It could be easy to forget that Nite Jewel's Ramona Gonzalez was at the forefront of some of the sounds that dominated the 2010s. Dreamy electro-pop tinged with R&B exploded during the four years between 2012's One Second of Love and Liquid Cool, and during that time many of Gonzalez's contemporaries opted for glossy approaches that blurred the boundaries between the indie and Top 40 versions of this style. With her third album, Gonzalez redefines that line -- for herself, at least. Gonzalez felt One Second of Love's shiny surfaces and emphasis on pop diluted her music, and at times, the album bordered on overworked. She reclaims her independence on Liquid Cool, a term she's used to describe her aesthetic: Gonzalez recorded it on her beloved eight-track in a studio she built herself, and released it on her own label, Gloriette. Just in case anyone was unclear on her intent, "Nothing But Scenery" and "Was That a Sign" begin the album with the kind of mood-setting washes that defined her early work. Indeed, there's a slight murkiness to Liquid Cool that feels like a throwback to Nite Jewel's debut album, Good Evening, but these songs feel more cohesive even as they threaten to evaporate -- perhaps a lingering influence from the One Second of Love days. "You Now" layers Gonzalez's voice into something both driving and delicate, while she gives just enough structure to "Over the Weekend"'s breezy laments.
As she proved on her previous album, Gonzalez can deliver irresistible hooks as often as her contemporaries when she wants to, and Liquid Cool boasts some of her freest-sounding pop songs yet. "Kiss the Screen" and "Boo Hoo" are shimmery fantasies of longing and disconnection, and while it's tempting to imagine what they'd sound like with more deluxe production values, the slight amount of sparkle Gonzalez gives them is arguably more effective than full-on glitz. Likewise, it's not hard to imagine Kate Boy or even Carly Rae Jepsen performing "I Mean It," but Gonzalez turns it into a song more appropriate for the bedroom than the dancefloor. At times, Liquid Cool teeters between sounding restrained and sounding unfinished: "Running Out of Time" doesn't quite hit the epic heights it should, and "All My Life" is one of the few times when Nite Jewel's drifting feels meandering instead of transporting. While Gonzalez still hasn't hit the perfect balance between her experimental leanings and undeniable pop skills, Liquid Cool turns the strengths of her debut and One Second of Love into her most consistent album yet.