No Sun

Nite Jewel

(CD - Gloriette #CDGL 010)

Review by Fred Thomas

In the time directly following her 2017 release Real High, Ramona Gonzalez, aka Nite Jewel, entered a PhD program in musicology at UCLA and also dealt with the end of her marriage. These massive changes are reflected throughout No Sun, the first full-length Nite Jewel album since 2017, and one full of drastic steps forward and away from anything she's done before. From her earliest material, Nite Jewel hit a very specific cross-section of R&B-informed grooves, angular, often lo-fi production, and songwriting that came wrapped in a dreamy haze but never floated completely off the ground. No Sun branches out from the elements that gelled into a signature sound on her earlier albums, going in more experimental and emotionally reaching directions and landing in a brand-new avant-pop territory.

Drawn-out opening track "Anymore" places the vocals clear and loud in the mix, cycling through patient melodies over a growing swell of noisy synthesizers, sharp harmony vocals thick with reverb, and glitchy rhythms. Gonzalez conducts the balance of noise and confessional songwriting with cool control, breaking down the song's din to nothing but her vocals multiple times in a way that could come off messy and unhinged, yet lands effortlessly. No Sun also employs experimental approaches to the kind of R&B songwriting that showed up in relatively more straightforward forms on earlier albums. "This Time" is slow motion and grandiose, starting with minimal synthy instrumentation and waiting until the song is almost halfway done to introduce any rhythmic elements at all. Once the beat comes in, the mix is quickly crowded with chaotic keyboard soloing, distorted guitar lines, and dizzying polyrhythmic patterns. Songs like "To Feel It" and "Before I Go" are dark and moody, evoking '80s late-night R&B radio, where the flowing saxophone and brushed drums of instrumental "#14" and a cover of Sun Ra's "When There Is No Sun" explore a cosmic jazz undercurrent.

No Sun is at its most daring when Gonzalez brings together her gifts for abstract pop songwriting with her newfound embrace of unfettered avant-garde tendencies. "No Escape" pairs vocal hooks that would sound at home on The Velvet Rope-era Janet Jackson with a wobbly synth and blown-out free-form drumming. It's one of many moments on the album that shouldn't make sense but does, with Gonzalez finding a more precise way to communicate despair and frustration by using uncommon combinations of sound. While No Sun carries a tone of loneliness and hurt, there's also a sense of relief that grounds even the most emotionally fraught moments. As the record goes on, we slowly get a sense that we're on the other side of a heartbreak. Always an innovator, Gonzalez uses these songs to process the complex emotions of a difficult phase of life, but also as a means to push her art further. It's raw and fearless, and just as the earliest Nite Jewel albums quietly set the course for entire musical movements of their time, it wouldn't be surprising if No Sun helped usher in a new era of forward-moving conceptual pop.

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