Jenn Ghetto may be best known as a member of Carissa’s Weird, but her solo project S has been going for over ten years. She’s released bedroom pop and electronic-tinged music, but rather than record on her own for her new record, Cool Choices, she brought in drummer Zach McNulty, bass players Betsy Olsen, and guitarist Carrie Murphy to help flesh the songs out. With Chris Walla producing, Ghetto and her friends have turned S into a full-on band on Cool Choices.
This move is a good one in the best parts of the record. Ghetto wrote these songs around a break up, and you can feel that romantic loss pretty clearly throughout the record. In some ways, it’s a standard break-up record. On “Like Gangbusters!”, Ghetto sounds defiant, if hushed, when she sings “We all fall sometimes, you will not take me down.” The pastoral roll of “Vampires” runs through a list of things that trigger memories of what we lost, from the everyday (“voicemails”) to the every year (“birthdays”). And then there’s the attempts to move on, where “new friends” might be “vampires”. It’s a song that captures that moment well where moving on is the only choice, but it also looks like the worst one. The hazy power-pop of “Brunch” sounds bright, but it also finds nostalgia clashing with fresh heartache when Ghetto sings, “I wish you hadn’t called last night and talked about North Carolina / I know about the girl you fuck, and now I think I might throw up.”
Cool Choices often complicates the emotions of break-ups in these plainspoken and interesting ways. On piano ballad “Remember Love”, Ghetto softly declares “It’s you that I’ll remember when I think of love and awful things.” Beyond just the heartbreak though, this is also a record that questions the catharsis in writing about that broken heart. “You can’t get away from it, and it goes wherever you go,” Ghetto sings with soft resignation on “Pacific”, and she sings later about the very words she’s written for this album, how they were supposed to be a bridge to moving on, how she’s not sure yet if that’s what they did.
In these more complicated moments, both musically and thematically, Cool Choices is a curious and dark pop record. It also introduces S as a complex and tight band. There’s a lot of the record, though, that finds Ghetto retreating to solo-sounding work to lesser effect. The straight-ahead piano work of “Remember Love” and “Pacific” feel forced in their solitude and sad in a closed off way the more dynamic songs, like say the sharp turns and melted tones of “Muffin”, aren’t. And then there’s the electro-pop of “Tell Me” and closer “Let the Light In”, which feel less like branching out and more like tacking on.
These are, of course, more polished and textured songs than the early work under the S moniker, but they also retreat to old habits, habits that render the melodies a bit simple in comparison to the rest of the record, and habits that obscure Ghetto’s purpose. Oddly enough, it’s when Ghetto feels most alone on Cool Choices that she and her emotions are the hardest to make out. With the band, her hushed but powerful voice shines, and the complex layers make for something more than just another bunch of break-up songs. They reveal by obscuring events in favor of complicated reactions. On her own behind the piano or over drum programming, the songs sound sad in a somehow less convincing way, perhaps because so much of the rest of the record doesn’t try as hard to convince us of the hurt and does anyway.