Album Review: Nite Jewel – Am I Real? EP

[Gloriette; 2010]

When you give your EP a title like “Am I Real?” you’ve got two ways of answering the question: with a resolute, life-affirming “yes” or a thoughtful rumination on why the answer might be “no.” Nite Jewel (née Ramona Gonzalez) poses just that question on her latest release, but only musters up a “probably” in reply.

On 2008’s Good Evening and last year’s Want You Back EP, Nite Jewel seemed to posit that quiet electronica could occupy the same space—and pack just as much emotional intensity—as its bombastic, dance-friendly counterparts. You might hear a woozy, bass-heavy track like “What Did He Say” in a venue’s upstairs lounge before jumping in time to some Cut Copy on the dancefloor below. These older Nite Jewel songs carry with them a lo-fi charm that crackles behind the unobtrusive beats and buzz of these intimate cassette recordings.

But what could Gonzalez do with some studio space? We got some indication when she remixed Caribou’s darkly irresistible single “Odessa,” replacing Dan Snaith’s aggressive, almost sinister musical thrusts with a flatter, fatigued sound; if the original captured the heat of the moment, then the remix tries to make sense of the aftermath. It was an intriguing, if expected, sonic alteration of one of the year’s most popular indie dance tracks.

Am I Real? retains the subdued spirit of her earlier work, and therein lie both the EP’s most attractive strength and its biggest weakness. If Am I Real? confirms anything, it’s Nite Jewel’s knack for building stretched, unadorned hooks. On “Forget You & I,” two chords propel practically the entire song, only occasionally buttressed by breathy vocal harmonies or synthy twangs. Opener “Another Horizon,” meanwhile, impressively manages to sound full and spartan at the same time. Gonzalez’s lyrics—as difficult to understand as ever—descend into a catchy series call-and-response yelps, sounding comfortable among a whistling, almost psychedelic keyboard riff that keeps the song interesting while avoiding obtrusion. And on the titular closing track, the EP’s most accessible moment, Gonzalez displays a vocal attitude we haven’t previously heard in her work. During an extended outro, her very human presence wars with locomotive hi-hats and a diffusing bass line, enveloping the listener in the musical iteration of the lyrics’ existential ambiguity; having left the bedroom, do the production upgrades on display here—and the inevitable loss of visceral intimacy that comes with them— make Nite Jewel any more or less “real”?

Unfortunately, the other three songs offered aren’t understated—they’re just undeveloped. Lacking a strong melodic structure and an engaging beat, Gonzalez’z vocal performance sounds static and unintelligible” on the tracks White Lies” and “We Want Our Things.” They just venture past the same boring beats and instrumental choices that just about anyone else who’s ever picked up a basic keyboard and a laptop have tried, and for an album with such marked production improvements on display elsewhere, this unfinished sound is disappointing. When she momentarily plays with vocal echo on “Falling Far,” the listener hopes for more of these synthetic variations; sadly, they never come.

Am I Real? doesn’t quite succeed as a coherent whole, but as a sign of at least some musical progress, this EP still promises good things from Nite Jewel. Let’s hope that the best moments on this release remain just as real on her future work.