Pitch shifting has been around for decades. It’s the process of raising or lowering a vocal pitch signal by a set interval. Essentially, it makes the original signal sound higher or lower in pitch, depending on how the artist implements it. Chuck Berry adopted vocal pitch shifting during his late career to make his voice sound younger. Kanye West has used it prominently when sampling to create his trademark “chipmunk soul” beats. Grindcore and death metal bands use it to drop their vocals deeper below the human register and raise them to be higher than a screaming banshee. A$AP Rocky uses it extensively on the introductions to many of his tracks. It’s a wildly dynamic effect that has uses across genres, but for some reason, few musicians within the singer-songwriter sphere have implemented it. That is, until (Sandy) Alex G started making waves.
Alex G, who started as a bedroom musician recording tracks on his laptop with a shabby, decades old microphone, has become a veritable indie star, and he did it using vocal pitch shifting. He doesn’t overdo it, though. He only uses it when he thinks he needs it. Sometimes it’s for an entire song, sometimes it’s only on the verses and sometimes it’s just sprinkled in randomly. Alex G has gotten some pretty prominent placements because of it, too. He was the one playing guitar all over Frank Ocean’s Blonde and Endless. He’s worked with Oneohtrix Point Never, reimagining “Babylon” in a dazzling, yet somber, way. In fact, Alex G’s cover of “Babylon” has even more plays than the original. He has the ability to create haunting, magical moments using only his voice, and that’s a special thing to have.
His newest release House of Sugar is most similar to a cute but slightly creepy old fairy tale. It’s both captivating and a little repelling at the same time. Beginning with “Walk Away,” each song takes listeners to another realm, one where time stands still as Alex G’s vocals and guitar wash over everything. “Walk Away” is like the gentlest vice grip, with plush pillows taking the place of clamps. The song is stifling, but in a comforting way. The use of downward pitch shifting on the lines, “(S)omeday I’m gonna walk away from you / Not today, not today / Not today, not today / Not today, not today,” is unsettling and claustrophobic, but in a way, it feels nostalgic, like a memory that can suddenly speak to you, subtly reminding you of an old misstep.
“Walk Away” is the introductory track to an album dealing with addiction and dependence, and it’s a damn good one at that. It beautifully sets listeners up for songs like “Hope,” a tear-inducing remembrance of a friend who died from an overdose on fentanyl, and “Taking,” a choric aside about a woman discovering and caressing her potentially strung-out lover. Despite thematic similarities, Alex G continues to surprise sonically. “Bad Man” is similar to a country ballad, and on “Sugar,” he unleashes a droning, robtronic wall of sound, making it clear that Oneohtrix Point Never’s influence has rubbed off on him.
The most striking thing about House of Sugar is its ability to strike a balance between the strange and the familiar. Alex G seamlessly incorporates altered and multi-tracked vocals with electronic keys and acoustic guitar. He’s so good at arranging his songs that the electronic flare doesn’t seem that odd next to the more standard acoustic guitar. It just makes sense. That weirdness is what makes Alex G who he is, and he’s never ashamed to let his goofiness shine. Luckily, this doesn’t detract from his music and its message. Instead, it adds accessibility, cutting the weight off some of the heavier tracks.
House of Sugar is like a childhood fairy tale that slowly begins to reveal itself as you get older. At first, it seems sweet and innocent, but as you give it more time and thought, it begins to reveal its more sinister colors. In this case, it unveils the ravages of dependence and addiction in a truly sad way. But using pitch shifting and glittering instrumentals, the album appears saccharine and a bit silly. It is truly the culmination of Alex G’s career up to this point, perfectly capturing his essence as a musician and human being. House of Sugar is an album that deserves repeat listens, if not for its lyrical content, then for the sonic acrobatics it so often pulls.
(Sandy) Alex G has already proven that he can do the whole singer-songwriter thing. But it’s the moments on House of Sugar when he lets his freak fly that make the album special. Moments like when he busts out the Springsteen impression on “SugarHouse – Live” or his mock-country accent on “Bad Man” are what make it hard not to fall in love with the man and the music.