Rules / Trick (Reissue)
by Calley Nelson
For years, Alex G recorded dozens of songs in his Philadelphia home, posting them on his Bandcamp page, aptly named “Sandy”, a 14-year-old character from one of his songs who “just wants to grow up”. It’s clear that in signing to Lucky Number, playing multiple shows at SXSW, and touring world-wide, that both Alex G and Sandy are inevitably growing up. Alex G has written and released five albums all by the age of 21. He is one of few musicians to garner an ardent and unshakable fan-base almost solely online. Perhaps as a sign of the singer-songwriter’s growing indie success, Alex G’s two fan-favorite albums, Trick and Rules, have just been reissued and remastered by Lucky Number, an indie label that has released records from popular acts like Gotye, Sleigh Bells, Reptar, and Darwin Deez. Having already received acclaim from Rolling Stone, FADER, Consequence of Sound and many other blogs and music magazines, Alex G seems poised with enough cult and critical recognition to propel his career to new heights. It’s no wonder that Lucky Number would capitalize on Alex G’s growing popularity and tour dates by re-releasing the albums that gained him traction in the lo-fi Philidelphia and online communities that now revere him as a modern-day Elliot Smith.
Attending Temple University in Philadelphia, Alex played small but packed venues in the area, while dedicating most of his time to recording songs with a small microphone and a laptop in his bedroom, posting album after album on Bandcamp. It wasn’t until recently that he began to find a foothold. A little over a year ago, Mathew Lee Cothran of Elvis Depressedly and Coma Cinema passionately, enviously, and aggressively tweeted about Alex G’s music. The two struck up an internet friendship and shortly after, Alex G’s album DSU was released by Cohran’s label, Orchid Tapes, then re-released by Lucky Number. Alex G embarked on a tour to support the record, playing sold out shows (alongside Cothran) nationwide. Alex G’s two most played albums on Bandcamp, Trick and Rules, are now widely available, this time with a few added bonus tracks.
Rules opens with “Water”, a track that builds from one riff into many distorted, layered guitars before slowly falling off in in the last 30 seconds. This is how most of his songs are constructed — taking a simple melody and a catchy riff, then expanding off of them until they fold into themselves, creating a rare level of depth and intensity. “Comeback” follows a similar pattern. “Fighting” is a more soulful, slower track, followed by “Wicked Boy” a song about a disobedient kid. “Candy” is similarly devoted to youth, exploring the weak nature of children, (a theme Alex G continues to track on his next album, Trick). When you pull a winding piano-led song like “Mis” apart, you realize how special this kind of writing is, and that Alex G may be one of the most crafty indie artists in his present milieu. When the song cuts out completely, it concludes on a lone piano note and we somehow forget about the complexity of it all together. “Master” is a stadium rock song that was somehow recorded in a bedroom. “New” explores the thoughts that people have before they go to bed, the things people do alone but don’t talk about — and the isolation that comes along with it.
Elsewhere, “Know Now” is built to accumulate as it whirs round and round — Alex starts with drums and keeps adding vocal tracks, guitars, and what sounds like a washboard, lending more and more density to the song. “Rules” deals with parent and child dynamics, which is apt considering the album was initially released right before Alex went to college. “Message” is similar to “Master”, boasting fewer lyrics and a deeper focus on guitar work. It’s almost built like a secret track. The second half begins with a fade to just an acoustic guitar with Alex crooning “Every year I’m getting older / but every year I feel the same.” “Sandy” is about a 14-year-old who’s bullied at school and occasionally dislikes her parents; whose brother hates her and who worships Satan. “My insides are changing and right now I just want to grow up”, she says. “Good”, the last track on the album, has a greater emphasis on vocal harmony than most of Rules, yet maintains the LP’s savory-but-upbeat tone. All in all, it is an album of singles.
The second re-release, Trick, begins with “Memory”, a track that’s really gripping, especially after its first verse, a story-song about a guy picking up a bag of drugs and getting high in bed. At one point, there’s a grating guitar noise, as though Alex decided to rub a knife against the strings, cutting harshly into an otherwise melodic song. He likes to get you comfortable then jar you; the track cuts out of nowhere, like he was recording analog and the tape just ran out. “Forever” incorporates female vocals, a banjo and even a saxophone on top of Alex G’s usual antics, along with a slight jangle of tambourine littered through the rest of the album. “Animals” resembles Nirvana’s “Lake of Fire” especially in live form. Every last word of a line is screamed. Alex G wants to make you uncomfortable, to feel as out of place as the characters in his songs.
Trick has range: “Animals” lies at the album’s darkest extreme, though the less obviously grim “Whale” is only a cutesy ditty on the surface: Alex eventually talks about how the whale is his favorite animal, before fantasizing about cutting off his tail and making it into a three course meal. It’s a jarring lyric, juxtaposed with a few chords and a springy melody. Sonically, the album ranges from the light touches of bongo that crop up in “String” to the washed-out distortion of “Advice”. “Trick” is completely constructed of synths, and what sounds like rain hitting a window, opening into “Kute”. Alex is self-aware of this title: the song explores the same thematic as “Whale”. “I think you’re kute. / You look like someone I could bury in the garden”. He’s playing around with what is said and what it really means, channeling far darker characters than Sandy.
“Howl” is a wail of loneliness, landing somewhere between a Modest Mouse and Built to Spill B-side. “Mary” is a girl who dresses in leather, the only girl Alex wants to be with. It’s a love song that sounds a little like something Mac De Marco would put out: “She’s the girl who leaves you to rot/ she says I’m real and you are not” – which ultimately begs the question of if she’s real at all. “Change” is an Alex G anthem at shows. The lyrics are more straight-forward and narrative driven than the surrounding album, ending with the repetition of “I don’t like how things change”. “Adam” is another narrative from the point of view of Adam’s bully, who gets a thrill out of taking his lunch. “Sarah” is a relative rarity for Alex G live shows – perhaps because it’s about someone who Alex had to dump. He tells her that he can’t be what she needs. It’s about letting her down, about not loving her as much as she loves him; it’s about treating someone badly, only to find them crawling back regardless. The final bonus track, “16 Mirrors”, features R.L. Kelly’s shrill vocals endlessly layered till it sounds like there are almost sixteen of her, like her voice is reflecting and refracting off itself, giving the audible illusion of a widening space. In a way, that’s what Trick is: a bunch of Alex’s characters and personalities bouncing off of each other into this introspective cacophony of an album.
Trick is arguably more sophisticated in its attention to dissonance and experimentation than Rules. The cover art for Rules is a portrait of a woman painted by Alex’s mom while Trick features a photo that his sister took of a stray dog that ran into a church during a funeral. In terms of aesthetics, Trick is intentionally more brooding. Needless to say, both records have Alex G’s signature crunching of worn acoustic guitar strings and minimalist lyrics. Which one you listen to or decide to buy depends largely on your mood, your taste for either a record that plays like a slow burn, or one that hits you in the face with each song. Listen to each album for what they are — each will doubtlessly break your heart if you let them. Beneath the poppy choruses and fuzz, there’s something dark buried.