Alex Giannascoli’s latest offering blends bare-bones alt-country with heady electronica – Rocket is a puzzling, yet consuming record, writes Harry Sherrin
Released 19th May via Domino Records
Rocket is multi-instrumentalist Alex Giannascoli’s eighth full-length album, and his second with big label Domino. Up until the release of 2014’s DSU with label Orchid Tapes, Giannascoli had recorded his scrappy bedroom pop entirely by himself, distributing it for free on Bandcamp. Just a year or two later, and he found himself signed to one of the biggest and most respected indie record labels, supporting the likes of Built to Spill and even playing on Frank Ocean’s Blonde, providing the guitar lick for ‘Self Control’.
More of a collective effort than Giannascoli’s earlier releases, Rocket hosts contributions from touring bandmates Sam Acchione (guitar) and John Heywood (bass). Giannascoli’s girlfriend, Molly Germer, even appears on the record, providing the violin sections. Don’t be fooled by the abundance of musical contributors, though – this remains very much a Giannascoli project, and totally the product of his sole creative vision.
Unlike previous releases, the group have released Rocket under their new moniker, ‘(Sandy) Alex G’. This change was forced upon them due to copyright disputes over their previous name, Alex G. This probably worked out for the best in the end, though – the now official holder of the title ‘Alex G’ isn’t someone you’d want your music confused with – a cutesy YouTube starlet armed with the ability to fashion detestable chart hits into equally detestable stripped-back covers.
Aside from the name change, though, Rocket in many ways doesn’t tread far from its predecessors. This is especially true of its recording and production. As per his composition method, Giannascoli builds the songs from the bottom up, beginning with a sole guitar section and then steadily adding instrumentation as he sees fit.
This is perhaps why Giannascoli’s albums – and Rocket, in particular – exhibit such a striking variety of sounds; Giannascoli approaches each song individually, rather than as the pieces of a unified whole. Although on the whole this is an asset, allowing Giannascoli to fully exercise his creativity by not restricting himself to a studio project, it also makes Rocket a little indigestible as an album, at times even verging on chaotic.
Opening track ‘Poison Root’ eases the record in nicely, with the rambling banjos and violins establishing Rocket’s more folksy tones. ‘Proud’ follows, with its bare-bones instrumentation and charming lyrics that tread the line between humility (“Wish I could be strong like you, Wish I had something to prove”) and witty absurdity (“Wanna be a fake like you, Walk around with rocks in my shoes”). But after the appearance of standout single, ‘Bobby’, an endearing duet with fellow Philly resident Emily Yacina, the record begins to topple from its seemingly steady foundations.
‘Witch’ and ‘Horse’ hark back to some of the darker, more experimental sounds of Beach Music, with effects-laden textures replacing the primarily acoustic tones of previous tracks. Giannascoli’s delicate vocals and melancholy instrumentation just about manage to keep these songs agreeable. With ‘Brick’ and ‘Sportstar’, however, Rocket really begins to career off course.
‘Brick’ is a lacerating two minutes of pounding drums, droning synths and maniacal yelping. It offers listeners an insight into the group’s more energetic live sound, but its appearance is a jarring hurdle that blocks the album’s progression.
‘Brick’ is followed by ‘Sportstar’, a further impediment to the album’s cohesion. Bouncing piano and droning synths emerge promisingly, only to be followed by the agonising whines of Giannascoli’s vocals pumped through an auto-tuner. This may be a somewhat subjective opinion, but auto-tune in my mind (one that survived the glory days of late-noughties R’n’B) simply has no place in music anymore. Just let it die, Alex.
Thankfully, after this mid-way stumble, Rocket really begins to shine. Standout tracks ‘Powerful Man’ and ‘Big Fish’ showcase Giannascoli’s song-writing at its zenith; here, his bizarre lyricism seeps through in dreamlike narratives of blood-soaked beaches and trippy fishing adventures. Whispered in soothing falsetto, it’s songs like these that afford Giannascoli such frequent comparisons to Elliott Smith, who he cites as a huge influence on his work.
All in all, Rocket is a captivating showcase of sounds that darts between ferocious hardcore-electronica, cocktail jazz and sun-drenched indie folk. The product of a somewhat chaotic artistic vision, this is a record that demands exploration. Though at times it lacks coherence, Rocket’s textural depth and atypical compositions, along with Giannascoli’s lyrical charm, confirm it to be an album worth persevering with.