Jay Som Anak Ko

[Polyvinyl; 2019]

Styles: indie rock, guitar music, highway at sunset, sidewalk mid-day, driveway in the suburbs, alone in my room
Others: Hand Habits, Palehound, Mitski, Stephen Steinbrink

In case you missed it, Everybody Works was the brilliant and tender 2017 breakthrough for Jay Som. It traversed a bevy of genres and moods, putting Melina Mae Duterte’s songwriting, arrangement, performance, and production talents on display. This made for a dynamic if slightly scattershot album. It showed a wide palette (and some serious jams), but it left me hungry for a more unified work.

Anak Ko maintains the stylistic depth of that debut but incorporates it more seamlessly. It shows musical growth from Duterte, who now wields her vivid genre vocabulary as a toolkit from which she can pull different shades, hues, and textures. Across the album, varied grooves, harmonic modes, auxiliary instrumentation, and production effects contribute to its overarching sound. Add to that the fact that it was written mostly within the course of a week and a cohesive stylistic voice emerges. It’s less of a tour of different rooms in the house than Everybody Works was. More so, it feels like the light in a room subtly shifting, effecting the mood over the course of a day.

Consider the brusque track-to-track shifts of tracks 2-5 of Everybody Works, which moved through sunshine pop à la Liz Phair and Natasha Beddingfield on “The Bus Song;” dreamy guitar washes of “Remain” that sound like a missing Roxy Music/Fleetwood Mac collab; The Breeders-y fuzz-jam of “1 Billion Dogs” that would’ve fit in the catalog of label-mates Alvvays; the light funk of “One More Time, Please” that held a groove with the cold distance of Art of Noise. Maybe this quick back-to-back tour de force was a necessary move for Duterte to showcase her breadth and deep skillset, but Anak Ko seems to have come from a place of greater comfort and confidence. Many of these same influences find space amongst each other, transitioning seamlessly within songs and coming through layered elements.

That poppy Liz Phair energy finds space immediately with Anak Ko’s second track, “Superbike.” I was grinning while walking and listening one day, feeling like an idiot for the pure sentimental joy the song wrought upon me: its slow-building bridge, its swelling reverb, the emphasis on its relative minor chord in its resolution; all of it bares a sincerity and ingenuity that embellished rather than disrupted the mood it set. Other tracks — “Peace Out,” “Devotion,” “Tenderness,” “Crown” — use stripped-down arrangements in percussion and guitar/bass doubling to experiment within the limits of the “Spotify sound” that has come to dominate both the indie rock and pop landscapes. Jay Som enlivens a decidedly non-dynamic sound via cleverly cycling riffs (articulating unlikely beats; that 14 beat “Peace Out” verse riff is heavenly), layering percussion or omitting usual drum kit elements variably, and writing intuitive but well-constructed melodies (the vocal pickup to the chorus of “Nighttime Drive” brilliantly contains most of that chorus’s action, anticipating it and climaxing in the same five-note breath). The newfound funk of “Peace Out,” “Tenderness,” and “Anak Ko” revolve around lopsided patterns that emphasize elements of the songs themselves, avoiding genre-pastiche and, all the while, grooving harder for it (the mid-song instrumental 6/8 bridge of “Tenderness” is a particular highlight).

Duterte avoids familiar pitfalls of similarly positioned bands (especially in Los Angeles, it seems), which is a sort of flattening, de-stylization within arrangements. This trend is seemingly an effect of the use of session/for-hire musicians and arranger/producers without a determined stylistic vision or a spirit for experimentation. Add that to the professionalism and sheen expected of the L.A. bar scene, and the results tend to be inoffensive and predictable by design. (Of course, some have made brilliant work within these parameters — Hand Habits and their latest album placeholder come to mind.) Anak Ko, however, proves the emergence of a stylistic auteur in indie rock. There’s little apparent by way of concept, lyrical wit, and aesthetic quirk — qualities that illuminate the work of many of Duterte’s colleagues — but ambience, style, and ingenuity are well at work, making the album a vibe-y classic worth hanging onto.

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