Thursday, September 3, 2009

Precious tones

Nite Jewel
Good Evening
Score: 9

As Nite Jewel, L.A. artist Ramona Gonzalez creates an enveloping array of sounds through her analog synths, electronic percussion and ethereal vocals. Good Evening, her debut album, is humid and exotic, with ties to dream pop and alt-disco, yet its identity stretches farther than that.

Perhaps due in part to its 8-track genesis, Good Evening has a wide depth of field between its elements. Gonzalez's voice, pliant and cottoned with reverb, usually ripples out from a submerged or lateral position, passing through permeable keyboard lines until dispersing into the atmosphere.

Obscuring vocals is a risky move and can be a cover for lackluster lyrics. But, as with the Cocteau Twins' Elizabeth Fraser, the stretches of unintelligibility can also enhance the atmosphere and add to the exoticism. It causes the listener to focus on the emotion flowing from the tones rather than on the words. In this regard, Gonzalez is quite skilled, favoring slow-to-midtempo notes that communicate tranquility, yearning, uncertainty and sensuality.

When we're first introduced to Gonzalez's voice, on "Bottom Rung," it's buried; perhaps it is the rung. And yet it's all around us, enfolding the sanctuary- or pagoda-suited keyboard, as if she's pulling a curtain of raindrop beads. Her voice emerges a bit more after the second song, "Suburbia."

Gonzalez's types of keys and drum programming, which often provide a non-Western feel, imply that some of the inspiration for Good Evening came from other cultures. "Heart Won't Start" pipes in flute that evokes the Middle East, while "Let's Go (The Two of Us Together)" gains Latin overtones from wood block, shaker and syncopation. "Universal Mind" is lush and immersive, like a secret garden unfolding, with a trickle of conga and a whispery hiss redolent of tiny flying fauna.

Her cover of Roxy Music's "Lover," which she slows down and makes into a languid dedication, wiggles out beats that seem to cross Ferry-Manzanera with Mtume. That funkiness extends to "Chimera," a track with an Afrofuturistic bassline that pairs great with the synth-claps and keyboard accents while the hi-hat sputters its puck-tss, puck-tss, puck-tss, puck-tss. "You see me show my teeth," Gonzalez sings, and it comes across as a statement of empowerment. Possibly in the form of a smile.

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