Feeling the crushing weight of impending fatherhood, I sought refuge in the calming musical shores of dream-pop/shoegaze back in 2015. The genre quickly became something of a security blanket for me, which is probably why I dusted off my shoegaze playlist again in mid-2020. Seeking to add new tracks to my shoegaze playlist, I stumbled upon Jay Som’s “Superbike,” which led me to her 2019 album ANAK KO, a record that has become one of my top pandemic albums.
Jay Som is the stage name for California singer-songwriter Melina Mae Duterte who came to the world’s attention in 2016 with her bedroom record, TURN INTO. That self-recorded album launched her career as both an artist and producer. ANAK KO was also recorded and mixed by Duterte but unlike her previous album also features her touring musicians on guitar and drums. I mention this because I’m going to gush about how good this sounds for a so-called bedroom album. And while the record was put together outside of a traditional recording environment, I want to acknowledge that ANKAK KO isn’t just Duterte sitting alone in her room. Although, from what I can tell, much of this might have been recorded in her bedroom. Why does any of this matter? Because ANAK KO is a lush, at times achingly beautiful album; it’s not a D.I.Y. record. This is not a static-laced lo-fi record. ANAK KO is so polished that even if the songwriting weren’t as good, I’d still be impressed.
But the songwriting is really good. The album is ostensibly classic dream-pop, with Duterte’s soft, almost whispered vocals riding a crest of shimmering sonic soundscapes. Lyrically, ANAK KO is like standing over someone’s shoulder and reading their diary; the songs (even the sunnier-sounds ones) are full of the neurotic yearnings and anxiety of a young person. Like most good art, there’s a failed relationship casting a terrible shadow over ANAK KO. This shadow is the glaze on the album’s doughnut, taking good songs and making them fantastic. The creeping drone found part of the way through “Peace Out” is the best, and my favorite, example. Even on tracks that ostensibly sound happy/upbeat, there’s a beating heart of darkness.
Yes, there are lots of ’80s tinged keyboards indicative of dream-pop, but Duterte has all kinds of tricks up her sleeve. She packs the album with all kinds of neat little production embellishments that allow ANAK KO to escape easy classification. There’s a dollop of country guitar on the album closer “Get Well.” The song “Peace Out” sounds like an early Best Coast track. There’s a violin part on “Nighttime Drive” that oddly reminded me of “Blimps Go 90” by Guided by Voices. The quick staccato of guitar chords and hypnotic melody on “Superbike” reeled me in, but it was all these little details sprinkled throughout ANAK KO’s production that kept me coming back.
I’ve seen this album described as a headphones record in reviews, but for me, that’s a bit limiting and undersells the production. Like I stated earlier, ANAK KO is a lush record. It’s painfully personal and brimming with nostalgic flourishes whose sincerity helps it avoid being just another gimmicky throwback. I really cannot overstate how good this album is and eagerly I await Duterte’s next project.