If Fresh Roses contains a single sampled lyric that defines its fractured, disruptive aesthetic, it’s the “Shake all the shit out!” line that’s blustered by possibly the world’s worst motivational speaker in the middle of “DEPRESSION SESSION.” Maybe the overexcited “psychotherapist,” whose ranted syllables form the backbone of that track, might not seem the best figurehead for Alex Gray’s second mixtape of the year, but it soon becomes apparent that his wired exhortations for us to shed our “Neurotic holding patterns” are a perfect complement to the record’s aspiration to defamiliarize and disarrange our habituated experiences of the mundane. Its ethos continues where ESPRESSO DIGITAL’s left off, not only resuming the micro-glitched subsonics, but also expanding and interspersing them into a greater range of ever unlikelier samples and field recordings, imbuing these largely inoffensive and quotidian relics with a newfound tension, color, and significance in the process. And even though these raw materials may not be as “fresh” as the title implies, any potential irony is dissolved by how these elements are worked upon by Fresh Roses’ compositional disjunctions and percussive scatterings.
Almost everything in the album emerges and disperses quickly, overturning those stale, traditional patterns and regularities to which we may’ve grown accustomed over the courses of our more or less corralled lives. Accordingly, intro track “IN DREAMS” moves without warning from buried vocal yearning and twinkly, oracular bubblings to the jilted reproduction of honky folk, and then back again as the song descends vertiginously to its conclusion. A similarly renegade cut-and-paste technique obtains in the plucking-crooning-bleeping-waltzing of “I CHOSE YOU,” which together with its predecessor and the uninterrupted breaks between pieces warms the sense that an existential denial of “meaning” or “consequence” is arguably being perpetrated by the record, or at least of how such concepts have traditionally been interpreted and propagated in the past. The components of each song often run their attenuated course without developing into the culminations other forms or genres would lead us to expect, and the fact that this doesn’t hurt the music but somehow makes it more imponderably consuming implies the view that, somehow, what people occasionally refer to as meaning or purpose is all but dispensable.
Yet the record’s primary method for disturbing and dismantling the entrenched rigidity of daily custom and habit isn’t so much a pell-mell juggling of disparate sounds and sequences as it is a subtle Dadaist vandalism of what these overfamiliar conventions reproduce and perpetuate. Sometimes this technoid defacing is overt and playfully antagonistic, as with the rampant electronic twitches that overrun the incestuous country shimmy of “WINE AND ROSES,” while on other occasions it’s more discreet and surprisingly harmonious, as with the tin-can percussion that endows the lax breezes of “FRUSTRATION” with a jittery, out-of-step strut. On the latter, this cavalier rejigging and doctoring of found material simply represents an individualistic, quirkier, and more edifying way of locking horns with the received textures of life, as we also find with “HE’S A GENTLE ONE,” which filters its underlying gangster lilt through multiplicitous clicks, thrums, and computerized swirls. On the former, however, similar manipulations and incisions are almost proxies for some kind of catatonic or autistic dislocation from reality, for a failure to engage with the world as embedded norms or our own past would prefer it.
This angle comes to the fore in “DEPRESSION SESSION,” a seven-minute, mangled soundclip of one irate man’s tirade against the fixities of behavior and thinking that causes us to “[suck] the sexual energy in” and never “[let] out all the sexual synergy and hunger and angeeerrrrrrr!.” Despite the (presumably) best of intentions from the hysterical orator, Gray’s treatment of the recording — the uncontrolled buzzings, gurglings and chirrupings that form its rhythmic base — becomes increasingly and overwhelmingly discordant, enough to insinuate that the words are falling entirely on deaf ears, in the process being negated and emptied of all signification. A similar cognitive dissonance is achieved by “HAPPINESS TO YOU,” which warps the tempo and tone of a somber guitar riff via a jittering strain of quickfire ticks and steadier waves of benign haze, although in this case the emotional effect is unsuspectingly heightened rather than openly mocked.
Despite emphasizing this dichotomous or “schizophrenic” aspect of Fresh Roses and its twisting of the given, much of the album excels precisely where everything is smoothly massaged into more coordinated nuggets. The charm of “TRUST,” with its squelchy R&B keyboards and veering, carefree falsetto, doesn’t so much reside in any symbolic act of subordination, but in the affectionate and artful handling of its stylistic point of departure, endowed as it is with extra warmth through a breathing sheet of maternal ambience and a continuous vinyl crackling. Obviously it could be claimed that even here the added white fuzz is plausibly emblematic of the degradation of memory and the estrangement from our past that inevitably occurs over time, but these kinds of considerations are shoved to one side by the fact that the minute-and-a-half song is so meticulously put together and consequently so curiously alive.
And the same can be said for pretty much the entire album, because even when Fresh Roses takes a producer’s hacksaw to its inspiration, the results of its iconoclastic DIY are much more immediate and indelible than anyone had any right to expect. The record verges liberally from one disfigured genre to another, all the while adhering to its glitchy, hyper-processed underflooring. And so finally, to frame this all in its own words, it therefore does more than enough to “Shake the motherfucker out.”