'Grandma' sees Unique Salonga carving his own musical path

With his solo debut, the former IV of Spades frontman says goodbye to disco and searches for identity in the sounds of psychedelic rock.

Emil Hofileña

1:0:0am August 16, 2018

2:22:7pm August 15, 2018

SOLO FLIGHT. Unique Salonga releases 'Grandma,' his 12-track debut album as a solo artist. Image from Facebook.com/uniquetsph

SOLO FLIGHT. Unique Salonga releases 'Grandma,' his 12-track debut album as a solo artist. Image from Facebook.com/uniquetsph

Unique Salonga has nothing to prove. Some fans of disco-pop band IV of Spades – of which Unique was formerly the frontman – may be curious to see if the 18-year-old singer-songwriter can actually make it on his own, or if he’ll flounder without a fixed group to support him. But with such a dynamic voice for someone his age, good musicianship, and a natural instinct for developing his own brand, there really shouldn’t be much doubt.

Unique’s debut album, Grandma, sees him putting his distinct vocals to good use, exploring more varied themes while remaining grounded in psychedelic rock.

Grandma’s 12 tracks successfully embrace the possibilities that Unique’s vocal range opens up. In some songs, his trademark falsetto once again evokes the heightened reality of 1970s dance music. But on a track like “I’ll Break Your Little Heart,” he wields his voice almost cruelly, spouting la-la-las with exaggerated, childlike glee.

However, Grandma actually seems to spend most of its time having the musician sing in his thick, tenor head voice instead. The decision pays off, as this allows Unique to convincingly sell more mature subject matter that his little to do with disco.

For example, in the folksy “Apoy ng Kandila,” he croons, “Uusbong ang / Realidad / Sa pagdungaw ng / Legalidad,” and he never sounds out of his depth. He may still sound somewhat emotionally distant, but it’s easy to excuse for now. His vocals nevertheless melt into the melancholy atmosphere of his music. 

The lack of any real dance-able songs in Grandma might disappoint O.G. IV of Spades loyalists, but this isn’t a case of an artist renouncing the spirit of their previous work. The record still very much draws inspiration from older souls, but not for the purpose of mere imitation.

Unique displays a willingness to explore different soundscapes, and to subvert the very style that kickstarted his career. After a brief overture (“M”), the album introduces its main sound with “Cha-Ching!” whose synth-heavy production soon explodes into full classic rock swagger.

This leads into “OZONE (Itulak ang Pinto),” which references the disastrous 1996 Ozone Disco Club fire and serves as something of a symbolic goodbye to Unique’s old sound. “Basang-basa ng pawis ang nakita ng aking mata / Naging abo ang ating buhay at pag-iibigan,” he sings.

Here, the death of disco is glorious but all-consuming.

Getting this song over with quickly proves to be a clever move. The record is then free to move on to the real meat: a solid middle section full of relatively restrained, mid-tempo tunes. The soaring “Goodnight Prayer” features Unique at his most haunting, with everything from intentionally blunt percussion to muted, drunken laughter floating in the background.

The aforementioned “Apoy ng Kandila” chugs along steadily, clearly built for inevitable crowd singing. And the bass-driven groove of “Sino”—easily the album’s catchiest, most accessible track—is dreamy and romantic, like a version of IV of Spades’ “Mundo” that isn’t trying to impress anybody. 

Given all of Grandma’s strengths, it’s unfortunate, then, that the album feels the need to throw in a few acoustic love songs that come across as obligatory more than anything else.

The repetitive “Jules,” uneventful lead single “Midnight Sky,” and ambiguous “My Old Friend” are generally uninteresting not just because they’re stylistically inconsistent with the rest of the record, but because they don’t exhibit any of the creativity that’s so abundant in the other tracks.

These are the only times when Unique’s music begins to sound like the product of a brand and a celebrity, and not the hard-earned work of a young, imaginative artist.

On that note, the record also hits a snag with its lyrics. The first words in Grandma are “Money in the bag / Money in the bag,” setting Unique up as a confrontational personality. He’s more than earned the right to show off, given his rapid rise to fame – and bragging is pretty commonplace among today’s popular artists.

But too often does Unique place himself on a pedestal here. He mocks that he could “break your little heart,” or threatens, “I can treat you / But where’s my money? / Please don’t waste my time.” He never makes the subjects of his antagonism clear, though, making his braggadocio appear defensive. And any attempts to tidy up this image are defeated by the album’s closer, “My Old Friend,” which is destined to be overanalyzed by IV of Spades fans forever: “My old friend, pardon me ‘cause I am tired of what I see / Love them all, be the light, have to go save the night.”

No matter Unique’s intentions with some of his words, it’s easy to remind oneself that these are likely just growing pains—a teenager’s ongoing process of navigating through a busy industry, a busier fandom, and all the noise in between.

Elsewhere throughout Grandma, he allows some authentic vulnerability to peek through, and these moments become some of the album’s strongest. In “Sino,” he laments his self-doubt: “Patuloy kong hahanapin kahulugan ng pag-ibig / At habangbuhay na mag-iisa.” In “Goodnight Prayer,” he offers himself up to the powers that be: “Hesukristo, dalangin ko’y / Linisin mo ang puso ko / Hesukristo, dalangin ko’y / Magising at ulitin ‘to.”

Unique might have to wait a while before he really finds his way, but if his debut release is any indication, he’s definitely found a good foothold for now. – Rappler.com