“This is how losers feel // I am a loser // and you’re here to remind me” ...so begins Cool Choices, recorded by Jenn Ghetto, founding member of the outstanding and sorely missed Carissa’s Wierd, under the name of “S.” Ghetto has made a career of producing some of the most heart-wrenching, emotionally-devastating, and downright sad tunes imaginable, and this latest effort is at once both the most accessible S record to date and the one that’s perhaps the most dour and bitter. What we have here is a breakup record that seems to air an uncomfortable amount of dirty laundry, directing most of its incredibly frank and intimate lyrical exclamations towards an unknown “you” figure. Though the difficult lyrical content would be hard for some people to deal with, Cool Choices is infinitely more polished than anything we’ve heard from Ghetto thus far in her solo career, and the fact that she’s backed up by a full band this time around makes this more approachable for listeners accustomed to mainstream recordings.
The piano ballad “Loser” that begins the record more or less sets the tone for everything that follows, and in some ways acts as a buffer track – listeners who don’t in some way relate to Ghetto’s perspective as put forth on this opener may as well bail out right then and move along. Initially, I wasn’t quite sure I liked the track, but after listening to the lyrics a few times (the line that goes “you’re getting old and no one gives a shit” would seem to apply to many veteran musicians these days in which the focus is most often placed on the “Best New Music”), I started to warm up to it. “Like Gangbusters!” is more in line with what I’ve come to expect from the S project, having simple but serviceable guitar parts backing up Ghetto’s soft but captivating vocals. While the confessional quality of the lyrics is pretty familiar, the bass and live drumming on the track isn’t: this actually sounds like a piece recorded by a band as opposed to something recorded on a bedroom four-track, and the wailing background vocals joining the main lyrical line provide the piece with a strong and memorable conclusion.
The album’s momentum continues virtually unabated on third track “Vampires,” a more lively piece that sounds almost hopeful in terms of its chord structure. Ghetto’s lyrics, which discuss the process of moving on after a failed relationship, limit the track’s optimism though: in one of the album’s most striking moments, while attempting to come to terms with encountering a former lover, Ghetto argues that “I’m crazy and you are fucked up,” the piece ending with a repeated, desperate declaration of “I’m lonely.” Following a guitar-based track that reminds me of something John Frusciante might throw on one of his solo albums, Ghetto unleashes the rhythmic, catchy, and quietly intense “White House.” This track really indicates what the addition of drummer Zach McNulty, second guitarist Carrie Murphy, and bassist Betsy Olson does for the by-now-established S formula: the song seems tighter than anything Ghetto pulled off on her own during the course of her previous (essentially home-recorded) albums. Since most of Ghetto’s vocals throughout Cool Choices consist of doubled-up parts, there’s a lot of opportunity for harmonic asides that add coloration to the relatively straight-forward melodies. These harmonies are especially noticeable in “Brunch,” another track firmly planted in the indie rock sphere that really starts to soar during a poignant chorus section. Again, the song deals with the process of coping with the loss of a loved one and includes some piercing lyrics: “I wish you hadn’t called last night / and talked about North Carolina / I know about that girl you fucked / and now I think I might throw up.”
To an extent, the unfocused second half of Cool Choices didn’t blow me away as much as the hard-hitting and tightly constructed first half did. Ghetto and crew attempt with “Tell Me” to make a synthpop track driven by electronic rhythms, and even unleash a loud, rambling rock number in “Balderdash” that stands in blaring opposition to most everything else here. Pieces like the slow piano ballads “Remember Love” and “Pacific” are nevertheless gorgeous to listen to however and the lyrics in all these songs make them very compelling. Ghostly electronic collage “Let the Light In” seems to be the culmination of all the themes discussed during the course of the album, and even if it’s not the album’s strongest track by a mile, it’s an effective closer.
S has often seemed like music that only persons who’ve experienced some extreme lowpoints or frustrations in their life would really “get,” and even if Cool Choices fills out the overwhelmingly minimalistic and rough sound of earlier Jenn Ghetto solo albums and is by far her most pop-oriented release, it undoubtedly wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste. It’s always struck me as a little odd and most unfortunate that fellow Carissa’s Wierd veterans Mat Brooke (of Grand Archives), Ben Bridwell (of Band of Horses), and Sera Cahoone (who’s recorded several well-received solo albums) have found at least moderate successes in the past decade while Ghetto, arguably the most undeniably unique talent of the bunch, has largely been ignored by the whole of the music industry. I’ve liked every one of Ghetto’s albums as “S” more than any of the releases from any of her former bandmates but again, the fact that Ghetto’s music is often enormously depressing and somewhat uncomfortable to listen to has limited its appeal. Hopefully, the comparatively palatable Cool Choices will be the album that gets her the recognition she very much deserves. Even if this isn’t Ghetto’s strongest solo effort from start to finish, it does have a number of her more memorable individual tracks and is one of the year’s best, most under-appreciated releases.
8.5 / 10
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