Nite Jewel, 'One Second of Love' (Secretly Canadian)

6
One Second of Love
Critical Mass
Release Date: March 6, 2012
Label: Secretly Canadian

by Marc Hogan

Ramona Gonzalez, the Los Angeles-based singer, songwriter, and visual artist behind Nite Jewel, follows a path trod by similarly rising acts like Zola Jesus, Neon Indian, Best Coast, Washed Out, Dum Dum Girls, and Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti, whose Cole Greif-Neill is Gonzalez’ husband and longtime collaborator. It's a familiar career arc: Release a smattering of mysterious, murky singles and EPs on reputable record labels; gradually add production quality; and then, when everyone is paying attention, hit 'em with your clearest, cleanest batch of songs. Profit. But what if your cleanest work isn't necessarily your best?

One Second of Love, Nite Jewel's second proper full-length, drops the gauzy analog veil of Gonzalez's early lo-fi efforts. Unfortunately, what it reveals is a set of mildly insubstantial electro-R&B ill-served by the additional clarity. More tragically, it comes at a time when the best R&B, whether mainstream or underground, succeeds by flaunting its idiosyncrasies, not by scrubbing them away.

Gonzalez's appeal, in keeping with her artistic background, lies in her vibe-laden arrangements. Sure, a catchy bass line or languorously appealing chorus lurked here or there in the chillwave-era haze of her 2009 debut, Good Evening; but on 2010's Am I Real? EP, where Gonzalez began to shed her cloak, standout "We Want Our Things" was more memorable for its ethereal harmonies and fizzy synth-burble than any tune you could hum or lyric you could quote. Accordingly, the best track on One Second of Love is also its most atmospheric, the bassy, sci-fi, bump and grind of lovelorn "No I Don't."

The rest of the album can't match that evocative pang — something like hot coals against cyborg flesh — and is generally more direct. Even so, it has its moments of charm. Take the lithely funky "Autograph," which brings to mind lighter Michael Jackson hits à la "The Way You Make Me Feel" or "Man in the Mirror," although it's about, awkwardly, an autographed heart. (At least she didn't get it tattooed, right?) The chunky, guitar- and harmony-stabbed single "She's Always Watching You" demonstrates another, more intriguing direction the album could have taken, toward the artier R&B hybrids of Dirty Projectors, White Hinterland, or Luyas. Solange Knowles should cover it.

Which brings us to the larger problems here. Stripped of the heavy moodiness of earlier releases, Love invokes comparisons to top-shelf pop stars, but with merely an adequate voice and so-so songwriting, Nite Jewel can't yet compete on that level. The bedroom ambiguities of "In the Dark" are alluring, but when Gonzalez drops down to the lower part of her register, she's no Sade, and the composition is no "By Your Side." The title track, which incidentally lasts 248 seconds, has an appealing krautrock groove, but not enough to redeem this pun: "You'll advise me how to play when I'm with you / My favorite letter… U." Ewww.

More often the record is just tepid, neither as artsy as its predecessors nor as instantly communicative as, say, Everything But the Girl. The rushed phrasing of acoustic-popper "Mind & Eyes" helps keep it from truly connecting, though its sweetly overlapping chorus (shades of Sarah McLachlan's "Sweet Surrender") is never less than pleasant. Slow-motion opener "This Story," with its theatrical, Kate Bush-channeling vocals, is little more than a repetitive song fragment. And though the tape hiss may be long gone, the church-like keyboard drones of "Unearthly Delights," while bringing to mind the solo work of Nite Jewel associate Julia Holter, also suggests the shift to greater fidelity should not be confused with a transition to total coherence.

One Second of Love's soft-R&B half-steps are all the more dispiriting in light of last year's bounty for the genre, which saw artists like Drake and Frank Ocean cracking Top 40 radio by emphasizing, rather than compromising, their strangeness. Similarly, the triumvirate of Holy Other, How to Dress Well, and of course, the Weeknd enraptured the online underground by twisting R&B tropes into something murkily ethereal, angelically reverent, or tenderly malevolent — take your pick. Beyoncé, on "Countdown," built one of the songs of the year out of an attention-deficit array of blaring horns, booty-shaking percussion, and orgasmic moans. Nite Jewel's 10-song, 37-minute album has a fraction of that song's ideas or conviction.

"Can you strip me from this sound?" asks Gonzalez on the obliquely upbeat "Memory Man." Of course, you can, and, on One Second of Love, Nite Jewel effectively carves herself out, casting off many of the trappings that led to previous records being filed alongside the foreboding post-disco of Chromatics or Glass Candy. But when you take the dreaminess out of a style that people briefly, hilariously called "dreambeat" — and, on lighter-than-air closer "Clive," you even take out the beat — well, not a whole lot is left, is there?

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