The Anniversary

DSU Turns 10

Orchid Tapes
Orchid Tapes

Before signing to a major label, working with Frank Ocean, writing scores for A24 movies, and going on network television, there was Tumblr. Alex Giannascoli is, first and foremost, an internet darling — a bedroom pop legend with the likes of Sam Ray, bulldog eyes, Elvis Depressedly, and salvia palth. From 2010 to 2012, RACE, WINNER, RULES, AND TRICK soundtracked the ennui and exasperation that proliferated on Tumblr, his simple yet piercing lyrics and uncanny ear for melody attracting a legion of fans.

Orchid Tapes took notice of the kindred spirit, adding him to their roster of interior worldbuilders, including Foxes In Fiction, RL Kelly, and the aforementioned Sam Ray. Within months, DSU came out — 10 years ago today. The album is both an evolution for Giannascoli’s songwriting and a strengthening of the bond he forged with his past releases. That he can say so much with so little, eschewing any sort of verbosity or involvement singer-songwriters may put in their songs, is the mark of a man with a special connection to your heart, unpretentious and so, so devastating.

“After Ur Gone” is the inflection point for these new ideas, the tape-looped intro seguing into overdubbed guitars that are reminiscent of TRICK if it was interested in building drama instead of laying it all bare. You are being dressed down for every emotion, taken for a ride in the manner of the ’90s indie behemoths, only instead of malaise and ironic detachment, it’s a poet staring straight in your face, daring you to feel.

The four-strum intro had become a pillar of Alex G’s music – try hopping around his first four albums without noticing it – but “Serpent Is Lord” marked a radically new compositional phase. With a Neil Young-esque guitar and piano melody, Giannascoli’s coos envelope the listener, two-word phrases stretched out to become hymns. If the title didn’t clue you in, “Blood the / Body / Spill mine” makes clear how pointed the biblical allusion is.

If DSU needed a single, it would’ve been “Harvey.” Opening with the eminently chantable “Success for my buddies, success for my friends/ Success is the only thing I understand,” it’s a rare crowd-pleaser on a record filled with melancholy. But in the standard Alex G way, even that is flipped on its head. Like his forebears Elliott Smith and Alex Chilton, Giannascoli has a virtuosic knack for compelling people to belt out gut-wrenching lyrics. And what’s more relatable than an ode to your dog? McCartney would know.

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Themes of loss, grief, and death hang heavy over DSU. “Don’t hang up the phone/ I love you to death” on “Black Hair.” “Pariah kid/ Lost in a game” on “Sorry.” “Don’t take a trip/ Don’t let me down/ I know/ I’m hollow” on “Hollow.” These are all familiar feelings for someone trapped in suburban young adulthood. Giannascoli is deft at concealing whether the songs are based on true stories or original poetry, taking you into places that are both dreamlike and uncannily recognizable.

Another miraculous aspect of DSU is that it was recorded entirely on Giannascoli’s laptop. There’s nothing wrong with GarageBand — see fellow acolytes Grimes and Steve Lacy — but the overdubs and textures he manifests across the record are truly impressive. Listen to “Icehead”’s muffled drums that sound like they’re being recorded in a dumpster, or the jazz fusion-esque bass of “Promise.” On later Alex G albums his utilization of professional studios is similarly top-notch, but in his home-recorded comfort zone, he has a mastery of the comfy emotions associated with intimate, heartfelt music.

The exploration that would mark his later records begins here. The plain statement on “Skipper” about Dave needing a bag morphing into “Hope”’s “Saw some people crying that night/ Yeah, Fentanyl took a few lives from our life.” Or “Hollow”’s vocals being backed by Emily Yacina before years later doing the chorus for “Southern Sky.” This kind of symbolic turning point for an artist’s discography heralds their music as one of true note–the kind that can be divided into eras, where fans argue what period is their best.

This relatable liminality is why DSU — and broadly, Alex G — have become so loved. Giannascoli was molded in the touring circuit, the houses of Rochester and State College and Richmond nursing his talent, helping him find the exact formula to grip so many hearts. The musical growth landscape has become so different in the 10 years since DSU, its evolution broadly occurring online, yet those roots have blossomed even within technological shifts, as you can’t throw a stone on Bandcamp without coming across one of the progeny of Alex G. Just as he and his generation were students of Elliott Smith, he himself has become the Elliott Smith for Gen Z, and the cycle continues.

“Boy,” the closer, may be the most poignant statement Giannascoli has ever made on record. It’s a declaration of change and growth, laid bare and without metaphor. The lyric “I am not the boy you knew” is particularly profound — one of those lines that clearly comes from somewhere deep and personal for the artist but can mean so many things to so many different listeners. It’s easy to imagine Alex G’s sizable trans fan base hearing themselves reflected back in that one.

The personal reason for writing this anniversary is that the young author attended one of Alex’s first Ohio shows, and what serendipity to be in the presence of greatness like that in its incubation. It’s the perfect encapsulation of what DSU represents to so many. The familial, cozy feeling of being around ones that you love; the sense of going into the unknown, trying new things, being vulnerable. DSU touches on all those intimacies, ones that are intensely personal yet universally recognized.

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