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  • Genre:


  • Label:

    Forged Artifacts / Devil Town Tapes

  • Reviewed:

    May 8, 2023

The Philly singer-songwriter’s third proper album is written and sung with painstaking care and offers an entry point to his sprawling and satisfying discography.

“Every time you say you wanna know me/I get anxious/cause I would probably tell you about some dumb shit,” Greg Mendez warbles at the beginning of “Maria,” a highlight from his subtly stunning self-titled album that subtly scrutinizes the whole “intimate singer-songwriter” enterprise. In short, what’s the distinction between indiscriminate confession and honest communication? He then puts this concern to the test by proceeding to tell us about the time he got arrested at a crack den.

Neither an introduction nor the bold redefinition assumed from a self-titled release, Greg Mendez’s third proper album is nonetheless framed as an entry point to his sprawling and satisfying discography. After 15 years kicking around Philadelphia’s DIY scene, he’s more of a peer of Alex G than progeny, though new listeners are likely to hear them drawing from similar wells. “Maria” could be mistaken for a bonus track on the Trick re-release—the kind of breathless, unspooling melody usually played out on a lead guitar rather than the human voice, the uneasy tension between easy listening ambience and abject squalor. Yet unlike the lowlife reportage on Alex G’s “Hope” or “County,” Mendez is both storyteller and subject here.

The nonchalance in his delivery cuts against the shock value, leaving space to interpret the intention behind each painstakingly chosen word. Notice the juxtaposition between the addict’s frantic desperation and the custodial, impersonal performance of cops who’ve seen far too much of this shit—“Krys and I came crashing through the window/But they were waiting.” Was this whole thing dumb shit because it was a stereotypical moment of intoxicated stupidity? “Earlier that day, we were both clean,” Mendez reveals and while sometimes, addiction can be cunning, baffling, and powerful, it’s more often a blunt instrument to the head—“Come back to me, because it’s easy.”

Though not exactly a concept record or a narrative, Greg Mendez is unified in its exploration of how addiction and relationships—platonic, familial, and romantic—can be subject to the same toxic power dynamics. “Here’s a photograph where it looks like I’m having a good time,” he sighs on “Best Behavior,” embodying a depression so total that a tossed-off punchline lands like a blow to the gut. (“But I’m not,” he adds.) Though Mendez is rarely backed by more than brushed drums, soft electric guitar, or a chintzy organ preset, “Best Behavior” is one of the few truly alone songs here, and the narrator sounds incapable of registering any joy, not even for someone listening to their favorite song or landing their big job. “I’m on my best behavior, do you like it?” he sings, dripping with both neediness and sarcasm, only willing to generate enough energy to desire company for their misery.

Mendez’s arrangements throughout are spare but sturdy, reflecting its narrators’ fate of spiraling towards oblivion while resigned to the likelihood that they’ll keep trudging on. The thwarted impulses of “Cop Caller” are underscored by a full-band coda that gets incrementally louder, wanting so badly to break the solemn mood by waking the neighbors. Even the one song that could be called “bouncy” or “jaunty” (“Goodbye/Trouble”) does so by compressing Elliott Smith’s career into a couple of minutes, combining the diaristic dejection of his own self-titled album with the harmonic sophistication that he saw as a way forward.

While only 23 minutes long, it’s quite literally a life’s work, as its final two songs both date back over a decade. Notice that the closer is titled “Hoping You’re Doing Okay”: “Pull your sleeves down though it is 93 degrees,” Mendez sighs in a crushing depiction of dopesickness. Mendez wrote this song in 2009 and in the time since, he has gotten clean, witnessed the coming and going of several generations of Philly indie rock, and made Greg Mendez while on worker’s comp after a concussion suffered on a construction job. What came of the inspiration of “Hoping You’re Doing Okay,” assuming that it wasn’t Mendez writing to himself?

The past half-century of “singer-songwriter” music can make ears numb to the signifiers of “intimacy” that emerge with even the most cursory listen here: real name on the album cover, no gimmicks. Whispery vocals cloaked in an indeterminate hum, like the music was recorded and uploaded to streaming by the very same iPhone. Songs with seemingly placeholder titles (“Maria,” “Sweetie,” “Friend”) that imply their subjects were sitting in the same room as Mendez. And perhaps it’s crass to suggest that Greg Mendez transcends these tropes because he’s been through some shit. Yet, I think back to that opening line from “Maria” and understand why Mendez admits to being so anxious about letting someone get to know him—in less than two minutes, he can express a lifetime’s worth of pain, regret, and resilience.