Through her solo electronic project Nite Jewel, Ramona Gonzalez has always drawn inspiration from both underground pioneers such as The Orb and more mainstream sounds like Debbie Deb and Lisa Lisa. On each of her albums, starting with her addictively offbeat debut Good Evening, the Los Angeles songwriter and producer has evolved by finding new ways to combine these worlds. Real High, her fifth full-length, out on Gonzalez’s own Gloriette label, is the first to truly foreground her pop side. Janet Jackson was the album’s main muse: The title track quotes the titular lyric to “That’s the Way Love Goes” while “2 Good 2 Be True” glides with the specific lightness of “Escapade.”
Real High takes her analog synthesizer loving, lo-fi aesthetic and expresses it with hi-def precision and a hit maker’s ear. The results are both fascinating and immensely satisfying: Avant R&B in the vein of FKA Twigs and Kelela with vocal hooks as sweet as gumdrops and bass lines as dense and springy as foam rubber. Each track is an excellent pop song and a complete sound environment, the sonic equivalent of a sensually immersive art installation. “When I Decide (It’s All Right)” feels exactly like being inside a big, red beating heart. It’s also an assertive yet vulnerable feminist declaration of autonomy (“Don’t tell me to smile”), which is, of course, very Janet.
Everything about Real High, from Gonzalez’s vocals to the hooks and the production, is so sophisticated and smoothly effective as pop that it raises questions about the difference between underground and mainstream music. Many critics today would say there is no meaningful distinction. After all, Ms. Jackson herself has been able to make outspoken, boundary pushing music on the biggest of platforms while still earning a ton of hipster cred. If a distinction exists, it is that Gonzalez doesn’t make music to be loved by millions, she makes music for herself, and it shows in the distinctiveness of her sound.
Having returned to complete independence after a stint with Secretly Canadian, Gonzalez answers to no one, though she did assemble a serious team of talent—previous collaborators Julia Holter, Dâm-Funk and Droop-E as well as her husband Cole M. Greif-Neill—to help out on Real High. Polished as it is, this album exists solely to celebrate the things Gonzalez loves, like oddball synth sounds and the various lineages of vintage electropop. Fortunately, plenty of other folks like that stuff too.