Signal Kitchen + hope all is well present:
(Sandy) Alex G
At the end of “Poison Root,” the opening track on Alex Giannascoli’s new album, Rocket, the 23-year-old artist repeats the phrase “Now, I know everything” again and again, his voice seething over a clatter of banjo, violin, and acoustic guitar sounds. It’s difficult to ascertain the exact tone: does he really think he knows everything? Or are these incantations a form of self-assurance, covering up insecurity? The tension between ambition and self-doubt in this closing refrain is typical of Rocket’s fourteen tracks. Over musical backdrops that effortlessly jump from sound collage to country pop to dreamy folk music, the cast of characters that Alex G inhabits have fun, fall in love, develop obsessions, get into trouble, and burn out. Rocket illustrates a cohesive vision of contemporary experience that’s dark and foreboding, perhaps especially because of how familiar, or to use Alex’s word, “unassuming,” the settings are.
With a goat-adorned cover painted by Alex’s sister, Rachel, Rocket is the Philadelphia-based artist’s eighth full-length release—an assured statement that follows a slate of humble masterpieces, many of them self-recorded and self-released, stretching from 2010’s RACE to his 2015 Domino debut, Beach Music. Rocket’s sessions began shortly after Beach Music’s ended, with Alex tracking songs at home, by himself and with friends, in the gaps between a hectic 2015 and 2016 touring schedule. Both albums were mixed by Jacob Portrait (Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Bass Drum of Death), who lent them a fine-tuning that retains the homespun personality of earlier efforts.
Amid the process, in the fall of 2016, Alex made headlines for reasons outside his own releases. He had caught the attention of Frank Ocean, who asked him to play guitar on his two 2016 albums, Endless and Blonde. More than any stylistic cues, what Alex took from the experience was a newfound confidence in collaboration. “I always have a hard time letting people play on my stuff,” he says, “but I saw how comfortable [Ocean] was using other people’s playing.” Alex’s previous albums are largely solo affairs, but Rocket wears this collaborative spirit proudly. Touring band members Samuel Acchione and John Heywood contribute guitar and bass, both soloing on “County”; Samuel’s brother Colin plays bass on two songs as well. Emily Yacina, a more frequent collaborator, sings on “Bobby” and “Alina,” and Molly Germer shows up throughout the album on violin and vocals. Germer’s violin was a game-changer, as the instrument “added a texture that I can’t get on my own,” Alex notes.
The looser, collaborative approach helped cultivate the variety of musical styles that Rocket presents. The dense, folky cluster of “Poison Root” leads to the bouncing country-rock of “Proud,” which is followed by the sophisticated harmonies of jazz-pop tune “County.” Later, the freaky, frantic “Witch” unsettles the album’s pop sensibility, while instrumentals “Horse” and “Rocket” set a more placid mood—that is, until the distorted, beat-driven “Brick” destroys any feelings of serenity exuded by the surrounding songs. Rocket ends with a rollicking free-for-all, “Guilty,” that in its numerous contributors and blaring saxophone synthesizes the album’s communal feel and restless sense of musical experimentation.
In addition to its fluid network of musical styles, Rocket showcases Alex’s ability to project the perspectives of several characters while maintaining a strong personal voice. Whereas Beach Music’s lyrics outlined vague situations, with Rocket Alex was “trying to create narratives that anybody could still inhabit,” he says, “but that had a more concrete quality.” He takes on the voice of memorable personalities such as what seems like an over-confident boy (“Powerful Man”), an alienated schoolgirl (“Alina”), and a couple with a creepily ambivalent relationship (“Bobby”). Their stories are at turns heartbreaking, puzzling, and hilarious; yet no matter the setting or the way he manipulates his voice, you always get an ineffable sense of “(Sandy) Alex G” as well as what he refers to as “an American perspective.”
“Proud,” the album’s longest (and perhaps catchiest) track, depicts a guarded, potentially disingenuous conversation. “I’m so proud of you,” the narrator says. But later, their sincerity falls away: “I wanna be a fake like you…,” they add. “I just wanna play the game.” The chorus strikes an earnest note—that the person singing works not to play “the game” but to provide for their “baby.” Yet Alex makes sure that it’s never perfectly clear who’s talking, or who believes what, casting doubt over an otherwise personable, inviting song. Track eight, “Sportstar,” traces another uncertain—though, in this case, one-sided—dialogue. Here, the narrator is an obsessive fan of the titular “sportstar” who, with pitched-up vocals and atop a melancholic piano lead, recites stalker-like requests that range from benign (“Let me tie your Nikes”) to violently sexual (“Could you hit me too hard”). That the “sportstar” remains anonymous speaks to Rocket’s open-endedness. Even if the stories are grounded in specific ideas and real experiences, Alex paints pictures that leave room for listeners to share in the events—to interpret them however they’d like, without regard for a “right” answer.
“I want [Rocket] to be completely unassuming,” Alex says. “I wanted it to be full of these characters that don’t know how crazy they are.” Rocket doesn’t have a pointed theme so much as these general feelings of unsteadiness and incomprehension—feelings we remember from growing up and that creep into the everyday life of adulthood as well. In some ways, the album’s title encapsulates this sense: “I like the word ‘rocket’ because it sounds immature, attention-seeking,” Alex explains. But while rockets certainly make a big impression, they also burn out. On Rocket, the myopic characters teeter between the initial explosion and the ultimate burning out. Alex himself, though, in a collection of songs that’s both his tightest and most adventurous, is poised only for the ascent.
My name is Dave Benton and I write the songs for the band Trace Mountains. I was born in 1991, I’m from Ridgewood, New Jersey, and I currently reside in in New York City. Since 2009, I’ve released records in various groups, including some projects that are ongoing (LVL UP, Yours Are The Only Ears). Repeating the process of writing and recording music has become an emotionally stabilizing ritual in my life, and I have been very lucky to share that process over and over again with some of my best friends; many of whom I met at SUNY Purchase, a liberal arts college in NY state that I graduated from in 2013. The scene there was vibrant and welcoming to me, both facilitating and inspiring the collaborative work I made in that period and beyond.
Near the end of my college education, I began acting on a latent desire to make something wholly my own. I had been collaborating for so long that I felt it could be invigorating to explore the world of sounds on my own again, as I had done growing up. This endeavor led to a batch of songs that can now be found on the compilation record Buttery Sprouts & Other Songs (2016), which also includes some newer demos and field recordings that prelude my first proper record, A Partner to Lean On (2018). Scrappy and lighthearted, the songs on Buttery Sprouts & Other Songs were first and foremost an exercise in learning to be pragmatically self-sufficient, while exploring new poetic styles and even finding a place for humor in the words. While my songs are usually attempts at candid & vulnerable story-telling, I’ve often tried to make room for a joke, or at the very least, playfulness in the lyricism.
Remaining in a long stage of gestation after the initial creative burst, Trace Mountains practiced and performed infrequently. I was preoccupied by the responsibilities of running a record label (DDW, a label I co-founded and subsequently left in 2016), and touring with my friends in the band LVL UP. Trace Mountains would get together with different groups of folks to perform locally and sometimes tour in the United States & Canada. One particular incarnation of the band (featuring Jim Hill and Liz Pelly), was documented in this heartwarming video filmed in 2015 at a house show in Allston, MA. We covered “Bucket,” a Jeff Mangum rarity that I was obsessed with at the time. Now, when I look back on that era in my life, it gives me a sense of just how grateful I am for these people and for the bond that music can bring. Moments like these come and go in an instant, and sometimes I’m unable to fully feel the impact until years later. One of the few things I know of music-making, is that it has brought me closer to the people I share the process with, if only for short periods.
A Partner to Lean On, the first proper full length from Trace Mountains, is both an extension of my initial excursion to explore the world of sounds in solitude, and a continuation of my lifelong relationship with music-making as a social process. The songs featured on A Partner to Lean On came about over the course of many years, featuring some ideas that pre-date even the earliest Trace Mountains release in 2013. There are also more current songs, written right up into the summer of 2017 when the record was recorded and completed, a time of extraordinary confusion & anger, when the refuge of listening to & creating music was needed more than ever. The way the work spans time periods is intended to be reflected in the record itself, perhaps not strictly linearly, but flowing from place to place, idea to idea, connecting memories, thoughts and things in a way that feels purposeful. It starts in the present, and branches out into different directions to hopefully arrive at a meaningful assessment of where I stand.
Unlike my older work, A Partner to Lean On relies on the talents of a group rather than just myself. In addition to co-producing a portion the record at Gravesend Recordings, Jim Hill played electric guitar and synthesizer. Rhythm section performances were provided by Kyle Seely (drums) and Nick Corbo (bass), and additional vocals were contributed by Susannah Cutler and Ben Smith. I played guitar, synthesizer, and recorded a bunch of other things, overdubbing at my home studio, and when the record was complete, it was mixed by the inimitable Mike Ditrio. It was then mastered by Paul Gold in October of 2017. I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to make this record and I look forward to releasing it on March 30th, 2018 via Figure 2 RC.