When it comes to crafting compelling, heart-on-the-sleeve tunes made without a shred of irony, few modern rockers are as sincere as Beach Slang’s James Alex.
The 40-something father of two sings about adolescence and the glories of youth without any winks or knowing nods. You'd be hard-pressed to find a band with actual kids in it that tackles youth with as much conviction and feeling as Beach Slang does.
“There's a thing about that period, where you're first getting turned on to things and you're finding yourself and you're finding your voice,” Alex says over the phone. “You're filled with wonder and you're not jaded and everything still feels possible. I never want to lose that feeling.”
Alex's songs are full of lost causes and deadbeat romantics. People who send their days in the margins of life, getting drunk and high, and hoping for something better. Young kids who find liberation in each other and in rock 'n' roll music.
Whereas other songwriters might couch their vulnerabilities and emotions in irony or by hiding behind the mask of a character, Alex’s songs sound straight from the heart. It’s an emotional directness that ties his work to influences like The Replacements’ Paul Westerberg, whose sloppy, euphoric guitar rock and cigarette-fried vocal rasp can be heard in Beach Slang’s sound.
It's a sonic debt made explicit on Alex's debut EP as Quiet Slang, an acoustic off-shoot of Beach Slang. Titled We Were Babies & We Were Dirtbags, the EP features Alex using piano and cello to reimagine older Beach Slang tracks and to perform a pair of covers: Big Star's “Thirteen” and The Replacements' “Androgynous.”
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By covering those musical heroes, Alex places himself in a long continuum of impassioned American rock music made by outsiders who weren't appreciated enough in their own time. But it's also a sonic niche the songwriter is interested moving beyond. Quiet Slang's detour into Magnetic Fields-style acoustic and chamber music stylings is pretty far removed from his older work.
“It brought out new chord voicings and new harmonies and new approaches,” Alex says about his Quiet Slang project. “I'm trying it shove it forward a little bit, but still write loud records.”
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Part of Alex's plan to “shove it forward” involves adding New Wave elements like theremins and Moog synths to Beach Slang's next album. “It could be an experimentation that flops and ends up as demos that get shelved for all eternity,” he says.
While the Quiet Slang side project is his most recent release, Alex is back on the road as Beach Slang, and he plans on working on a new album of material. And while he's been adding new sounds to his repertoire, the earnestness of his music isn't something that Alex is planning on abandoning anytime soon. But he does admit that he's been going through some major life changes that could push his writing in new directions.
“Now I've got a couple of small sons and I'm starting to shift into this new mode of seeing the world,” the singer says. “Now it's much more about what I'm leaving behind for my sons when I become a pile of dust. I'll never let go of that feeling of adolescence, of getting turned onto punk rock – I'm wired closely to that feeling. But I've got to grow up a little bit – I'm responsible for guiding some human beings through life.”
Beach Slang are scheduled to perform on Saturday, November 18, at The Rebel Lounge in Phoenix. Tickets are $16 to $18 via The Rebel Lounge website.