It’s hardly news that the California Dream is partnered with what is, for some, a California Nightmare.
Both rapper 2Mex and singer-songwriter Frankie Rose experienced more of the latter in recent years, 2Mex through a medical crisis, Rose with a more personal, existential one. But each pulled through, he finding the love and support of family and community, she by, well, getting out of here. Both, though, found ways to express their experiences in music, resulting in new dimensions to their art and two highly involving albums.
In some ways, veteran Los Angeles rapper 2Mex’s “Lospital” is a concept album, the title not so much meant to describe a place but rather a condition of modern life.
In that light, two songs stand out as the centerpieces: “The Fresh Depression Anthem” is just that, a confession of life on a perilous edge: “Have you ever tried to turn a suicide note into a love song -- I’m kinda good at it,” he says, but soon explains what has saved him. “I guess what I’m trying to say is that I want to live and that I’m down with you.”
The other is the closer, “No Love Leg Lost.” See, in the seven years since the last 2Mex album, Alejandro “Alex” Ocana Jr. did lose a leg, to diabetes. And he lost more through his experience with the dark maze of medical care, experienced as one of the millions who had been unable to afford health insurance.
But while the system let him down, community stepped in to save him, as many of the fans, friends and associates he’s made in two decades as a socially active, community-oriented figure came forward with both emotional and financial support.
The album portrays that experience, his journey from despair to hope, and in the larger sense the experiences of all the lost souls in modern life, the patients at the titular “Lospital,” not all of whom get the kind of help he did.
That said, there’s something quaint and old-fashioned about “Lospital.” And that’s not just because 2Mex uses the silky guitar figure from Bob Seger’s 1977 hit “Mainstreet” for the musical bed of one song. The song in question is titled “Insta-Snap-Face” and is about our obsessiveness with online validation, which is neither quaint nor old-fashioned.
Yet. But for all the topicality, clearly 2Mex doesn't mind an impression that he’s not fully in step with the now.
There’s another song titled “Yacht Rockin,'" which both pokes fun at and shows affection for the softer sophistication of soft rock and smooth jazz, though with words that speak of frustrations.
You can imagine him writing this while stuck in a doctor’s waiting room, stuck with the music coming over the office audio system. But the album is full of licks that once upon a time would have been called “tasty,” not always as a compliment.
And another song is, simply, “Unfashionable.”
And right there is the lure of “Lospital” in a nutshell. A tasty nutshell, shaped by a love for the form, with help from a variety of guests and producers, including L.A. veteran soul-rocker Justin Warfield of She Wants Revenge, part of his supportive musical family.
But in that shell is some keen, and very in-the-right-now, observation of our condition, mixes of bemusement and anger (the profanity-laced current-events diatribe of “Bollywood Squares,” the music built on the kind of bangra beat that threaded its way through hip-hop a couple of generations ago, and the urban-information-overload confusion of “Deception”). Donald Trump’s name comes up a couple of times.
Other emotions, though, are the key factor to making this an engaging listen. The title song balances passion and regret in the service of love, reaching out to the lost souls in need of tender care, a “write me a love letter” chorus sung with sweet yearning by Sophia Pfister in counterpoint to 2Mex’s classic freestyle rhyming. That combo itself draws on sounds of the past that today seem nicely, earnestly stunt-free compared to much that we’ve heard in rap in recent years.
And right there is the appeal. In a nutshell.
Nothing like listening to the paranormal paranoia pushed by nighttime radio legend Art Bell to turn an “X-Files” mentality into a lifestyle. If you’re already feeling somewhat untethered, uncertain, isolated and lost in the cosmos, it could really mess with you a bit.
Frankie Rose has a song titled “Art Bell” on her new album, “Cage Tropical,” which tells you a lot about her.
The songs on “Cage Tropical” come from a period of nearly two years, 2014-2016, during which Rose had returned to Southern California -- she grew up in Seal Beach -- after having spent eight years living in Brooklyn and a few years before that around San Francisco.
Whatever she’d come back to find, it eluded her, and though she’d already established herself as a creative musician, with three well-received albums, she found herself working on a catering truck to pay her rent. And at night listening to the Art Bell radio archives.
OK, maybe not the healthiest situation. But somehow it helped her transform her existential crisis -- she’s said she thought she might be done as a musical artist -- into a new phase of musical expression.
Sci-fi synths, ghostly loops, echoed voices, they’re all there in these songs, spectral manifestations and psychic projections of what she experienced, every bit as much a part of it as the words. Overall it’s a lush pop landscape she paints, layers of sounds, often with ‘80s dance-pop allusions, and multiples of her voice, a distinct mix of bubbly youthfulness and hard-won maturity.
And the words don’t mince, uh, words when it comes to how adrift she felt.
In the opener “Love in Rockets” she is living in “a wheel of wasting my time here, a wheel of wasting my life here.” In “Dyson Sphere” (space themes abound) she is “already lost… in the midst of end times.” In the title song, she leaves no doubt that what for many is a SoCal paradise is nothing of the kind for her, but rather a “special kind of hell on a sunny day.” And in “Art Bell,” the titular figure, who retired from new broadcasts a couple of years ago, citing threats against him and his family, is a lamented “King without a country.” “Help me fall, over and over,” she pleads to him, fearing that “sleep will be a stranger without you.”
Lest you fret for her mental state, the album is a testament to the fact that she pulled herself out of all that, and perhaps not coincidentally, pulled herself back out of California. Or was pulled out, though she made the positive step of reaching out on her own.
After writing the basics of these songs in L.A., she sent them to some friends in New York, including musician-producer Jorge Elbrecht, who has worked closely with Ariel Pink and Gang Gang Dance, among others. And then she moved back to Brooklyn herself, the distance and community of the new/old setting letting her process the experiences into what we hear on this album.
For us here, maybe there’s some regret that she had such a troubled homecoming, and reluctant acceptance that she had to leave to make sense of it. But the album is a compelling case that there is more going on than we might know, that no matter what we have here, for many the truth is out there.