Music Reviews

Alex G Rocket

(Domino) Rating - 9/10

Until now, Alex Giannascoli was perceived as a sparse songwriter whose dark melodic arrangements allude to the fragile genius of short-lived songwriters like Nick Drake and Elliott Smith. And there’s some truth to that in how Giannascoli’s prolific output, all via his personal Bandcamp, depicts feelings of isolation and personal confinement. With the acoustic guitar as his primary songwriting tool, he’s addressed some alarmingly tormenting thoughts, of the kind that could be fairly commonplace from a psychological outlook but are better left unsaid.

These bedroom-recorded acoustic oddities began to expand after the release of his breakthrough full-length for boutique label Orchid Tapes, entitled DSU, an inconspicuous set of sandy, strummy lo-fi that latches onto jagged chord progressions with some synth-assisted ornamentations. His debut with Domino, Beach Music, attempted to solidify his homespun recordings with uneven results; the forced vocal quirks and stripped-back songs Giannascoli brought to the fore were set against punchier melodies that, though faithful to his past work, ultimately gave the material an indecisiveness in having to choose from two sides of the same coin. Not that Giannascoli has ever meant to simplify his approach, but the sonic palette he plays with on Beach Music actually obstructed his more neurotic observations.

Giannascoli is a meticulous arranger with a keen sense of ear, and though he sometimes tends to sabotage his own craft by incorporating too many ideas, it appears as though he’s found a way to channel his talents into a full-fledged record. And alluringly so, as Rocket explores a brainy mixture of cosmic country and folk that draws attention to his imaginative faculty. The hushed banjo of album opener Poison Root sounds like a dulcet that’s addressed to a troubled soul, not to mention that it’s a more compelling start to Beach Music’s bafflingly amateurish introduction. It also doesn’t shed even a smidgen of Giannascoli’s idiosyncratic flair. The song is intriguing and profoundly sad, as it seems to foreshadow a fatal, not-too-distant future.

Poison Root also opens the curtain on an album that’s riddled with dysfunction, though like the most skilled of songwriters, Giannascoli proffers a distraction to the darker themes found in Rocket with some tranquidly beautiful melodies. It leads into the faint twangy stride of Proud, which waltzes its way into a sublime conclusion as an acerbic Giannascoli contemplates on what’s the true barometer of success. Musically, these arch counterpoints are also present in much of the album’s pastoral first third, which adopt traditional forms of European folk with a collage of earthy textures akin to the experimental conceits of older brother-in-spirit Julian Lnych. It also cleverly builds into a pair of instrumentals that demarcate the album’s rise and fall like a narcotized dream.

There’s an endearing peculiarity in how Giannascoli approaches a folk ballad like Bobby, where he duets with longtime vocalist Emily Yacina alongside violinist Molly Germer, providing a colorful naïveté that enriches his songwriting unlike ever before. Rocket does have a freewheeling and more improvisatory feel when Giannascoli ups the ante on the unease, even if doesn’t necessarily abandon the overall album’s folk pursuits. The uncontrolled Brick sounds like a clear outsider when taken out of context, which has a crazed old school hip hop feel, but when paired with the elliptical flow of Sportscar, it does take its careful descent down an imperceptible slope. We’re reminded that Giannascoli will never fail to keep us guessing.

Songs like Sportscar and Bobby seriously elucidate on Giannascoli’s feelings of inadequacy, as they both strongly imply characters who submit themselves to humiliation. Though loosely, Giannoscoli’s troubled portrayals reach their peak on Powerful Man, where the character he assumes suffers a different kind of fear: bumptious machismo. It doesn’t quite prepare one for Rocket’s last half, which from a musical angle, features the best string of songs Giannascoli has ever written. The unfailingly gorgeous Powerful Man comes across as a spectral take on a country western, not too outside of Warren Ellis’s film score work, while the lingering piano keys and jazzy shuffle of Alina imagine a fruitful collaboration between Van Morrison and Jimmie Spheeris. He always relishes the opportunity to add more character, even if it’s with the slightest detail, and in Alina and the acoustic-driven Big Fish, he utilizes a nagging ornamentation to great effect with a prickly curiosity that’s not unlike Leonard Cohen’s use of the jaw harp.

It takes a while to get there, but Rocket eventually takes a more cheerful attitude on Guilty, a slick soft rocker that provides further proof of how Giannascoli and his backing musicians have some serious musical chops. Even if it firmly gives closure with a communal sing-along to boot, Giannascoli continues his dogged pursuit of questioning one’s continually diverging emotions until the very end. Rocket does take you on a dizzying tour into Giannascoli’s mind, both thematically and structurally, without ever dropping you into a tailspin. It’s beautifully conflicted and human, and does provide a unique and unforgettable experience that will continue to charm with its paradoxical qualities for years to come. [Believe the Hype]