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'Beach Music' Alex G's Assured and Somewhat Remote Label Debut

Alex G-Beach Music-Domino Recording Company-3.5 STARS

“Ready,” the eleventh track on Alex G’s label debut “Beach Music,” is the most succinct encapsulation of the sometimes-frustrating magic its artist is capable of creating. Alex G—short for Giannascoli—sings a lilting mantra over again: “She came right through me.” As his reedy voice gets louder and more guttural, Giannascoli starts bringing in subtle vibraphone countermelodies, staccato guitar phrases, and, eventually, a smooth organ that carries the song to sleep. The swell and subsequent fall is so technically perfect, so paradoxically restrained and maximalist, that Alex G almost fades into the woodwork; he is the animator rather than the presence. The disparity between Giannascoli’s undeveloped musical identity and his prodigious talent holds “Ready,” and the album, back from the brilliance of which Alex G is almost certainly capable. Despite the fact that “Beach Music” often trades in warmth for exactitude, Alex G continues to prove that he has the ear and the raw skill to create beautiful noise.

Alex G Beach Music

Alex G is only 22. He’s released seven full-lengths on Bandcamp, plays essentially every instrument known to man, and has affected an increasingly penetrating falsetto to accompany his eclectic lo-fi mélange. 18 months ago he was finishing up his junior year at Temple University and putting the finishing touches on the fantastic “DSU,” a slightly punky, often beachy paean to teenage angst and miscommunication. Now, he stands poised to ascend to indie rock heaven thanks to the buzz “DSU” generated and his signing to godmakers Domino Recording Company. Amidst all of this dreamy fanfare, Giannascoli has crafted, in “Beach Music,” a restrained, artistic statement that doesn’t do much to distance itself from his past work. The album may be more consistent in its sound and mood than Alex G’s other LPs, but it also feels less experimental, more willing to glide by on its progenitor’s inherent ability.

One of the primary elements that holds “Beach Music” back is its lyrical malaise. The new work doesn’t have any songs like “Harvey,” a surreal, self-contained portrait off “DSU” that tells a story of imagination, striving for success, and the danger of illusions. Here, most of the words are elemental—references to staying, going, walking, other obvious forms of literal and metaphorical movement. Only a few songs rise above this generality: “Kicker,” one of the album’s standouts, bursts open with “White bird in a black cloud / You flap / Eyes rolled back” and continues in the same visual vein, offering glimpses of “Twitchin’ out the corner of your eye” and “First flight / Into white light.” This brand of confrontational imagery is infinitely more engaging than the stripped-down stanzas on most of the work. Giannascoli is not only capable of writing a gorgeous lyric, but he also has the instrumental acumen to gracefully follow a dense cypher; his guitar and bass bounce gloriously around with his enunciation.

Why, then, doesn’t Alex G put more obvious stories into his songs? Perhaps it’s a matter of keeping the instrumental integrity intact—if you stuff too much poeticism into a small space, you run the risk of entering a Dylanesque territory of words augmented by music and not the other way around. And Alex G creates compelling enough instrumentals that he could let lyrics melt into the background entirely, relying, like My Bloody Valentine (for a disastrously cliché example), on his jangly guitars and harmonics to fill in the obscure specifics of his words. But Giannascoli doesn’t let his lyrics fade; they are almost always comprehensible, his voice turned up as loud as any other instrument. He has a responsibility, if he’s going to keep words central to his vision, always to say something at least nominally interesting.

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What keeps “Beach Music” out of the realm of disappointment, granted its lyrical troubles and stylistic similarities to the rest of Alex G’s prolific output, are the subtle improvements on his sumptuous instrumentation and production. Giannascoli talks with himself several times over the course of the album through subtly utilized vocal modulation. The beautiful “Station” sounds, despite the predictably vague words, like a contentious debate between the ethereal, high-pitched Alex G and his more brutally honest, low-voiced counterpart. “Brite Boy,” the most purely pretty song on the collection, employs a similar back and forth. Elsewhere, Alex G uses illuminating, brief guitar flourishes, unexpectedly psychedelic tape loops, and even brief hints of heavier synth and 808s.

Even though Alex G hasn’t yet been able to mold his truly savant skill into something humanistically engaging or quite his own, he is a music nerd’s joy. And judging by the flashes of true inspiration of “Beach Music,” he’s only a matter of time away from uniting all of his ideas about sound and space into something revelatory.

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