(Sandy) Alex G: Rocket Album Review

In a sense, singer/songwriter Alex Giannascoli is the modern ideal for an indie rock throwback. The frequent comparisons with Elliott Smith or Sparklehorse are legitimate, but mostly regarding his recording process: Every production decision—whether double-tracking vocals or close-mic’ing the guitars—creates the assumption of intimacy, recalling an earlier time when instrumental or monetary limitations necessitated ingenuity. But he records on a laptop rather than a 4-track, and he was an early example of a songwriter leveraging a strong Bandcamp presence into a deal with a high-profile imprint, in his case, Domino. Beach Music, his first album for his new label, was a gorgeous and puzzling release that gained esteem throughout 2015, but it seemed determined to offer continuity with his scruffy early work rather than to serve as any kind of break out. Rocket, a record that first feels oddly soldered together, is in a sense the album that Beach Music wanted to be, the most comprehensive and accessible document of a diffuse catalog.

Even the newfound stylistic hooks here are slippery things. Singles “Proud” and “Bobby” are rootsy in an unfamiliar way—there’s twang, fiddle, yearning harmonies, a duet with fellow Philadelphian singer/songwriter Emily Yacina, and the broad influence of Lucinda Williams. Otherwise, Rocket’s Americana is cobbled together from the junkyards scoured by experimentalists like Califone; “Poison Root” and “Alina” in particular imagine if “The Orchids” spawned an entire subgenre of backwoods psychedelia. There’s some eyebrow-raising Auto-Tune on the queasy piano ballad “Sportstar” and “Brick” is a welcome reminder of the evocative, hard-edged screams of his live show, though the overall experience is a little like hearing a Show Me the Body gig from outside the venue.

Though the sonic diversions on Rocket are the most ephemeral draws, they provide immediate access points and a means of providing distance from a simple archetype. Both Alex G’s falsetto and the cocktail jazz arrangement of “County” obscure how its title references a gnarly prison scene. The narrator, “locked up for nothing/stealing or something” sits next to bloody wall, courtesy of a seemingly quiet kid who swallowed two bags of heroin and a razor blade. “Hey, why don’t you write that into a song/Your fans will dig that,” an officer snarks after Alex sings, “See, I got stories.” It’s unclear whether “see” is meant as an interjection or a response to the prevailing image of him as someone who goes out of his way to deflect any sort of attention or self-disclosure. How would your opinion of Alex G change if “County” was about him? Entire album narratives have been framed on lesser stories.

It’s unclear how much of Rocket is autobiographical—the closer one leans into these songs, the more they confound the first assumption. “Proud” and “Sportstar” can be instantaneously read as rock ‘n’ jock archetypes if that’s what you want to use them for. When “I wanna be a star like you/Wanna make something that’s true” becomes, “I wanna be a fake like you” on “Proud,” it’s easy enough to take Alex G literally considering his touchy relationship with the press. But it’s just as likely that he’s being sarcastic, maybe about himself, maybe about the truthful nature of alt-country. That might initially seem the case when he sings, “Let me play on your team/I’m clean” on “Sportstar,” but every seemingly plainspoken lyric thereafter takes on a tone of anger, then self-hatred and emotions that are much more unsettling (“In the back of my car/Could you hit me too hard?/You’re scarred”) for their inability to be defined or described.

Rocket isn’t unknowable or obtuse, just indirect—more willing to get under the skin or tug on an ear than hit directly on the nose. This kind of purposeful restraint can feel damn near novel in the current day, as efforts to illuminate the artistic process becomes its own kind of oppression—so many of Alex G’s peers feel the need to issue statements outlining the meaning behind any given song and album releases feel like the endpoint of an exhausting cycle of content creation rather than a start of a meaningful relationship. “The reason you enjoy music is because of its unlimited potential, the inability to really understand it,” he offered in a recent interview, and that’s projection to a certain degree. Sometimes, there really is no substitute for the revelations that come when an artist unlocks the mysteries of their work. But it’s certainly the reason why Rocket feels like one of the year’s most endlessly generous records, as Alex G’s restraint is our gift that keeps on giving.


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