Many musicians who self-record achieve a gauzy pastel haze akin to the sounds Melina Duterte, playing as Jay Som, creates in her sunny Oakland studio (which doubles as her sleeping quarters). In another corner of the music world, many aspiring pop craftspeople (the type who unapologetically let ourselves be charmed by Carly Rae Jepsen’s E•MO•TION or drunkenly vow to fight anyone at the bar for disputing Rihanna’s Anti‘s legitimate creative heft) pepper their music with well-built pop hooks, tight & earwormy. Many, many fewer can do both at the same time on the same album.
Jay Som‘s proper debut on Polyvinyl Records, Everybody Works, is one of those albums. It comes on the heels of a pedal-to-the-metal few years for Duterte, who built years of homemade Bandcamp releases into serious acclaim with 2015’s spur-of-the-moment release Turn Into, which led to a tape release on Topshelf Records, a single on Fat Possum, and her current contract (and Turn Into reissue) with Polyvinyl. It put her on the road with Mitski and Japanese Breakfast, two other bands who happen to be fronted by Asian-American women, for a 30-date tour that filled venues across the USA with a slightly less white and male audience than your typical indie-rock tour might. In an interview last year with SPIN, Duterte reflected on the impact it had on her and might have had on the audiences.
I think it’s incredible that for this bill, all three are Asian-American women. I think it’s the first time in history. The impact that has on us and the audience in general is so important. I was talking to Michelle from Japanese Breakfast about this the other day. The fact that there are little girls of color at the shows. I didn’t have that when I was younger. If I saw this bill, I would have thought that was insane.
It’s so important that there’s this representation out there, right now, at this time.
After something that cathartic and influential, the pressure on Duterte, still just 22, must have been huge. She went back home, moved into a new apartment in Oakland, rested a bit, and got to work. She played some dates in support of Peter, Bjorn, and John. She spent countless hour structuring and restructuring songs, threw out demos, and furiously put together the set that would become Everybody Works.
The album begins by restating the fuzzy, off-the-cuff nature of Turn Into with “The Bus Song,” with a few hushed lines accompanied by a strummed electric guitar. A second voice joins in,
The knots are loose
I’ll cut them just to see you through
as if to signal that something more is coming. And come it does, with a cymbal crash and a wash of rich layers. The first chorus even has backup group vocals, something that feels quite out of place in my imaginings of a typical bedroom studio.
“The Bus Song” is a trip through town, a trip through self-belief and codependence, and a microcosm of Jay Som‘s new persona. “I can be whoever I want to be,” Duterte sings. In Everybody Works, she is.
She goes from crisply-written, shamblingly-played guitar pop a la Pinegrove to slower-simmering arrangements built around minimal guitar grooves with simple but convincing drumming, bringing notes of Hospitality or Broadcast in the core trilogy of the album, “One More Time, Please”, “Baybee”, and “(BedHead)”. After these three moving, toe-tapping yet heart-baring songs, we return to a fuzzier, emo-influenced ride out. Duterte mentions that she was listening to tons of E•MO•TION for inspiration for these sounds. I completely hear it in the center three songs, with tasty, bite-size hooks and charm oozing through syncopated alt-funky grooves. Vocal moments like in “Baybee” when she sings with a stutter, “pieces wo- ven back to- gether”, seem right out of the Jepsen playbook. While Carly Rae Jepsen plays in the writing, I hear Chaz Bundick in the tweaky production, with sudden downtunes and woozy phase-shifting effects. There are also moments of Actor-era St. Vincent in the guitar work.
What will keep you coming back to this album might be the intense focus behind the generally hushed vocals, it might be the versatile guitar playing, it might be the variety, it might be one hook (I keep humming the guitar lick in the middle of “Baybee”), but whatever it is, there’s a lot to love in Everybody Works. Spread through the album are exhilarating guitar solos that rise like drunken seagulls over the beach in the summer, wobbly but absolutely sure of themselves. My favorite is the one at the end of “One More Time, Please.”
You feel this album as soon as you’re done with it. You feel the quiet anger, the beaten consistency of a long-suffering partner, the desperation of a kid trying to convince her family that a career struggling to make ends meet as a musician, and the newfound confidence of an artist learning that she has strong wings to spread. It’s all because Melina Duterte works really hard, though the album title seems to shrug it off, Everybody Works, if you listen hard enough you’ll realize she really, really wants this. We want it for her, too.
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