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On Record, Unique Takes No Prisoners With 'Grandma'

We didn't see it coming from an 18-year-old prodigy whose first single seemed poised for streaming ubiquity
by Ian Urrutia | Aug 15, 2018
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A month before Grandma hit digital and streaming services, O/C Records and Viva Entertainment were having a hard time executing the rollout that would launch Unique's solo career. While the young singer-songwriter's debut single "Midnight Sky" racked up huge numbers on Spotify Philippines and never left the Top 50 since its arrival, the song earned mixed reactions online from both music fans and casual listeners. It threads a familiar path: a lightweight, acoustic ballad that parents might dig more than their kids do, serviceable at best but lacking the volatile personality of his previous work with IV of Spades. Bordering on safe, it missed an opportunity to deliver a great first impression. On the very same day, his former band, IV of Spades released "In My Prison," a pulsing '80s-inflected track paired with a music video that is every bit as contagiously fun and engaging as the song. Sure, it doesn't reinvent the wheel, but it asserts its presence with a promising kick and some fairly exciting sonic excursions outside of the band's vintage disco/funk influences.  

It didn't help that Unique's first major concert was announced only a few weeks after the single's maiden release. For someone who has yet to solidify his track record as a solo artist and whose market caters to a younger demographic, the ticket price may be a bit too steep, if not unreasonable. And if his lack of musical experience would be taken into account, it would be difficult to sway the general public into believing that he is capable of headlining a show of his own, let alone a solo stint at the prestigious Kia Theatre.

Smart enough to take advantage of the publicity, Unique tweeted a faux set list consisting of multiple versions of his debut single, "Midnight Sky." Once again, the former IV of Spades front man held his court by being charismatic and funny in equal measure, becoming the subject of many memes. The online community preyed on the entertaining aspects of his persona rather than focusing on his musical talent, giving Unique's team an opportunity to come up with a strategic comeback.

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Then out of nowhere, Unique dropped Grandma—a sweeping collection of old-fashioned anthems polished for a modern audience. The reception was overwhelmingly positive, with credible tastemakers BP Valenzuela, She's Only Sixteen's Roberto Sena, and Similarobjects' Jorge Juan Bautista Wieneke praising the record for raising the bar of pop/rock songcraft and production. Celebrated music icon Rico Blanco even expressed his admiration for Unique's Grandma. "He can have the torch. Brilliant fucking album," the veteran singer-songwriter tweeted two days ago.

The music revels in the expanse of ambition and mood, but you can hear layers and layers of instruments and subtle sonic tricks intricately mixed with a sophisticated sound in mind. The production on Grandma is slick and suave albeit not completely antiseptic, highlighting Unique's chameleonic tendencies as a singer-songwriter influenced by pop and rock music greatsfrom Bowie to Elton John, Simon and Garfunkel to Paul McCartney, Thom Yorke to Rico Blanco, and somehow absorbing the broadness of it to create a new blueprint he can claim as his own. He's an old soul who isn't afraid to realize his stately ambitions and play around with a cloud of sonic effects, but he can throw off expectations by not pandering to his market's collective taste.

And we didn't see it coming from an 18-year-old prodigy whose first single seemed poised for streaming ubiquity. In fact, "Midnight Sky" is the weakest among the bunch: an anomaly that would probably earn its birthright as the song that launched Unique to a mainstream audience, who want their personal soundtrack drowning in flavorless hugot juice and adult contemporary feels. But the rest strives for sonic transcendence, challenging pop sensibilities without sacrificing accessibility.

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"I'll Break Your Little Heart" puts ornate arrangements, dulcet harmonies, and catchy melodies on display. Early Beatles comes to mind in this summertime bop, operating with a kind of joy that could go on an endless loop. "Jules" is a stripped-down ballad that charms even in its insistence to move listeners into tears. When Unique sings, "My lonely heart is trembling / It's calling your name," you can feel the desperation and sincerity in his words. It's a song that is capable of having our fragile little hearts broken even with just a guitar and a soaring singing voice. Nothing breaks the emotional core than a tune that struggles to come to terms with finding one's self, despite enjoying the comfort and stability that romantic love gives. Wrapped in delicate electronic textures and affecting basslines, "Sino" isn't afraid to paint feelings as a complex, highly nuanced gift. Unique writes, “Patuloy kong hahanapin, kahulugan ng pag-ibig at habangbuhay na mag-iisa" and carries the emptiness within. With no expectations of a closed chapter or a meaningful resolution, he channels such uncertainty into an earworm of a chorus, putting emphasis on the journey itself, rather than the destination.

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"OZONE (Itulak Ng Pinto)" is probably his paean to the infamous disco club fire that led to the deaths of 162 people. It's worth noting how the Grandma singer deconstructs the genre's pleasure-seeking tendencies into a tragic narrative where images of death, blood, fire and hopelessness swirl in disharmony. A lot of disco releases are known for the undeniable flair for all things escapist, queer and celebratory, but Unique distances himself from the trope by writing a fodder for conspiracy theorists to latch on.

One can't wrap up the discussion on Grandma without mentioning the haunting appeal of "Goodnight Prayer." It's a song about redemption and second chances, but it's delivered in a way that zooms in on a panorama of society caught in flames, with an arrangement that builds up to devastatingly exquisite moments.

How great would it be to get an album of this caliber reimagined for a live audience, on a bigger stage, supported by an orchestra or a full-backing band? Imagine Unique, ready to summon the spirit that inspired him to write and perform, singing these songs with his heart on his sleeve, looking back at the memories of lost love and friendships ruined.

One thing's for sure: Grandma makes us realize that everything is worth the wait. It's an album built for massive arenas and empty bars, cramped hallways and dance floor fantasias. It's a record that requires an immense personality to take the lead, and a fitting character that can pull back especially on moments that require silence and restraint. It would be awesome to see Unique bend to no one's whims but his own, take on the challenge of performing the entirety of Grandma on a bigger stage, and prove detractors wrong. We are rooting for you, Unique. Defy expectations and surprise us again. That's a dare.

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