These days, there are so many microgenres in the world of electronic music that pretty much any kid with a laptop can carve his or her own niche just by accidentally adding more reverb to a bass drum. When we lump artists together into categories like chillwave and dubstep, we often ignore the crucial differences that make many of these forward-thinking acts so interesting in the first place.
Enter Nite Jewel, aka Ramona Gonzalez, a Los Angeles-based chameleon specializing in the funkier, fluffier side of modern electronica. Since 2008, she's reveled in her own brand of nostalgic, bedroom-recorded laptop-pop—one that critics have likened to Lisa Lisa and Debbie Deb, among other '80s pop outliers. It wasn't a particularly original sound, and the lo-fi quality of her recordings—which were, of course, assembled on an eight-track cassette recorder—seemed an unintentional stylistic choice. Whereas many chillwave artists not only work within lo-fi confines but actually embrace them, Gonzalez's songs, with their sweeping, cavernous melodies, simply begged for studio gloss.
On One Second of Love, her third full-length and first on Secretly Canadian, Gonzalez has finally secured an appropriately widescreen sound to match her biggest, funkiest, darkest, most eclectic ideas. Because of her powerful, dramatic voice and synth textures, critics are already pegging Gonzalez as the next Zola Jesus. But Zola Jesus' recent Conatus is edgier and more polarizing—she sings in a throaty, nasally yelp, halfway between Kermit the Frog and Count Dracula, and the music itself is more gothic and insular, dwelling in minor keys and congealing into one monochromatic pulse. If Conatus is the sound of an oddball goth kid with a secret dance-music fetish, One Second of Love is the inverse: the sound of the Top 40-obsessed prom queen with a fondness for pop music's outer limits.
The official Nite Jewel Twitter account sports the description "AOR&B," which is as good a starting point as any. Though One Second of Love branches out quite a bit in its 37 minutes, Gonzalez consistently pairs the soulful with the psychedelic. There's plenty of sea-sick synth-bass, airy harmonies, and crisp percussion that sometimes sounds like a real-life drum kit. And, for the first time ever, the songs are framed with gorgeous sonic clarity.
But while Gonzalez, assisted by producer/husband Cole M. Greif-Neill, has command over the album's sprawling instrumentals, her voice is often overearnest, particularly on the album's more lightweight first half, which sticks firmly to the dance-pop script. Which isn't to say Gonzalez can't sing—in fact, her vocals often echo the sweet, sturdy magic of Kathryn Calder. It's just that some of these early tracks feel like sketches or demos, complete with bum notes and questionable harmonic choices. Lightweight cuts like "She's Always Watching You" and "Mind and Eyes," are, at turns, both painfully out of tune and kinda jokey in their barely funky neon-glow delivery, even if they are unflinchingly catchy. These perkier, dancier moments feel more self-consciously retro, swathed in tongue-in-cheek '80s atmosphere: cute as a button, but nothing you could identify out of a routine chillwave lineup. On these more immediate tracks, Gonzalez feels like a stranger in her own songs—as if she's forcing herself to smile through clenched teeth, choking down her (far more interesting) sadness simply for the sake of having a few singles.
But as One Second of Love spills into its far more adventurous second half, Gonzalez confidently steps out from the shadows of her trendy peers, offering a handful of tastefully nuanced and impressive tunes. Though the title track's bouncy funk-pop provides an early highlight, the album truly kicks off with "In the Dark," a sexy and spooky midnight-soul jam that percolates with Fender Rhodes and an impressively wide-ranging vocal. "Will you walk through me once more?" Gonzalez sings in a low, shadowy rumble. It's unclear whether she's having sex, being possessed by a ghost, or both.
That ethereal spell grows weightier as the album progresses inward, turning darker with every passing track. Atmospheric ballad "Memory Man" is peppered with raw funk guitars and a psychedelic, country-tinged pedal-steel solo that sounds like Duane Allman falling down a well. Even when she resorts to near ambience, she never does so predictably: "Unearthly Delights" is a wonder of minimalist beauty—gently swooping keyboards, crackling snares, the distant arpeggios of a 12-string acoustic guitar. On "No I Don't," she contorts dubstep synth squelches and wandering percussion into a seductive slow jam.
Too adventurous to be pigeonholed into one of electronic pop's rigid genres, Ramona Gonzalez tackles just about all of them on the wonderful One Second of Love. She may have even invented one or two of her own.