The son of a hunky Mexican pop singer, 22-year-old Alan Palomo has star power built into his genetic wiring. He's rail thin, with a mop of black curly hair and big, deer-in-the-headlights brown eyes. He moves around as though all his limbs are connected by rubber bands. And Palomo's singing voice — inherited from his father, Jorge Palomo — is an inviting, grainy alto that's several registers deeper than his speaking voice.
A few years ago, Palomo released electronic albums under two different monikers — Ghosthustler and VEGA. The genesis of his current act, Neon Indian, really came with last year's Psychic Chasms, which comprised twelve tracks of blurry, slurry synth-pop, all set to upbeat drumbeats. It referenced the Eighties more in a reverential way than a mimetic way, and Palomo's peers approved. They packed The New Parish club last Sunday, when Neon Indian made its Oakland debut. To anyone who had actually experienced the era of jean jackets and new wave music, it was an oddly disorienting experience. It's hard to look at so many ill-fitting flannels and formless pairs of mom jeans without wanting to yell, "Hey, guys, the year 1987 called. It wants its fashion back."
Still, you gotta hand it to Palomo for helping popularize a flashback movement — even if he wasn't the original trendsetter. He took the stage around 10:30 p.m., after dream-pop opener Asobi Seksu. His current band includes "string" player Danny Barria, who alternates between guitar and bass, Leanne Macomber, who plays tambourine and a whole rack of keyboards (synths and a sequential circuits six track), and drummer Jason Fairies, whose long hair hangs in front of his face like a drawn curtain. From the audience's vantage point, their rig looks incredibly complicated: multiple microphones, synthesizers, sound boards, things with knobs, wires crisscrossing the stage, unidentifiable gadgetry that draws attention to the synthetic nature of the music. But once Palomo emerged, in a leather jacket and side-parted hair, the audience gave him an ovation worthy of Bob Dylan or Buddy Holly.
Grinning, he queued up the first loop as Macomber grabbed her tambourine. Women cheered. Red and blue lights beamed from the ceiling, creating the illusion of a junior prom disco ball. Palomo thrust the microphone to his chest, as though he were ravishing a delicate young woman. Perhaps he's not a rock star in the old-fashioned sense of the word, but he makes a pretty good simulacrum.
For all the technical detail in Neon Indian's production methods, the music is pretty accessible. Many of the songs he played that night, including "Terminally Chill," sound so jaunty and poppy, they could have easily been theme music for Eighties TV sitcoms (especially Perfect Strangers). Yet kids who didn't grow up with Top 40 synth-pop probably won't object to such characteristics. Neon Indian fits easily into several new "microtrends" — namely "chillwave" and "glo-fi" — whose names bespeak their sonic pleasures. The songs hark back to a particular period of the 1980s, which itself was influenced by a particular period of the 1970s. They're endlessly referential, likeably repetitive, fuzzily addictive, and always driven by solid, blocky drumbeats.
In many ways, Palomo is more a pastiche artist than a bona fide rock musician — which makes him the consummate glo-fi singer. He's handsome in a retro way, but seems to have no knowledge of it. He sings with enough distortion to render his lyrics incomprehensible. He doesn't talk between songs, other than to praise his audience — in the tone of someone trying to win friends, rather than act magnanimous. "This is our first time playing in Oakland," he said, smiling flirtatiously as the audience applauded. "Tomorrow we're about to inhale San Francisco." He made a theatrical arm gesture on the word "inhale," and giggled.
Everything about Palomo is characteristic of glo-fi, from his good looks to his diffidence, his diffused vocals, his fascination with synthesizers, and his geeky apparel (beneath the leather jacket he wore a long-sleeve shirt, buttoned to the neck and tucked into his pants). Critics have wondered if this genre is just a flash in the pan (or a "blip," as one New York Times headline cleverly put it). Yes, it's aesthetically pleasing, but how long can a style last when it's so shallow and repetitive?
Indeed, the songs of Neon Indian blurred together on stage the same way they do on record. Audience members rocked along with the drumbeats, often searching for a melody to latch onto. Only when the band played its hit song, "Deadbeat Summer," did everyone chime in on the chorus: Deadbeat summer. It's just a deadbeat summer. Macomber banged her tambourine and urged us to keep going. Palomo batted his eyes and quaked ecstatically with the drumbeats. In the limelight he looked like a younger, more handsome version of the Eighties TV star Scott Baio.
Which suggests that Palomo may ultimately outgrow — and outlive — the glo-fi genre. Surely he still has a pop career lying ahead.