Pushing Past Pop’s Borders

Alex G, Porches, Your Friend

“I never made an effort for it to sound weird, because weird to me always sounded normal.”—Alex G

Like the album that came before it, 2014’s Jekyll/Hyde, the latest album from Your Friend, opens with the sound of acoustic guitar. Unlike Jekyll/Hyde, however, on Gumption, that guitar survives for about one second. Just as quickly as it appears, it’s stifled, replaced by gently throbbing percussion and soft-focus chords that lap gently, like sea foam on the beach. Where Jekyll/Hyde was built primarily on brittle, interlaced guitars, Gumption is more obstinate and more textural, with principle persona Taryn Miller making a hard left turn away from her folk roots, embracing drone, noise, and experimental music—the kinds of things she listens to during her shifts working at the Kansas record store Love Garden. “I remember one point during the recording sessions, [producer] Nicholas [Vernhes] looked at me and said, ‘Yeah, I mean, let’s just making a fucking weird record,’” recalls Miller. “And I said, ‘Yes! Exactly! That’s exactly what I want to do!’”

Your Friend by Crystal Lee Farris
photo by Crystal Lee Farris

To anyone who only knows Miller from the spare, haunting songs that populated Jekyll/Hyde, Gumption will, indeed, at first seem “fucking weird.” But it’s also rich, absorbing, and bold, the sound of an artist asserting her human voice and setting it against production that is ominous and machine-like. “I’ve been so in love with sound lately,” she explains. “I love Demdike Stare, I was listening to a lot of stuff on the Other People label, the Modern Love label—I was listening to a lot of those records because there wasn’t a melody.” But despite the groaning, ambient instrumentation and her copious use of field recordings, Miller’s melodies are, in fact, strong and assured, gliding their way slowly up the center. Miller is one of a trio of artists—Alex G and Aaron Maine, who records as Porches, are two others—who ground their music in identifiable pop structures, but then radically rework the context to make the final results both jarring and transfixing. That all three of them are about to embark on a tour together is fitting: it’s a snapshot of three artists obstinately kicking at the walls of convention to make something new and striking. (You can hear all of them on this new compilation.)

Porches by Jessica Lehrman
photo by Jessica Lehrman

For Maine, that meant making the music that surrounded his aching melodies on the aptly titled Pool more aqueous and fluid. “I wanted to examine what I was making and try and hear it in the realest way possible—not just respond to it personally, but kind of think about where it would exist actually in the context of music today,” Maine explains. “I wanted people to feel cool and excited and chic and emotional as opposed to just… depressed.” As a result, the songs on Pool float in a rippling bed of electronics—soft, soothing, and tranquil. The easy reference point is Arthur Russell—Maine’s tender falsetto and circuitous sense of melody is similar to Russell’s—but Pool is more immediate and direct. “My life is pretty tame and simple right now,” explains Maine. “I’ve been with my girlfriend for four years and I feel like as I got a little bit older, my emotions calmed down. I liked the idea that, rather than focusing on a single situation, I could dig a little deeper into more subtle personal feelings.”

Alex G by Jeff Allen
photo by Jeff Allen

If Maine smears the borders of his songs to make each feel more alluring and shapeless, Alex G fiddles with the lens on his, making them surreal and hallucinogenic. Like Miller, G’s songs are clearly rooted in folk music, but he fills the blank spaces with strange colors and sounds; while the essential backbone is still acoustic guitar, everything around it is wavy and dreamlike. On “Look Out,” G’s voice is warped and ribbony, almost inhuman, threading its way through wheezing keyboards and a persistent, insect-like buzz. “When I first started making songs, they were really weird,” G explains. “Most of the music I listened to came from my sister, and she was a bit older than me, so all the music was weirder, like Modest Mouse. The music I made, I would intentionally be sloppy, because that was what was cool for me.” And while little on his latest record, Beach Music, could be described as sloppy, it all sounds distinctly alien, as if a cache of American folk records landed on Venus and its inhabitants aped the style but used their own odd extraterrestrial tunings. “In Love” sounds like an afterlife transmission from an old ’30s jazz singer; G throws his voice up to the highest corners of his range, and it creaks and breaks in a way that’s almost menacing. “I kind of thought of ‘In Love’ as a movie scene,” he explains. “I had the piano part and I knew what I wanted to convey; the vocal just sort of happened by accident. When I was a kid, my brother would play the piano when my grandma was in town, and she would sing an old standard and that’s what stuck with me subconsciously—that old style of singing that’s a little creepy.”

Taken together, the thing that binds Your Friend, Porches, and Alex G is their curiosity about musical form—their unspoken desire to make pop melodies work within music that often feels defiantly opposed to them. “I asked [avant-garde composer] William Basinski, ‘How do you know when you’re making something authentic to you?’” says Miller. “He said, ‘Make it for yourself. If you’re happy with it, other people will be, too.’” Maine concurs. “In the end, I wanted to make a record that I wanted to listen to, and that I was excited about.” If the end result feels like it runs counter to conventional pop logic, it’s only because that’s what comes naturally to the people who made it. “I never made an effort for it to sound weird,” says G. “Because weird to me always sounded normal.”

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