There is something wonderfully early 90’s and alternative about What’s Going On, a certain fragility and a sort of outsider vibe, one which seems plant a flag for creativity over commerciality, but remains a commercially viable option nonetheless. And it is that preference for substance over style, whilst remaining as stylish as hell, which is the real charm here.
It blends pop-aware melody with indie cool, it rocks out when it chooses and defies you not to dance around like a loon, but it does so on its own terms. Most music plays by the rules but the best music decides which rules to use and which to ignore and then bends those rules to its creative will, not the other way around and that is exactly what Alex Julia seems to do here.
And if I have painted a picture that this is a clear nod to college rock past, the early days of indie and the formative years of alternative rocks, then I will add that this is only a small part of what’s going on… pun intended. A fleeting echo of the past may be heard pulsing away at the heart of the song but this is definitely a song made in, and for, the here-and-now. Any connection is more in attitude than anything like plagiarism. What I’m trying to say is that Alex Julia is merely carrying on the traditions of outsider bands such as Throwing Muses or Belly, rather than re-appropriating any of their elegant and eclectic thunder.
What’s Going On is built on simple acoustic rhythms but it is what she uses to dress up that sound which builds the songs unique character. Salvos of raw-edged riffs, sharp-edged shards of riffing guitar work, a wonderful boy-girl call and respond vocal, infectious choruses which slowly descend into feedback frenzy and raucous reverb and all manner of strange sonic motifs that colour the edges of the sound and add weight, drive and energy to the delivery.
Alex Julia understands that impact doesn’t come from deliberately writing complicated songs. It comes from writing simple songs and then dressing them up until the original lines are barely perceptible. That way you get the simple power which comes with the deftness of the song’s structure as well as the chance to weave strange sonic tapestries making the song unique, beguiling and compelling to the listener.
It’s a great song, one that tips a hat to the past, glances to the future but is happy to exist in the present. But rather than conform to fad or fashion, surf the zeitgeist or play by the rules, Alex Julia is happier in her own musical world. And what a fantastic world it is.