An underground hero comes blinking into the light...
'Beach Music'

Under the unassuming moniker of Alex G, singer/songwriter Alex Giannascoli began uploading the contents of his head and heart to Bandcamp several years ago. An audience slowly formed around his ever-expanding oeuvre of home recordings, and since the release of the startlingly good 2014 full-length 'DSU', a world of critical hyperbole has been thrust at the young Philadelphian. Though his name has frequently been linked to idiosyncratic heroes of American underground rock (Alex Chilton, Stephen Malkmus, etc.), his principal skills couldn't be less flashy. Simply put, he possesses the mind of a tinkerer and the ear of a curator.

Like a smart, capable slacker daydreaming his way through school, he learned all the right lessons from past greats without getting weighed down by any of their unnecessary baggage. In Giannascoli's hands, the teachings of classic lo-fi and college rock records became mechanisms for transforming his own outsized adolescent emotions into immaculate yet intuitive guitar-pop poetry.

After earning nods of approval from some very aboveground media outlets, Giannascoli has unsurprisingly left behind the world of micro labels and self-releases to make 'Beach Music', his Domino debut. His inspirations have largely remained intact: there's the smoldering beauty and lunar-dusted awe of Doug Martsch's guitar work ('Bug'), the silvery emotional shifts and unsentimental intelligence of Pavement (the excellent 'Kicker'), and most potently, the post-Beatles melodicism of Elliott Smith and Big Star (take your pick). What has changed this time around is Giannascoli's songwriting and recording process.

Though penned and put to tape at Giannascoli's own apartment, the album was his first to be mixed and mastered in a studio with the help of some hired hands. And unlike the six LPs that came before it, 'Beach Music' was written over the course of a few seasons rather than a few days. Giannascoli may be a young artist, but he's also a prolific one, and it's hard to escape the notion that this small yet significant change in recording rituals has clouded his limpid but delicate vision.

This is most readily apparent on 'Salt', a reworked version of a track that's been circulating in unfinished form for some time. The original acoustic take was a free-flowing, obsessively circular confessional; here it's been recast as cottony synth-pop that drifts through multiple movements without making a fuss about its compositional ambitions. The song is emblematic of an album that's defined by low-key showmanship, and occasionally undermined by the nagging sense that Giannascoli's personality tends to dissipate when stretched out across genres and given a light sonic scrubbing.

Nowhere is this clearer than on 'Beach Music's least characteristic songs. Consider the soused mooning of the brass and piano ballad 'In Love'. Rather than a from-the-heart risk, it comes off as a fine-enough stab at playing Tom Waits for day (and really, who can fault him for wanting to step into that role?). Meanwhile, 'Station', the most outwardly warped thing here, plays more like a good-natured riff on vintage Mercury Rev than a flow-upsetting detour or truly inspired experiment. The album's amorphous, soft-focus production is perhaps too apt a fit for a songwriter whose most prominent trait just might be his easygoing malleability.

Giannascoli isn't just a natural talent, but also a pragmatic one, who previously fashioned the quirks of bedroom recording (queasy atmospheres, cartoonish, pitch-shifted vocals) into extensions of his perceptive observations. This time around, though, his words and delivery are rarely sharp enough to penetrate the layer of aural gauze applied to 'Beach Music'. Intentionally or not, a few stray lines from 'Kicker' best encapsulate the album's overall tenor of uneasy compromise and acceptance: "Heaven, baby, freedom / What's the word? / Right, I forgot / Quiet is the closest thing we got."

A couple of decades ago, Giannascoli's most inimitable forbearer created an aging-out-of-the-scene narrator who helped define an era via the tossed-off couplet, "If I could settle down / Then I would settle down." Having been given the opportunity to settle down and plant some roots early on in the game (thanks to a contract with a sizable indie and a recording budget greater than the sum of the change in his pocket), Giannascoli has adjusted comfortably, if not remarkably. That's the mark of a sensible young adult, and a story of adjusted expectations that somehow feels very much like a product of our times.

Money, manipulation and vaguely unhappy mediums haunt the album's lyrics, though indistinct phrasing and a blearily subdued vocal mix make these themes feel like peripheral, subconscious murmurings (especially when contrasted with the stinging bedroom avowals of 'Trick' and 'DSU'). You could call 'Beach Music' a work of early 20-something ennui, but then you'd probably be troubling yourself more than the guy who actually authored it. This is the kind of generously tuneful, unobtrusive and - it must be said - grown-up record that can make drearily protracted work hours feel a bit more manageable. That's undoubtedly valuable; somehow, it also makes you sort of miss the boy who wrote blade-like folk sacraments that were powerful enough to cut through your lines of defense and ruin your day in less than two minutes.

7/10

Words: Michael Wojtas

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