Jersey Beat Music Fanzine

by Jackson Phinney

The 1984 film Amadeus is not really about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, or at least not directly. It is actually about one Antonio Salieri, who worked in the late 18th century as the court composer for Emperor Joseph II of Austria. In the film, Salieri and Mozart wind up living, working, and writing music in the city of Vienna at the same time – Salieri is industrious, well respected, and reserved, whereas Mozart is, by contrast, asinine, flippant, and chronically immature. Salieri slaves away at his keyboard night after night, beseeching God to visit him with musical inspiration; Mozart pens his immortal melodies quite literally between fart jokes.

The central tension of the film lies within the fact that Salieri is actually a very good musician. His own abilities allow him to recognize that Mozart is a genius, but, crucially, are not significant enough to enable him to write genius music himself. He is cursed with a mere morsel of Mozart’s ability, made to look on as Mozart conjures, without the slightest bit of effort, the most brilliant collection of musical works ever known to man.
My relationship with the 21-year-old Philadelphia songwriter Alex G is a little like that: He is the Mozart to my Salieri. I love music, and I am good at making it – just good enough to realize that Alex G, a prolific and little known bedroom-recording artist the same age as myself, is possessed of a talent so immense that I am almost
comfortable labeling him a prodigy. While his music may sound like Built to Spill or Big Star, in my eyes he has more in common with Franz Liszt or Beethoven.

I realize that I sound insane making such comparisons, but to describe Alex otherwise would be to sell him short. From my vantage point, as a hardworking artist and a passionate fan of music, Alex appears to belong to a class of musicians so select as to encompass practically no one else working in indie today. His approach is so seemingly effortless, his command of melody so intrinsic, his style so distinctive that I am left grabbing hopelessly at hyperbolic straws even attempting to describe his work, much less create something equal to it.

His most recent run of records (2012’s watershed Trick and Rules, 2013’s brilliant split 7” with Los Angeles songstress R.L. Kelly, and his newest full-length, DSU) are bafflingly good. Trick and DSU in particular are so jaw-droppingly excellent that, from my perspective as a songwriter, Alex appears to be playing by fundamentally different rules than the rest of us. And indeed, perhaps he is.

Alex himself, as was mentioned above, is a 21-year-old kid from Philadelphia - his full name is Alex Giannascoli. He is a rising senior at Temple University, and studies English. Until recently he sported a head of straight, greasy, shoulder-length black hair, which was perhaps the most notable aspect of his appearance. He dresses simply, speaks infrequently, and seems totally unconcerned with appearing “cool” or “hip” in any capacity. If the adolescent Severus Snape had bagged groceries or worked a summer gig at Blockbuster, he might have made a similar impression upon the general populous, which is to say, an unremarkable one.

I first saw Alex in person at one of his shows in Brooklyn a month ago; in the time leading up to his set he meandered around the venue in a pair of jeans and a baggy red hoodie which most style-conscious New Yorkers would not be caught dead in. He moved from one back corner of the room to another, slouched, nursing a PBR, speaking occasionally to friends with a glazed look in his eyes and a semi-stoned grin on his long, boyish face. When I got up the courage to speak to him (at this point I had been obsessing over his music for half a year, almost completely eschewing all other stimulation in favor of his 2012 album Trick during that time) I might as well have been ordering McDonalds at a drive-thru window. Every remark I made and every superlative I offered seemed to register only faintly, as if the Alex I was currently speaking with was merely taking a message for the Alex I had come to know through the music.

“Ah, yeah, thanks, man, cool, shit.” The same cryptic smile, the same warm and yet totally unreadable expression, and the same distinctive feeling that I was trying to talk to someone at the other end of a long tunnel, in a blizzard, with the lights off, in a language that they did not fully understand.

I mention all of this to underscore the jarring gap between Alex Giannascoli, the young and slightly catatonic college student, and Alex G, the best and most fascinating songwriter currently active. When Alex finally took the stage that night in Brooklyn, he (and his excellent band, who play with him live but not on his recordings) casually dished out perhaps the most stunning half-hour of live music that I have ever been party to. Watching Alex play was like finding a fist-sized diamond inside of a bag of Cheetoes, as song after laughably perfect song burst out of this kid who seemed absolutely, almost perversely, ordinary.

However, anyone who has ever visited Alex’s Bandcamp page knows that this impression of contrast extends well beyond his live set, and is indeed a crucial part of his appeal. The site that hosts his music is, like the man himself, almost aggressively uncool: it sports a featureless black banner and a plain navy background, upon which are displayed 12 of the worst album covers I have ever seen. Indeed it was at this point that, after Alex’s music was first recommended to me over a year ago, I made a swift about-face without listening to so much as a single song: the site, like Alex, seemed categorically incapable of containing the brilliant music which it was purported to. Indeed, even now the Bandcamp is shocking to me – the gorgeous, electronically tinged single “Lucy” is represented by a blurry picture of a dog and a slipper, with the title slapped across the top in the unmistakable hand of Microsoft Paint. The 2011 single “Good,” which not only sounds like Elliott Smith but is at least as good as any of that songwriter’s best material, features a confounding photo of Alex in a backwards raccoon-skin cap and cheap sunglasses, with the tail acting as a sort of snout. The list of strange grievances goes on (the cover of “Joy” even features a typo), and one would be forgiven for not wanting to listen to any of these albums. But the more I fall in love with Alex’s music, the more I realize that these oddities are part of the basic makeup of his genius.

Alex does not need to look cool, or have a sleek website with tasteful album art, because the better part of his output since 2011 represents the strongest debut showing by a songwriter since the turn of the millennium. Not all of it is at this level, as Alex is extremely prolific and his (relatively speaking) “less mature” work (which is to say, the stuff he made when he was 17 and 18, and perhaps even younger) suffers naturally from a lack of focus. However, his best material (some of which was indeed created at these young ages) is so good as to be almost unbelievable. In my opinion, in Alex G we are witnessing the birth of a first-rate talent, the likes of which the traditional modes of “rock” and “indie” songwriting have been missing for a very, very long time.

I am loath to say these things because the current hype-mongering which is engaged in to try and drum up interest for artists in our oversaturated musical climate is effectively killing indie (or already has.) But in this particular case, I ultimately don’t care. Alex is, unlike so many others, the real McCoy: The genuine article. Like Brian Wilson, early Bob Dylan, and ‘70s Neil Young, it feels inadequate to describe Alex as an “artist,” in the traditional, pedestrian sense of the term; to me, he feels closer to a visionary. As with Dylan and Young, Alex’s best work is so varied and so excellent that it becomes effectively impossible to imagine a single person being responsible for it all. From an outside perspective, it seems to me that Alex is acting as a sort of conduit for exceptional musical ideas; it is as if he has one foot in our world and the other in a realm utterly inaccessible to must of us. To further this impression, a recent interview with Alex noted that he “has trouble articulating certain details of his creative process, often second-guessing his responses and fumbling to answer questions… When [asked] about influences, he goes blank.” To me, this is unsurprising – Alex’s music is so good that I cannot imagine him consciously endeavoring to create it. It seems to come from beyond him, almost as if he were possessed by something larger than himself; the music seems to pass through him, rather than originating within him. It is fascinating and, as a musician, profoundly humbling.

I realize that, for those unfamiliar with his work, I have done little more here than place Alex on an enormously high pedestal. While I have felt this way about Alex for many months I have been, up until now, reluctant to do precisely that. This week, however, changes things; as of Tuesday, Alex’s new full-length ‘DSU’ has been made available for streaming and pay-what-you-will download. It is an absolutely exceptional record in its own right, and for me personally its readily-accessible existence is a cause for some relief. This is because, prior to ‘DSU,’ one of the biggest issues with Alex was that, for some unfathomable reason, he was failing (or choosing not) to release large quantities of his best music. While Alex’s official Bandcamp features some dozen releases, his best collection of songs is, inexplicably, not amongst them; for this reason I believe that many tentative converts to his music end up missing out on what is undoubtedly his best stuff. ‘DSU’ secures another excellent 13 songs safely within his Bandcamp and will prove an excellent starter-kit for new fans – but for those who desire more, it will require a little internet spelunking to unearth the set of tracks which, combined, stand as the best “album” of the last few years.

When I discovered Alex’s music, I began on his site with ‘Trick,’ which had been (rightfully) recommended to me. That record exploded inside of my music-centric life like a Peep in a microwave - I could not believe how good it was. From the opening guitar murmurs of “Memory” I was spellbound by the strange mix of warped melodicism and cryptic, even nonsensical poetry. The opening lines continue to haunt me frequently throughout my day:z

“I was waitin’ for a baggie / A powder bunny / I have a buddy I grew up with / He hooked it up for me.”

While I doubt if anyone besides Alex (and perhaps not even him) has any idea what this means, it does serve to highlight one of the most compelling qualities about his music, which I think frequently drives fans to obsession and is probably responsible for his current status as a “cult” artist. This is that there is something intrinsically odd about Alex and his music, and the more one familiarizes oneself with it all, the more it seems as if the entire package was being beamed in from some slightly different world. The demented, childish album covers (‘Trick’ features a German shepherd running down the center aisle of a church, with the title of the record in a ghastly teal font above the altar), the relentless output of music, which itself feels strangely anonymous, and above all the lyrics, which often traffic in commonplace themes but in such a way that everything feels somehow off (“My favorite animal / Is the whale / I like his big fat tail. / I wanna cut off a piece of him / And I’ll share / You get a piece of the whale.”) Even the song titles fit this bill: almost always comprised of a single word, the tracklists of his albums wind up reading like word-association shopping lists compiled by aliens attempting to successfully assimilate into human society (1. Memory, 2. Forever, 3. Animals, 4. String, 5. Advice, 6. People…) All of this, combined with Alex’s person and even the basic information available about him (his artist photo on Bandcamp is a rough sketch of a bony, galloping horse, and the only personal information included is the curious email address “”) suffices to surround the man and his work in an aura which is equal parts unknowable auteur and peculiar, enchanted wunderkind.

This impression only deepens the further one progresses into Alex’s world, and the more time one spends there, the more irresistible the whole thing becomes. On stage, for instance, Alex stands, legs apart, swaying robotically side to side like an absentminded cuckoo clock, with his tongue often dangling from his mouth and a bemused, vacant expression plastered on his face. It is, from personal experience, both extremely weird and absolutely captivating. There is a drive to understand this person, who offers so much of himself in his music and yet remains always, inexplicably, tantalizingly, unknowable.

While ‘Trick’ served as my gateway into this strange fascination, I was soon in need of more – as much as I could possibly get my hands on, to be exact. ‘Trick’ is a watershed, a tour de force of Alex’s preoccupations (childhood, aging, the difficulties arrived at when the two begin to coincide). It also plays as a showcase of his influences, unconscious or otherwise (Built to Spill and Big Star seem the obvious touchstones, with spidery guitar riffs and totally effortless melodicism constantly in the foreground, but the specter of Elliott Smith is also often present, particularly on tracks like (the heartbreaking, impossibly poignant) “Change”). Given ‘Trick’’s scope, it is the perfect place to begin – but immediately beyond its 13 tracks, things become slightly more difficult. Alex’s other releases are not as consistent, although each features at least a handful of songs so excellent that one cannot risk skipping over the record entirely. ‘Rules’ is, after ‘Trick’, the one with the highest batting average – indeed, the more time I spend with it the more I realize that it is essentially a masterpiece in its own right, more subdued and less sprawling than ‘Trick’, but also more personal and a bit less eclectic. ‘Easy’, a collection of seven songs from 2011 (“didn’t really have time to finish” reads the laconic description beneath it on Bandcamp (the most information offered about any release)) features a few through-the-stratosphere incredible moments, particularly the uncharacteristically verbose “I Wait For You.” ‘Race’ includes “Gnaw,” a love-song / reminiscence hybrid which could easily go toe to toe with any randomly chosen all-time indie classic – Pavement’s “Gold Soundz,” for instance. The aforementioned untitled split 7” with R.L. Kelly features three of his best pieces, in particular “Magic Mirror” which, in less than 90 seconds, proceeds to hollow the listener out completely.

The list goes on, and the more time one spends parsing through this thick back catalog, the more rewarding it proves. Prior to ‘DSU’, however, Alex’s best stuff existed only on YouTube, posted by a handful of users who seem to have access to a large swath of his music which he himself has chosen not to share in an official capacity. The YouTube user ‘Keyan28’ has posted a dozen or so excellent rarities, all of which really ought to be compiled and sequenced somewhere more prominent given how mind-bendingly excellent they are. “Sarah” is one such track, a masterpiece of Brian Wilson/Bach level counterpoint which is, for my money, the best thing Alex has ever done – my entire face slackens every time I listen to it, and the fact that it has less than 3,000 views is a crime against humanity. “Kara” is similarly great, a quiet, shambling number that progresses through a series of impossibly perfect little harmonic turns; “Break” is analogous in tone and just as good – again, the list simply goes on. Other equally essential moments are to be found elsewhere; “Be Kind” exists only as a video of Alex playing it alone in an abandoned stairwell, “Nintendo 64” on a random YouTube account with only the faintest apparent connection to Alex, and so on. To be an Alex G fan, then, is to indulge in a bit of obscurism, and truly this is part of the fun – the joy of stumbling across a new song, only to realize, yet again, that it is actually one of the best things I have ever heard has been an endlessly enjoyable enterprise over the last few months, and the more time I spend doing this, the more Alex’s entire existence feels like some kind of incredible, inexplicable gift to fans of “indie music” in general, whatever that tired term may mean in such a new and exciting context.

Now, of course, we have DSU, and it will be easier to introduce people to Alex’s music because of it – here, as with ‘Trick’, we have an album which collects all of Alex’s disparate strengths and offers them in a readily digestible package. Unlike ‘Trick’, however, DSU does not simply sum up what Alex is good at – it pushes his sound into uncharted territories, and as such prior fans of his music will find it simultaneously familiar and challenging. On the whole, DSU may even be better than ‘Trick’, which I never imagined myself saying – the expectations that I brought to this album were unfair in the extreme, and Alex responded by offering a collection of songs that obliterated such preconceptions as a matter of course. It is a masterpiece of a record – totally schizoid in terms of style, veering happily between pop immediacy and a sort of mid-fi psychedelia, at once approachable and esoteric: I cannot imagine a better showing for Alex’s first outing on something approaching a “center stage.”

For in many ways, DSU feels like a debut for Alex, or at least a showcase of heretofore-unprecedented stature. For one, it is his first release with the rising Brooklyn label Orchid Tapes, a loose collective of musicians who are arguably producing the best and most exciting music in the entirety of Indiedom at the moment. The label, home to the likes of Sam Ray (Teen Suicide, Julia Brown, Ricky Eat Acid) and Mat Cothran (Coma Cinema, Elvis Depressedly) has proven itself over the last few years to be a bright light in the otherwise dreary landscape of independent music. Through word of mouth, organic snowballing of hype (as opposed to the top-down manufacturing of hype which seems all-pervasive in the upper echelons of indie) and a roster of uncommonly talented songwriters and musicians, Orchid Tapes are rightfully posed to become a Big Deal in the near future – as such, it makes sense that Alex has signed with them. Both Orchid Tapes and Alex G have built their reputation upon little more than putting their money where their mouths are – no corporate interests, PR firms, trendy management, or payouts have been involved in establishing them as new and exciting entities. They have simply worked hard, and garnered a formidable host of fiercely loyal acolytes. In a current musical climate where our attention drifts from one artist to the next on a daily basis, in accordance with what one or two trendmaking websites has deemed worthy of our ears, this type of ground-up structuring is in short supply and, as a function of such scarcity, proves extremely refreshing.

Thus, DSU’’s release through Orchid Tapes feels like an Event for a host of reasons. The people devoted to this artist and to this label are exactly that – devoted, to the core, of their own accord. The press DSU has received this week (highly positive reviews from Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and Consequence of Sound, amongst others) feels like a serious victory, a sort of coup staged on the hulking monstrosity of the music blogosphere by a small group of people who have made it happen through a mixture of elbow grease and serious talent. DSU is only the label’s third vinyl release, and the first pressing of 250 records sold out in a number of hours. The second went almost as fast, the third is selling well, and the cassettes were gone instantly. While both Orchid Tapes and Alex G are relatively small enterprises, this release in particular feels like the biggest moment for each of them, and for myself, an ardent fan of both, it feels like the most exciting moment in music since the beginning of this decade.
None of this would be worth mentioning, obviously, if DSU wasn’t almost comically good. I knew Alex was extremely talented, but I must confess, I did not know he had something like this in him. The album retains, and even serves to amplify, Alex’s two core strengths: his first-class songwriting, and his intrinsic weirdness. New and old influences can be glimpsed in the kaleidoscope of this thing – the percussive, harmonic laden guitar-playing characteristic of Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock (“Axesteel”), the hypnotic, krautrock-flavored instrumentation of mid-period Deerhunter (“Serpent Is Lord”), the warped, childlike pop-immediacy of Guided By Voices (“Harvey”). But, as with all great albums, Alex weaves these preoccupations into a tapestry that is unmistakably his. To some extent, DSU reminds me of Deerhunter’s 2010 album ‘Halcyon Digest’, insofar as each record feels a bit like flipping through an old record catalog while on acid. In this vein, DSU is not a coherent listen, and this is part of its appeal upon repeat listens. Each song feels like a perfect little diorama set in an alternate universe – all of them include recognizable elements, but they are presented in such a way that they seem to belong to Alex alone, to originate with him, within his world. It is nothing short of breathtaking.

The enhanced production (and mastering, which is a first for Alex) also helps enormously. What were once rough sketches are now vivid realities, and just as Alex’s songwriting often feels as if it has its roots in a place unknown to most of us, so too with the textural choices he has made on this album. The creepy, bit-crushed pitch-shifting of his own unaffected voice is particularly effective, as are the woodwind-esque synth textures, which are something of a trademark for him, but which are here processed in a new way. The sonic landscape of each track differs massively from one to the next, and the sequencing of the album is not conducive to a holistic experience. But all of this is in service of Alex’s greater vision, as the album bucks and revolves like some kind of extra-dimensional roller coaster ride. The sky-screaming charge of opener “After Ur Gone” leads into the snarling, discordant churn of “Serpent Is Lord”; the doll-house creepiness of “Black Hair” gives way to the gliding, acousmatic riffs of “Skipper.” The record culminates with some of its strongest material, the surprisingly lucid and immediate “Boy,” and the record’s centerpiece, “Hollow.” The latter is exceptional even for Alex, a four-minute, slow burning confessional that threatens to completely break your heart every time it is played. It is an absolute showstopper, replete with wind chimes and Justin Vernon-esque choral harmonies – to me, it feels like the autumn wind blowing through my hair on a walk home alone at night. It is otherworldly; I cannot think of another song as good as “Hollow.”

On the whole DSU is, then, everything Alex’s small group of fervent fans could have possibly hoped it would be, and with it a set of interesting questions for Alex and for his label are set into motion. Alex Giannascoli, for all intents and purposes, remains a peculiar and idiosyncratic college student who just happens to have the best musical mind of anyone under 30. He hardly promotes, he apparently does not care about how he is received, or even if people hear his best music which, I assert, is the best stuff that has come out, bar none, in the last 15 years. The implications of this are fascinating – does Alex G point towards the next step for indie rock? We constantly hear how bored everyone is with Pitchfork & co. and their stultifying monopoly over what is designated as “cool” – but Alex has done this without them, or anyone like them; in truth, Alex has done this practically alone. People simply love Alex’s music – they trade it, they discuss it, they purchase it and come to see it live without being told to by any sort of tastemaker. And he is really making progress – in New York, at least, I have been hearing about him nonstop this summer, and almost always in a favorable capacity. The Brooklyn show I saw him at was positively electric; when Alex got on stage, I got the same feeling in my stomach that I get from watching live Bob Dylan footage from the mid-1960’s – the feeling that the man on stage is better at what he does than anyone else in the world. When I looked around the room, I could tell that I was not alone.

Alex is becoming a big deal, in a way that people aren’t supposed to become big deals anymore – organically. And what’s more, his label is along for the ride. The two are growing in tandem, as artists like Alex, the aforementioned Sam Ray and Mat Cothran, and other excellent signees like Infinity Crush and R.L. Kelly hit their stride simultaneously, engendering a very real feeling that the sky is the limit on this thing. In watching this unfold over the last year, I have felt increasingly that the flowering of this entire scene is serving to subvert many of the negative aspects of the independent music world at large. Here, a group of uncommonly talented artists has gotten together and pushed each other collectively to be the best that they can be; they have built this thing themselves, promoted it themselves, kept it afloat themselves, and made money off of it themselves. They have remained outsiders and, in so doing, their success feels real and exciting in a way that almost nothing does anymore. Those who support them feel like a part of their family because they are a part of their family – by organic it is meant that everyone takes part. In many ways the spirit of community has been lost in indie over recent years – while we all visit the same websites and listen to the same artists, we do it because we are told to and we do it without really communicating with one another. Orchid Tapes stands in opposition to this, and certainly the very existence of Alex G stands in opposition to this.

We keep hearing that traditional, “guitar based” indie music is dead – but when faced with an artist as good as Alex, one is forced to admit that this simply is not true. He is so good and so exciting that it feels, on the contrary, alive and well. We keep hearing that the internet-based indie music distributing/consumption machine is broken – but with a label like Orchid Tapes, who utilize the Internet in a new way, such a concern feels similarly absurd, and even outdated. We hear that the traditional album release cycle is no longer effective – but Alex and Orchid Tapes release music in a new way that is effective. We hear that money needs to be poured into an artist before they can be picked up by the proper channels – but artists like Alex and labels like Orchid Tapes work without that money through different channels. In light of all of this, then, one can glimpse the first hopeful stirrings of a paradigm shift in the way that indie music is discovered and consumed. The dull era which we find ourselves in may yet prove to be a slouch and not an end, and perhaps, simply by virtue of how stupidly, unthinkably, preposterously good he is, Alex will show us the way out.

The cover of DSU features a painting of a football player, in mid-stride, running down the field. The ball is tucked beneath his arm, and there is not another player in sight – it looks like he is running for a touchdown. When I look at it, I imagine Alex Giannascoli underneath the helmet.

Check out Alex G’s music at is an independently published music fanzine covering punk, alternative, ska, techno and garage music, focusing on New Jersey and the Tri-State area. For the past 30 years, the Jersey Beat music fanzine has been the authority on the latest upcoming bands and a resource for all those interested in rock and roll.






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