At the southern tip of Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood, there’s an imposing structure on the Delaware River that somehow looks equal parts parking garage, hospital and convention center. The building is none of these things, but it’s just as overwhelming as each one of them. It houses SugarHouse Casino, a dystopian abyss of colorful images leaping forth from slot machines and laser-bright ceiling lights hovering over card tables where gamblers can earn $150 in blackjack, lose it and swear off gambling forever (which may or may not have happened to this writer).
Philly resident (Sandy) Alex G’s newest album, House of Sugar, his third for storied label Domino (and eighth or ninth overall, depending on who you ask), is named for this casino. As unsettling as its namesake, the newest record from Alex Giannascoli at times improves on the inscrutable, circuitous experimentation of his Domino debut, Beach Music. At other times, it refines the accessible but still characteristically sauntering country-lite of Rocket, his masterful second album for the British indie label. In other words, House of Sugar sounds like a middle ground between the two albums that preceded it.
The spirit of Beach Music’s most experimental sketches (“Look Out,” “Snot”) lives on in House of Sugar’s five-track midsection. From “Taking” through “Sugar,” Giannascoli traffics in looped collages that almost sound incomplete (the midpoint of this stretch is literally titled, “Project 2,” as if it were still an unfinished demo). Whereas Beach Music’s sketches were frustrating and almost painful to listen to, even House of Sugar’s most fragmentary songs overflow with inescapable earworms of harrowing acoustic chords, sneering electric riffs, hyper-processed vocal snippets, queasy pianos, ghastly synths and simplistic drum programming.
The falling-down-the-stairs piano of “Sugar,” the record-scratching wails of “Near,” and the dour acoustic strums of “Taking” leave some of the album’s longest-lasting impressions. Even the one loop-oriented track outside the album’s midsection, the reverse-pedal heavy “Walk Away,” is a riveting bricolage despite its vocal line consisting solely of Giannascoli muttering, warping and endlessly repeating the phrases “walk away” and, in true Arya Stark fashion, “not today.” Although House of Sugar’s sketches boast little of the surreal character-based narratives that comprise a major chunk of the (Sandy) Alex G catalog, Giannascoli’s unparalleled ear for acerbic melodies keeps these songs engaging.
Connecting House of Sugar to Rocket are the more traditionally structured, country-dashed songs such as “Gretel,” “Southern Sky,” “Crime” and “Hope.” The first two of these tracks are cut from the same cloth as Rocket’s creaky vignettes, with faintly tropical synth bubbles on the former and boxy pianos on the latter leaving breadcrumbs of Giannascoli’s long-peculiar textural approach.
“Hope” and “Gretel” are also among Giannascoli’s most narrative-focused House of Sugar tunes. “Hope” addresses a friend who died from an overdose (“Yeah, Fentanyl took a few lives from our life”), and “Gretel” repositions the literal sugarhouse fairytale of Hansel and Gretel as a modernized story of paranoia and staying one’s course (“Nobody’s gonna push me off track/I see what they do/good people got something to lose”).
On House of Sugar’s final stretch, “In My Arms” and “Cow,” two midtempo acoustic ballads, see Giannascoli stepping into thoroughly new territory: They both leave little in the way of Giannascoli’s frequent sound-warping techniques or acidic guitar lines. “Cow” features just his acoustic guitars and unaltered singing, and “In My Arms” adds light drums, thorny but atmospheric electric guitar and occasional backing vocals to the mix. Both songs are unusually forthright and gorgeous, two huge steps in a promising new direction. It’s another unusual choice that mostly works out for him: In (Sandy) Alex G’s SugarHouse, even the riskiest gambles tend to pay off.