Photo by JOSH PELTA-HELLER
A couple years back, James Alex’s new pop punk project Beach Slang was catapulted into the national spotlight, and nobody was more surprised by the attention than him. During interviews conducted around around the time of their first tour (including one with Phawker), Alex would cite a personal benchmark for his songwriting to which he referred as “the campfire test.” “What I do is,” Alex explained, “I challenge myself with, can it hold up if it’s just me and my acoustic guitar?,” and reasoned, “if it can hold up in that simplest form, then there’s some moxie to it.”
Fast forward to Quiet Slang, an iteration of Alex’s full-throated punk anthemry stripped down to, well, not quite just him and his acoustic guitar, but also accompaniment from tour-manager-cum-pianist Charlie Lowe, and some pre-recorded, overwrought string tracks that seemed designed to try to turn each song into Blink 182’s “I Miss You” or, Led Zep’s “All Of My Love.” After a month on the road, Alex landed the tour with last night’s homecoming at Underground Arts, where he serenaded a small but incredibly warm room with his characteristic stage-whisper vocals, surrounded by clouds made of cotton, garlands of polyester flowers, electric candles, and stage smoke. Off to his left stood Lowe’s outsized piano, draped in cotton as well and lit with a glow from beneath.
The whole thing was unreasonably schmaltzy, half-baked and, in a way, sort of ill-conceived. But, here’s thing about James Alex: you can’t ever sleep on the guy. If there’s something this 41-year-old mop-topped pop-punk Peter Pan has proven time and again, it’s that he’ll find a way to make you love him — whether it’s with accessible songwriting, his authoritative delivery, sheer charisma and force of personality — or all that plus about an hour’s worth of cover songs played by request as an encore for a completely charmed and ever drunker local crowd. “I feel like I’m just at my friend’s house at a fuckin’ party,” proclaimed Alex, somewhere in the midst of a setlist full of Replacements covers like “Androgynous,” “Skyway,” “Alex Chilton,” “Bastards Of Young” and “Can’t Hardly Wait,” and crowd pleasers that quickly descended into eyeroll-inducing territory, like The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven,” Gin Blossoms’ “Hey Jealousy,” “Wonderwall” — and, yes, even a piece of “Free Bird” — before the self-proclaimed “Sonny-and-Cher-of-Punk” finally closed with “I Got You Babe.”
With Alex, you can’t ever tell if the irony is real or all in your head, and there may not even be an answer. He’s so engaging, so earnest and effusive, a rare breed of an artist who can deliver legitimately lame wordplay like, “we’re not fucked, we are fucking alive!” and declare things like, “we’re Quiet Slang and we’re here to punch you in the heart!” and somehow manage to win you over anyway. The further you get into his shows, the more you realize that you can either stand there with a grimace while you try to problem-solve, or else just submit to the fun. — JOSH PELTA-HELLER