(Sandy) Alex G – House of Sugar
On House of Sugar, the unfortunate and forgotten characters of (Sandy) Alex G's stories climb into reality, while his distaste for being confined by genre becomes more adventurous
On the opening track to his masterpiece Benji, a generous and thoughtful work that seems so far away now, Mark Kozelek wondered about his second cousin Carissa’s death: 'I didn’t know her well at all but it don’t mean I / Wasn’t meant to find some poetry / To make some sense of this, to find a deeper meaning / In this senseless tragedy'.
On Hope, taken from House of Sugar, the third Domino record by Alex Giannascoli aka (Sandy) Alex G, a similar feeling is hit upon. 'He was a good friend of mine / He died / Why write about it now? / Gotta honour him somehow'.
Both ponder the use of art in the face of death. Carissa’s random; Giannascoli’s nameless pal, taken by an opioid overdose, something almost inevitable. Both 'senseless tragedies' still. Each work justifies its existence in its ability to recognise this. Neither artist’s body of work is particularly comparable, but what it says from Giannascoli’s perspective is his willingness to finally be open and personal (Kozelek is famously both, to a fault) when he has created a universe of vagabonds and misfits to tell stories with. On Hope, finally, maybe, they inhabit our world.
Elsewhere on House of Sugar, Giannascoli continues where his previous record Rocket left off, creating music that can be at once lustrous and baffling, leaning into all his idiosyncrasies, and still creating melodies and hooks as sweet as the record’s title. Opener Walk Away’s backmasked guitars and pitch-shifted vocals are a staple of the album’s hinted psychedelia, but quickly give way to acoustic-led indie-pop on Hope and Southern Sky, an aching sonic sequel to his song Bobby with its fiddles and melancholic country. Gretel and Taking use electronic textures and deep, thudding drum patterns to stretch what it means to make indie-rock. Giannascoli’s music, even from song to song, can defy easy genre labels.
Rocket managed to be a gateway to Giannascoli’s deep well of work by being a kind of greatest hits of his sounds, but still found time to be as isolating as possible. Here, those listeners who fell for his more conventionally pretty work will be knocked out cold by a four-song run that encapsulates IDM-cum-Japanese environmental (Near and Project 2), faux farmhand accents (Bad Man) and a wild fug of noise that could soundtrack Westworld.
It is intentionally playful and mesmerising. It’s in these moments, when Giannascoli flaunts his ability to turn the bedroom pop moniker he once personified on its head with studio trickery and letting his most outré ideas play out, that the record then rewards you. The dreamy In My Arms gives way to shoegaze that sounds slurry and drunken in a way the characters of a (Sandy) Alex G song only could. Whether the archetypes on House of Sugar are more grounded in reality than those of Powerful Man or Bobby from Rocket is left unclear. But the glimmer Giannascoli allowed with Hope makes everything seem more ambiguous, songs living in the grey areas that the criminals and failures his lyrics gravitate to would reside.
The album ends on a strange note, a typically Alex G artistic choice. SugarHouse, the casino the album takes its name from, is a live cut amongst its studio recording sisters, joining a not-extensive family of records that employ a similar fake-out. It's perhaps Giannascoli’s finest, most uplifting work. Becoming a kind of Philly Springsteen, complete with a Clarence Clemons-inspired sax line, he peels away the artifice: 'We could still be players together / Let SugarHouse pick up the tab… / When our children go digging for answers / I hope they can put me together again'. No matter how badly we, or the inhabitants of the House of Sugar, fuck up, we’ll be remembered in stories like these.
Listen to: Southern Sky, In My Arms, Sugarhouse (Live)