When an original is exemplary, it’s easy to suffer a successive fall from grace. Be it with film, music or literature, there’s few sequels that stack up to their siblings. Melina Mae Duterte’s third release as Jay Som falls into the minority that surpass them. Anak Ko sees her stylised flare and melodic mastery unhinged across nine pop tracks to usher in her coming of age where she sits amongst the likes of fellow decorated bedroom music makers Mac DeMarco and Frankie Cosmos.
Catalysed by her 2016 drunken Thanksgiving post of demos to Bandcamp in 2016, the Oakland-turned-Los Angelean’s rise over the last three years has never abated. Re-released with 2016’s Turn Into, Duterte’s brand of rich, authenticated band-based bedroom-pop was honed even further on 2017’s Everybody Works. Her first fully-formed LP retained her knack for thematic intimacy whilst elaborating on sonic miscellany, earning her supports with The National and Mitski. Composed whilst on a retreat to Joshua Tree, her latest LP evokes a newfound confidence and clarity, flexing her pop muscle with concentrated arrangements that hook harder than ever.
“If You Want It” leads from the front with an infectious guitar and bass combo that embodies the finesse of the record. Live drums and shakers invigorate and animate before Duterte embellishes the primary passage with florid melodies. Phasing and bit-crush pedals compliment a colourful arrangement brimming with rhythmic and tonal hooks.
An unmistakable 90s-early 00s pop charm pervades “Superbike”. Its nostalgic levity warms and excites with more emotion than any old earworm could. The ambiguity of a whirlwind love battling the realities of conflict are mirrored in the agitated guitar strums that seed doubt and the uplifting synths that suppress them. However, it’s Duterte’s devastating frankness that strikes the strongest chord – “said you wanted something else, something new for show and tell”.
Grungey guitar is Duterte’s only accompaniment on the expository “Peace Out”. Shakers and bass add texture to an isolating arrangement that recreates an honest argument between two; “want me to say the right words, make you feel incredible, I’m selling myself short, pulling teeth to make it work”. A steady synth note inferences an underlying volatility that ultimately unleashes all the instruments for an explosive solo that runs in tandem with the sentiment of the song.
Duterte tries her hand at neo-funk and RnB to tremendous effect on “Devotion”. There’s a distinct channelling of The Internet through the chorus-driven guitar and Little Dragon upon the arrival of the arpeggiator-heavy bridge that drenches Duterte’s falsetto in reverb. The drum-machine pervading the jam serves as an embodiment of her father’s DJ disco-era influence.
“Nighttime Drive” is a mid-album sojourn that feels like an acoustic lullaby. Analogies of growth and moving on embody her recent move to California’s capital. Violins embolden the waltzing bassline with blushes of piano that offer a sedate serenity, albeit one that would be least replayed on the record.
Standout track “Tenderness” returns to the neo-funk/RnB vibes from earlier with more pop undertones and structure. Lo-fi mastering of the opening drum machine and Eddie Lacy-esque guitar only escalates the impact of the already potent chorus. A potential metaphor contrasting her past and present sounds, Duterte’s vocals shine standing front and centre; “I’m feeling like we’ve just begun, nothing’s ever good enough, tenderness is all I’ve got”. Live drums further the funk as Wurlitzer keys offer a soothing soul undertone through the bridge. A key change late on rubber stamps the track’s pop power.
The most experimental arrangement on the record sees the title track meld conflicting styles in a dark soundscape for a downtempo neo-ballad. A passage of guitar and synth takes the track into unanticipated alt-rock before looming synths derived from The Terminator soundtrack drive home melancholic aspersions in the back half. More of a testament to how well-crafted and catchy the rest of the album is, “Anak Ko” suffers for its relative inaccessibility.
Sawtooth lead licks and acoustic guitars combine on “Crown”. Ride heavy percussion chills as Duterte’s vocals caress. Its lilting melody embodies a call against complacency in friendship, love and ambition; “you climb the ropes to second best, you’ll do it all over again”. Lead improvisations abandon the constraints of structure and exit the closing tunnel with a liberating sense of abandon.
Closer “Get Well” offers a cleansing experience. Summating everything imparted before it, there’s a sobering message of empathy to improve and heal; “I’ve been sick like you, I’ve had my share, don’t wanna find you, on the other end”. Pedal steel is applied with all the abandon you could desire, often harmonising over the top of its own reverb. Both arrangement and themes convey a maturity well beyond the songstress’ years, much like the album as a whole.
Anak Ko is powerful pop for 2019. Melina Mae Duterte conjures a collection of infectious songs with ability to cause a current of dopamine to pervade the listener’s central nervous system. Albeit with a pair of less enthralling songs, it idiosyncratically marries her intimate emotions with newfound stylised flare and confidence. It fundamentally makes you feel something, be it from the lyricisms to the melodic movements. Just as great music should.