Monday, October 11, 2010

Nite Jewel - Am I Real? EP

Ramona Gonzales, aka Nite Jewel, has been slowly building momentum with vintage electro-pop for a few years now. Underrated? Unmistakably. Bound to take over the indie music scene (Ariel Pink-style) any day now? You bet.

I’m convinced even more of her inevitable takeover after her latest EP, Am I Real? It’s not a complete departure from 2009’s full length Good Evening – Gonzales’s bedroom-pop, retro-tinged nod to fuzzy disco – but it is a hint at what’s likely to come in the future.

That is, she seems less concerned these days with lo-fi idiosyncrasies (perhaps she no longer feels the need for that kind of indie credibility?) and is embracing, impressively, a cleaner sound to showcase her pop sensibilities; I commend the effort because it pays off nicely. The synth line and primary beat in “White Lies” alone are so commanding, for instance, that they immediately undercut any assumptions that Gonzales is comfortable with re-hashing an old formula or resting on laurels from quickly fading music fads.

Essentially, the songs are perfectly modeled after sultry pop songs from years past – similar aesthetics can be found with artists like Ariel Pink of Geneva Jacuzzi – but Gonzales has finally polished her sound so that it now also mirrors the accessible and striking flair of pop icons like Madonna or Roxy Music. It was a bold and possibly polarizing move on her part, but I think she’s doing the right thing. In fact, after hearing new songs like “Am I Real?”, it’s hard to believe that Nite Jewel songs were once criticized for lacking hooks or distinguishable and engaging melodies (this critic, however, never made that argument).

As album opener “Another Horizon” starts, one can easily hear the crisp production and underlying drive to hook the listener and introduce an evolving Nite Jewel. And the rest of the EP plays out like I’d expect: it’s a collection of groovy, understated tunes appropriate for any situation, a reflection of Gonzales’s most endearing qualities. Certain aspects of the record echo some of Good Evening’s finest and haziest moments – like the hushed, atmospheric “Falling Far” – but this record is ultimately about change - a preview of Gonzales’s future efforts. I can’t wait to see what’s next.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Jenny and Johnny - I'm Having Fun Now

People will likely approach the debut release from Jenny and Johnny with a number of pre-conceived notions. I can't really blame them. For starters, each half of the duo comes with his/her own baggage (whether such baggage is "good" or "bad" depends entirely, of course, on the listener): Jenny Lewis has had a successful and prolific career with Rilo Kiley, her unpredictable solo outings, and various collaborations with everyone from Ben Gibbard to Elvis Costello, and while not as popular as his girlfriend and bandmate, Johnathan Rice is also associated with his previous work as a solo artist - a singer and multi-instrumentalist known for blending John Mayer-esque vocals with a hybrid of dark blues-folk.

I'm Having Fun Now will also lead people to consider their thoughts on boy/girl duo dynamics in general. Some have been successful - She and Him, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Beck - but others suggest that the novelty has perhaps worn off (ala Pete Yorn and Scarlett Johansson). Despite any assumptions one might have regarding Jenny and Johnny, their first album is its own accomplishment - it should be received as a pop record that is wholly distinct from the artists' previous efforts and other similar boy/girl acts who explore harmony-laden hooks and melodies.

In other words, this isn't a Rilo Kiley album; it's not another one of Lewis's forays into bluesy Americana; and it's certainly not another Rice record underscored by slow-burning songs about love and pain. Stylistically, I'm Having Fun Now is a pop album - every track moves quickly, or at least feels that way, propelled by sharp hooks, tight harmonies, and engaging melodies.

And it's a quintessentially pop album in its stripped-down, honest approach. Neither half of the duo allow the songs to become cluttered or overly tedious but instead focus on simple guitar and percussion work. Many of the songs - like the gorgeous "Switchblade" or "Animal" - recall both the jangly, subdued pop aesthetic found in early R.E.M. and driving grooves of 60s surf rock, while the short but striking "Slavedriver" stands out as the album's anomaly - a quirky, sexy song that is undeniably retro in the most ambiguous way. Both Lewis and Rice have experimented with pop before, but it's clear that they both are, in fact, having fun making music that's pretty damn catchy.

It should be interesting to see what Lewis and Rice choose to do next with their careers. Should we expect another Rilo Kiley album in the near future? Will the couple continue to make music together - or was this a singular creative outlet? Only time will tell, but in the meantime I'm Having Fun Now is a surprisingly satisfying album that proves why boy/girl duos, when done well, can be so memorable. Their songs are cute but forward real and even dark themes; their unique approaches remain intact, but they contribute equally throughout (the consistent harmonies on "New Yorker Cartoon" or "Just like Zeus", for instance, highlight their compatibility and mutual efforts); and they manage to craft interesting songs without taking themselves too seriously. I'm definitely having fun.