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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Alex G provokes introspective escapism with genre-bending indie rock

For many of us in Madison, this past week was a time for shouting out in the open air and joining arms in the middle of the street. So as I headed past a wailing, distressed but hopeful mass on the Capitol steps to see singer and songwriter Alex G play the intimate Frequency, feelings of apprehension and guilt crept in; what an inopportune time to huddle together in a confined, introspective space like The Frequency.

Alex G is not one to confront capital P politics, at not least head-on. Whether we’re talking about his apparent ambivalence toward an indie rock blogosphere insistent on contextualizing his sound within indie folk, about the four-track pantheon led by Elliott Smith, or about critical misinterpretation of his plain but meaningful prose, the 23-year-old Philadelphian is much more interested in engaging the people who stand under the nebulae of public opinions and tastes, rather than to puff up that imposing cloud itself.

Mr. Giannascoli is a dude of the least pretentious order, one who genuinely enjoys being around like-minded people—getting to know them, and writing songs about the relationships he develops with them. The ability to watch and listen to this everyman live and express life abundantly, beautifully and with a substantial emotional range lies at the heart of his appeal and influence. The treasure trove of killer melodies and musicality that Alex G uses to deliver the songwriting with are both accessible and propulsive vehicles for his substance.

When I saw Alex G sipping a tallboy and manning the merch table next to the bar during the first opener, I was neither surprised, nor too intimidated to approach this indie unicorn, who was recently tapped by Frank Ocean as a fellow songwriting illuminati on “Ivy” and “White Ferrari” on Blonde. Alex is often pictured hanging with a brew in hand, so I take the opportunity to ask him if he’s had a chance to sample any great Wisconsin beers since he arrived. Pabst was a no-brainer he tells me, then he asks, “actually, do you know any good light beers? I get bloated when I drink the heavy ones, you know?” I tell him that Schlitz is the tasteful man’s Milwaukee lager. He smiles, shrugs and says “cool.”

Whether speaking about the 11 projects which he self-recorded and released, or about his Domino Records late period, which will soon welcome a finished record in early ’17, Alex G doesn’t ruminate about thematic or musical growth from album to album. Although, he acknowledges the marked shift from his bedroom-studio-era album Trick and the past two years’ substantially-mastered DSU and Beach Music. G tells me that he “grow[s] from song to song,” one bead of self-discovery at a time. When I ask about the electronic textures that creep into his music more often each year, he says that sounds are always secondary considerations in his creative process, and that they exist to serve the writing at his work’s heart.

As soon as main opener LVL UP greeted the stage, a glance towards the back of the room finds Alex holding up the rear of the crowd, fresh tallboy in hand, attention paid forward. The brooklyn-based pop punk quartet is a good band with good chops. They play music that is often sunny and churns like Weezer, but they also do grand, heavy ballads that remind me of the melodic metal procession of the band Pallbearer. Give them a listen when you want to hear a skilled band get after it with grace.

Shortly after LVL UP leaves the stage, Alex and his lead guitar Sam Acchione wade gently through the center of the crowd, axes in hand. G is a not-so-tall lank sporting sharp elbows and a dad cap, but his boyish magnetism sets in even before the set.

Once the band gets going, they stay going. The vast majority of Giannascoli songs run between two and three minutes in length, and the quartet sails through song after song, possessed and loose. This is not to say that the dynamics, moods and textures are uniform or lulling.

“Mary” immediately stands out as a showcase for the band’s chemistry. The melody starts cheerfully enough but its shimmering minor key breakdowns, where Acchione’s guitar solos bring tortured soul to Giannascoli’s profane narration of unrequited love, are the truth. The lead guitarist offers backup vocals that are warbled and scratchy in the vein of the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne, and they meld perfectly with his slide guitar to impart an elegant alt-country flavor to the band.

“Bug,” a single from last years’ Beach Music, is an off-kilter indie anthem for the ages, and it sounds big on stage. The foursome definitely aren’t shy on jams, and they even delightfully tap the emo and indie pantheons for a mid-song cover of Blink 182’s “What’s My Age Again”, and the Strokes’ “You Only Live Once,” with the help of first opener Brandon Can’t Dance, whose Casablancas impersonation was appropriately chic.

Although this confidence in “doing a rock show” was cherished by all in attendance, it’d be hard to argue that most don’t gravitate to Giannascoli to be enveloped in his gorgeous introspection. “Memory,” one of G’s most vulnerable, melancholic statements, features the shriveled falsetto that’s stitched into so many of his bedroom recordings. The clarity and articulation with which this voice left the stage was jaw dropping. “Salt,” another single from Beach Music, is a ballad that could've only oriented as an echo in a stalagmite cave. The sublime atmosphere that it created, permeated equally by G’s falsetto and Acchione’s slide guitar riffs, made me weep.

“F*ck Trump” shouts were audible between songs throughout the set, and G certainly gave them all a tip of the hat. But it wasn’t until the encore that he spoke on the issue directly, asking if the audience “could just escape that for one second” for a final jam. There’s no doubt that Alex G creates for himself, first and foremost, and he’s made it clear that songwriting is what keeps him based. Still, he seems most at ease when when audiences’ allow his stories and melodies to subdue whatever periphery noise may be encumbering them at the time, if only in fleeting moments. This contract isn’t one mediated by talking heads, social media posts or polls. It’s a call to action for people to take a hard look at themselves, and to grapple constructively with how they feel about others beneath the surface. This isn’t always a happy or proud process, but it might be one which will empower us to bridge the extensive rifts that plague our republic.

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