First gaining a following after the popularity of a series of home-recorded albums self-released on Bandcamp, Alex Giannascoli, better known by his musical moniker of (Sandy) Alex G, achieved the average, teenage, bedroom-dwelling singer-songwriter’s dream when he was signed to a number of small, independent labels, before being taken on by Domino Recording Company for the release of his last album, 2015’s Beach Music. The Philadelphia-based multi-instrumentalist’s brand of raw, homespun indie music serves a growing market amongst the younger generations of music fans, with (Sandy) Alex G being amongst a new wave of indie and alternative artists to start gaining significant traction on a much bigger platform following a series of self-releases, along with the likes of bands such as Car Seat Headrest, Elvis Depressedly, Teen Suicide, Crying and Krill. Of course, after being signed to a label, this variety of musicians retain their rough-around-the-edges sound, with this being amongst the salient points of appeal for such music, with such a hushed aesthetic being associated with a subculture of introverts and recluses. With Giannascoli being one of the more widely-recognised artists to fall under this umbrella, especially following his contributions to R&B sensation Frank Ocean’s two projects from last year, Endless and blond, (Sandy) Alex G has served as a touchstone for many aspiring lo-fi indie musicians. Personally, having found myself to often be slightly underwhelmed with the amount of substance under the surface of Giannascoli’s charmingly spotty stylings, hearing some of the singles released in promotion of his latest album, Rocket, piqued my interest in the project, with the musician seemingly attempting a more grand and ambitious sound that nevertheless existed within a lo-fi idiom. Indeed, based on sonic qualities alone, Rocket is arguably (Sandy) Alex G’s most successful endeavour yet, with the rich timbres employed across this selection of indie, folk, pop and rock tunes creating a generally pleasing listening experience. This being said, beyond the ear candy of some of the more luscious instrumental arrangements, Giannascoli’s compositional style is occasionally somewhat lacking, with certain tracks featuring wanting structures that lead the piece to come across as slightly directionless. The moments wherein Giannascoli does support the dynamic sound of Rocket with some equally detailed songwriting, however, mark some of the singer-songwriter’s best material thus far in his career.
The opening song, Poison Root, establishes the folksy, rustic sound that (Sandy) Alex G marries with his usual, soft-spoken indie music across much of Rocket. The bright acoustic instrumentation, which assumes a bluegrass tone with the inclusion of a duelling banjo, fiddle, piano and mandolin, supports the artist’s introspective murmurs in a strikingly vibrant fashion, with the straight, chugged acoustic guitar chords anchoring the song in a simple foundation that allows room for the Americana-tinged soloing. Similarly, the inclusion of a dog barking in the background may seem like an arbitrary addition to the track, but given the pastoral hue to much of Rocket, as is emphasised by the album artwork, such a sample recording helps transport the listener to (Sandy) Alex G’s world, with the feeling of being sat outside a barn in the country at sunset, listening to a folk band twiddle away at their instruments. Indeed, the cuts in the tracklisting that appropriate many Americana-based musical principles stand out as amongst the strongest on the record. Bobby, for instance, is a fully fledged country and bluegrass tune, being driven by a violin and banjo combo, whilst some sun-dried acoustic guitars strum away for rhythmic support, atop which Giannascoli’s pained crooning is accompanied by some female vocal harmonies, in true blue country fashion. What works so well about this is that, with the vocals not being delivered with the normal twangy, country inflection, outside of the context of this song, the harmonised singing could easily be worked into a track more typical of (Sandy) Alex G’s indie stylings. This is also the case with tracks such as Powerful Man, which is built on a simple but captivating phrase of folk guitar, whilst Giannascoli delivers a memorable vocal line that displays a similar sense of melody to that of classic, lo-fi singer-songwriters like Elliott Smith, and is later joined by the same rootsy fiddle work that has appeared previously on the album. Such an approach integrates aspects of Americana, country and bluegrass music in such a way that is unlikely to alienate any members of (Sandy) Alex G’s core fanbase who happen to not be particularly fond of such genres, as they are assimilated rather smoothly into the raw, homespun sound that drew listeners into his music in the first place.
The grander instrumentation across Rocket isn’t solely incorporated into some bluegrass, jam band type songs, as many of the tracks that play very closely to (Sandy) Alex G’s usual territory are amplified in a rather substantial way. One of the best examples of this comes on Witch, which adheres to a breezy indie sound that is ordinary for the musician, and couples it with a baroque pop aesthetic, with some dainty harpsichord melodies taking the helm for the majority of the song. This instrumental choice lends itself rather well to the airy atmosphere created by the intertwining, heavily-reverbed vocal lines, whilst the acoustic guitars and piano hold down the fort with some supportive chord progressions. Even Horse, an instrumental track, exhibits an interestingly audacious attitude towards timbre. A whirlwind of clicky stringed instruments, most of which seem to be playing in completely different time signatures and tempos, provide the foundation of the piece, whilst a bassy melody is laid down by a rumbling synth. Although there is little structure or progression to this piece to speak of, it nevertheless demonstrates the effectiveness with which (Sandy) Alex G handles much of the more indulgent instrumentation across Rocket, making for a rich and varied aesthetic throughout the tracklisting.
Under the surface of these colourful sonic sketches, however, is wherein the Achilles’ heel of Rocket lies, in that a handful of tracks across the album don’t entirely back up their interesting instrumental choices with fully actualised song structures, whilst other cuts display some less successful arrangement decisions. This issue revealed itself rather early on in the tracklisting, with the second song, Proud, despite its contagious, indie folk melodies, being significantly lacking in terms of the compositional abilities of Giannascoli. As the longest cut on the record, at just shy of five minutes, it’s unfortunate that Proud should follow such a rudimentary song structure, with the admittedly catchy hook being repeated to the point of losing its initial impact, whilst the rest of the track simply follows the same chord progression without doing anything particularly interesting with it throughout the song’s runtime. What’s more, Proud is one of a few songs on Rocket wherein the influence from other artists, particularly Elliott Smith, is arguably a bit too evident. Big Fish, with its simple, muted acoustic strumming and gentle, almost whispered vocals, is a prime example, being so clearly inspired by Smith’s early work that one could be forgiven for mistaking it for a song from the late singer-songwriter’s self-titled album. Other songs on Rocket may be admirable in their ambition when it comes to their grand arrangements, but certain instrumental choices are nevertheless executed somewhat clumsily. The discordant, swirling violin loops that loom over the punchy electric guitar on Brick introduces the track in an instantly enticing manner, which is only reinforced when the roaring bass and industrial drumming kick in, creating a forceful mess of post-punk-esque noise. When Giannascoli’s vocals come in, however, the singer attempts a semi-shouted, semi-rapped style evocative of punk-rap bands like Show Me The Body, but his attempts at mimicking this delivery fall short of the standard set by such artists, not to mention how out of place the entire track feels in the context of Rocket. The vocals on the succeeding track, Sportstar, are even more questionable, with the musician attempting to embellish his usual indie stylings with contemporary R&B-inspired autotuned vocals that ultimately fit relatively awkwardly into the mix and, once again, come across as incredibly out of place.
Indeed, despite the fact that the overall aesthetic of Rocket is what makes it so appealing, it’s a shame that certain experiments don’t yield quite as successful results, and that Giannascoli seldom conveys the entire breadth of his compositional capabilities. This being said, the best moments on the album are exceptional, with Rocket amounting to being perhaps (Sandy) Alex G’s most well-rounded record yet, given that the dynamic instrumental arrangements are utilised in a way that is incredibly complementary to his charming, homegrown sound. If the artist is able to, once again, in the future, capture the sonic magic of Rocket, whilst applying it to a more cohesive and thoroughly realised formula, subsequent material from the singer-songwriter could see the most compelling aspects of all of his work come together in a truly enthralling fashion.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7/10