Neon Indian’s previous album Era Extrana was, let’s be honest, a complete flop for me. It had zero tracks on it with staying power. I listened to it several times when I got it, wanting to like it, hoping that it would ramp up in appeal but it flat-lined for me and never jumped up. I have not gone back to it since.
There’s tons and tons of artists out there in all mediums who create something magnificent, something worthy of attention, but then seem unable to ever reignite that level of greatness again. Coming away from Era Extrana, I was convinced that this was Neon Indian. Something lined up for them during the creation of their first album Psychic Chasms and it was magic. All the right elements came together and awesome, memorable music resulted. But in their sophmore effort it was obvious that whatever had ‘clicked’ that first time around simply wasn’t there anymore. I thought hmph, so that’s it then. My expectation was set: LOW.
So it’s super, super inspiring as an artist to hear what happened on “Night School.” After listening to it many times over, I feel that it’s an even stronger album than Psychic Chasms. It’s still brand new so that’s a bold statement because music needs to age a little bit for the proper context to settle in. Time tells you how often you come back to it, how much lasting appeal it has in the panoloply of everything you might want to put on. Most of the time good music occurs as a slow realization along the lines of “hey, this is pretty good > ooh, actually this is really good > oh man, this is a cut above > yeah this is classic material” Night School is the rare exception where the very first time I listened I knew immediately, yep, this is fire.
What separates an “album” from a playlist of songs is cohesiveness. To me an album is a set of songs that creates a mood or takes you on a journey, something that’s complete and self-contained. The mark of a good album is when you create a playlist of random stuff and you insert one of these tracks, hearing it makes you want to hear the next song from the original album instead of whatever’s next on your playlist. With Night School, Neon Indian has achieved that style of continuity.
Okay okay, what makes it so good?! Let’s break it down:
Outrageous palette: the overarching theme is a cheezy late 80s/early 90s shopping mall pop sound deconstructed and rebuilt with modern sensibilities. That’s the core. But a better question is, what doesn’t this album have? I hear hand percussion of many varieties, acoustic guitar, japanese flute, old-school rebirth synthesizer, a sax solo, old TV samples, female backing vocals, detroit techno, chiptunes arppegios, and all manner of odd-sounding effects/processing. There’s a little bit of eastern European flavor going on in there, and definitely homage to Depeche Mode style guitar. The whole thing is very electronic and processed but they manage to throw in something organic a lot of the time too. There’s simply an absurd amount of different sounds to chew on.
Catchy hooks: the main chorus on nearly all tunes is very hummable. There’s a lot of anthems built around simplistic (read: accessible) phrases and Neon Indian dishes that out with proper buildup around them. Often they present a simple melody which repeats again with an extension to the phrase the second time. It’s a tested forumla that works.
Songwriting: The album has a 1 minute intro track. There’s pre-choruses. Breakdowns. Bridges with chord changes. Unexpected basslines. Nothing gets me quite like an unexpected bassline does. After listening to music your whole life you get a pretty good idea of where a particular bassline should lead. When it doesn’t do what your ear expects it to do, that kills me in the best way. If you were to try to cover any of these songs, you’d have to sit down and write out all the sections that are going on.
Production value: There’s a million little touches. Every tune is jam packed with little nooks and crannies. Add a funky synth here that only comes in once and never again. Okay, this tune gets a weird telephone-sounding breakdown at the end. This one has a free-form cadenza intro. There’s a six bar interlude here. The big single from the album gets a seperate part II reprise track that takes it to a mean big-room dancefloor feel. And the whole thing is caked in delay/reverb fader-riding that shoves all the right nuances in your face.
So yeah, I’m blown away by this one. It’s a masterpiece of nostalgia-mining, pop-glitz, thoughtful production, and selective exploitation of dated sound palettes. I still say Beck is the king of taking elements that would sound stupid by themselves and mashing them into a bafflingly awesome whole but damn, Neon Indian has shown up to the record store with a gauntlet to throw. Night School is an album with something to prove and it does it relentlessly. As a musician myself I am inspired by just how severly this blows their previous record straight out of the water. Neon Indian’s style may not be for everyone but wow, what a record.