Jay Som Everybody Works

[Polyvinyl; 2017]

Styles: vulnerability, power moves, kindred spirits
Others: St. Vincent, Elvis Costello, Mitski

Crystal ball emoji, trumpet emoji, the emoji heart with the vibes radiating from its top. Insight, play, and vulnerability make up the communication style of Jay Som, the project of Bay Area-based multi-instrumentalist Melina Duterte. Seeing Duterte live last summer made me want to get out my guitar and text myself with it, drafting a love letter with just a few spare chords. The direct, emotive appeal of her live shows (and of last year’s Turn Into) is built out into full-band arrangements on her latest full-length, Everybody Works. The album is, in her own words, about “finding some peace within yourself” as an adult. “Last time I was angry at the world,” she said of her earlier work. “This is a note to myself: everybody’s trying their best on their own set of problems and goals. We’re all working for something.”

Safe in a sexy way, Everybody Works is about pleasure that comes at no one’s expense. Inventive chamber-rock arrangements are laden with hooks and drops of meaning. On “1 Billion Dogs,” one of many highlights, drums set up Duterte’s vocals and then let her loose; each pause in the form predicates a next-level utterance. On “Everybody Works,” soft verses and loud choruses alternate just appropriately enough to please, as little phrases cascade within bigger ones. On “Baybee,” the big-beat chorus encourages us to dance, but it doesn’t require it: “I’ll play a game or song/ If you don’t feel right.” That last line repeats as a refrain until we really hear its condition: “If you don’t feel right.” Pop music manipulates; this record only makes you feel good if you want it to.

Much has been made of the fact that Duterte made the album in her bedroom, which is mostly a moot point, given that bedrooms are where most good music is made today. In any case, the music sounds great, featuring synth riffs, horn lines, and double-tracked duets of guitar and voice, fricative timbral taffy that catches, tugs, and sticks. Compression comes when the mood calls for it, even as mud is made of lines like “Nerves caught around my neck/ I called out for help/ My words turned into ash/ They went nowhere/ As if I’m barely there,” on “(Bedhead),” a detuned, gauzy fragment of a recording that recollects the best avant-indie: Modest Mouse when noise reigned, Broken Social Scene at peak redux. Ultra-present vocals and sparkly guitars are placed upon a hazy bed of mids, a hybrid approach. At 2:07, an elegant glitch reboots the phrase, and it literally begins again, replenished. This production supports the narrator’s account of getting back on her feet.

In a hyper-mediated, post-fact, worn-out world, reliable narrators are few and far between. I wonder about myself sometimes: when I was 22, as Duterte is, or even 23, I was anxiously over-eager, easily made irate. If age is nothing but a number, why do I find myself marveling at the way she assures us on the standout single “The Bus Song,” with measured wisdom, “Take time to figure it out/ I’ll be the one who sticks around”? Hints of piano, bursts of bass, melodies of light she made herself, for days. If you’re in need of someone you can count on, Jay Som is here to stay.

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