(Sandy) Alex G
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Big Thief has partnered with PLUS1 to support forest restoration efforts and defend the rights of immigrants and refugees.
30 miles west of El Paso, surrounded by 3,000 acres of pecan orchards and only a stone’s throw from the Mexican border, the band Big Thief (a.k.a. Adrianne Lenker, Buck Meek, Max Oleartchik, and James Krivchenia) set up their instruments as close together as possible to capture their most important collection of songs yet. The band had only just finished work on their 3rd album, U.F.O.F. -“the celestial twin”- days before in a cabin studio in the woods of Washington State. Now it was time to birth U.F.O.F.’s sister album -“the earth twin”- Two Hands.
In sharp contrast to the wet environment of the U.F.O.F. session, the southwestern Sonic Ranch studio was chosen for its vast desert location. The 105-degree weather boiled away any clinging memories of the green trees and wet air of the last session. Two Hands had to be completely different— an album about the Earth and the bones beneath it. The songs were recorded live with almost no overdubs. All but two songs feature entirely live vocal takes, leaving Adrianne’s voice suspended above the mix in dry air, raw and vulnerable as ever. Where U.F.O.F. layered mysterious sounds and effects for levitation, Two Hands grounds itself on dried-out, cracked desert dirt.
Anybody who has borne witness to Big Thief in the wild will find songs they recognize here. Much of the album’s tracks (“The Toy”, “Those Girls”, “Shoulders”, “Not”, “Cut My Hair”) have been live staples for years. “Two Hands has the songs that I’m the most proud of; I can imagine myself singing them when I’m old,” says Adrianne. “Musically and lyrically, you can’t break it down much further than this. It’s already bare-bones.”
Lyrically this can be felt in the poetic blur of the internal and external. These are political songs without political language. They explore the collective wounds of our Earth. Abstractions of the personal hint at war, environmental destruction, and the traumas that fuel it. Lyrics like “And the blood of the man who killed my mother with his hands is in me/ it’s in me/ in my veins” are genuine attempts to point the listener towards the very real dangers that face our mother planet. When Adrianne sings “Please wake up,” she’s talking directly to the audience. “Attention is power,” she says. “I believe you can manifest something on the other side of the world just by using your power well.”
Engineer Don Monks and producer Andrew Sarlo, who were both behind U.F.O.F., capture the live energy as instinctually and honestly as possible. The journey of a song from the stage to the record is often a difficult one. Big Thief’s advantage is their bond and loving center as a chosen family. They spend almost 100% of their lives together working towards a sound that they all agree upon. A band with this level of togetherness is increasingly uncommon. If you ask drummer James Krivchenia, bassist Max Oleartchik or guitarist Buck Meek how they write their parts, they will describe—passionately—the experience of hearing Adrianne present a new song, listening intently for hints of parts that already exist in the ether and the undertones to draw out with their respective instruments. It is an honor to give life to these intricacies.
With raw power and intimacy, Two Hands folds itself gracefully into Big Thief’s impressive discography. This body of work grows deeper and more inspiring with each new album. While you listen, let your own two hands rest in front of your body with palms facing inward and see what power grows between them.
There’s hardly a second when Alex Giannascoli’s voice can’t be heard in “Walk Away,” the opener of his latest album, House of Sugar. The distended, pitched-up wail that introduces the track gives way to cascading layers of his more familiar intonations. “Someday I’m gonna walk away from you,” he sings; “not today.” These are the song’s only words, repeated again and again for more than four minutes. In the repetition, emphasis shifts from “someday” to “not today" and back, leaving the listener in a space of uncertainty. It’s in this space that Giannascoli—the 26-year-old artist better known as (Sandy) Alex G—lingers throughout the album’s thirteen songs: between backwards and forwards, past and future, one voice and another. On House of Sugar, his third full-length for Domino and ninth overall, Alex inhabits a diverse range of musical and emotional points-of-view (often simultaneously), in turn illuminating the tension that hides in the shadow of desire.
Giannascoli began writing these songs in the fall of 2017, having just finished a tour for House of Sugar’s acclaimed predecessor, Rocket, and moved into a new apartment in Philadelphia. Whereas with earlier efforts, such as 2011’s self-released Winner or the landmark 2014 release DSU, he’d write numerous songs fairly quickly, with House of Sugar Giannascoli worked at a steadier pace, concentrating on fewer songs and laboring over each one more than before.
After building the tracks at home, recording most of the guitars, keyboards, and vocals himself, Giannascoli enlisted some recurring bandmates and collaborators to help realize further aspects of the album: Samuel Acchione’s wailing electric guitar on “Walk Away,” John Heywood’s bass underneath “Taking,” Tom Kelly’s drums giving “Hope” its bounce, Molly Germer underscoring “Southern Sky” on violin. Throughout the process Giannascoli worked closely with Jacob Portrait, who mixed both Rocket and its predecessor, 2015’s Beach Music, and here helped to balance each of House of Sugar’s dense, multi-faceted tracks. As the product of extended focus and planning, House of Sugar emerges as Giannascoli’s most meticulous, cohesive album yet: a statement of artistic purpose, showing off his ear for both persistent earworms and shifting textures.
Which is to say, “cohesive” doesn’t imply that House of Sugar dispenses with the out-there sonic adventurism that’s made previous (Sandy) Alex G records so singular. Giannascoli recorded with a clone of the Neumann U87 microphone, built by Tom Kelly—the first time he’d ever used a microphone other than the Samson Q1U USB mic that he got as a teenager. The new mic, coupled with an updated version of Garageband that came with a replacement laptop, provided Giannascoli a new toolkit for home-recording, prompting him to analyze the types of sounds he’d been making and that he wanted to make. In addition to bolstering the rich, polished mix of its rock-oriented songs, the new equipment allowed for a broad range of unique technical experiments that provide each track emotional and tonal complexity. This includes not only the otherworldly vocals that haunt songs such as “Walk Away,” “Taking,” and “Bad Man,” but also the more subtle hums and echoes that texture “Hope” and “Gretel,” and the distorted soundscapes into which listeners of “Sugar” and “Near” are immersed.
Throughout, the multiplicity of Giannascoli’s voice evokes the hybrid existence of a science-fiction creature, at once human and something else. Indeed, in many ways, hybridity defines House of Sugar. The lines between characters and narrators are perpetually blurry, allowing room for artist and listener alike to move through the songs, to access their shifting headspaces. On “Southern Sky”, we hear a voice other than Giannascoli’s own: frequent collaborator Emily Yacina, who sang on Rocket’s “Bobby,” among other (Sandy) Alex G songs. The pair’s voices intertwine as they follow the track’s meandering pathway. Its steady country-rock bounce belies the extent to which “Southern Sky” changes as it flows along—how it starts with a discordant piano run and ends with the lilting strum of a single acoustic guitar, a disturbed (and unintentional) echo of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon.” The distinction between beginning and end, at first concealed by a tight composition, is emblematic of the way House of Sugar works as a whole: throughout the album Giannascoli makes you think that something is one way before revealing, often almost imperceptibly—maybe not until it’s too late—that it’s probably another.
The stakes are often high in this regard. The dramatic action pose depicted on the album’s cover (as always, painted by Giannascoli’s sister, Rachel) points to the feelings of precarity evoked within. Just as the figure skater looks poised to either succeed or fall, House of Sugar’s characters are constantly teetering on the edge of extremes, approaching either bliss or violence—unless it’s both at the same time. They’re manipulated (“Gretel”) and manipulative (“Crime”); up in the sky (“Sugar”) and buried in the dirt (“Bad Man”). Caught in the ambiguous spaces of the songs, House of Sugar’s characters are disposed toward the bad—“Music makes me wanna do bad things,” sings Giannascoli on “In My Arms”—but seemingly reaching for the good. Or, are they? Could bad be good, sweet be sour? While each track hints at concrete situations derived from either Giannascoli’s life or a covert array of literary and filmic sources, none excludes a host of oppositional possibilities that listeners can generate and regenerate themselves.
The album’s final track, “SugarHouse,” opens with applause: it was recorded at a 2018 concert in St. Louis, with a saxophone overdubbed later, the first time Giannascoli has implemented a live recording on a studio album. (In 2018, though, he released a Live at Third Man Records LP.) A brooding, flowing anthem, “SugarHouse” shares its name with a casino not far from Giannascoli’s home in Philadelphia; as the song unfolds, the casino emerges as a suggestive site for the album as a whole. Its first verse echoes the various moments when a House of Sugar protagonist realizes that highs are always temporary, that what seems sweet often isn’t. “SugarHouse is calling my bluff,” Giannascoli sings. But, in the second verse, his character—unknown and broken—nevertheless professes faith in where he is and who he’s with. Nothing is definitive, but after thirteen songs of being split apart and spread around, through these relationships, in the House of Sugar, he might finally be “put together again.”
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