"This is how losers feel / I am a loser."
These words welcome listeners to Cool Choices, but the vulnerability begins even before Jenn Ghetto can deliver her first downtrodden line. The opening track on S's Hardly Art debut finds hesitation coursing through her tiny fingers as she softly depresses each chord-forming piano key. The trepidation is palpable, as if she's having to bite her lip and go, "Okay, if I can make it past these first few notes I'm going to be able to get through this. I am going to get through this."
Cool Choices is a breakup record in the truest sense of the phrase. Over the course of twelve pop rock songs, Ghetto shares the sorrows of her wounded heart and details the raw, emotional carnage found in the aftermath of a relationship destroyed. S captures so many aspects of the pain of love lost, with the focus being placed on the internal struggle rather than projecting anger at the ex. The aforementioned opening track "Losers" conveys the sense of immediate self-loathing and hopelessness; accepting the narrative that heartbreak is something deserved. "Remember Love" explores the fixation on a the person lost as the only true embodiment of love ("And it's you that I'll remember when I think of love and all these things / How easily it goes away..."); a love now gone for good. "Balderdash" and "Tell Me" confront the search to find finality post-breakup, even if it takes lying to yourself ("I am not thinking about you."). The black cloud hovering overhead on the record never dissipates and the tone never falters. Ghetto deftly bemoans her state without seeming whiny and wallows without seeming melodramatic. There's truth in the softness of her sadness.
While past S albums have been solo efforts by Ghetto, she brought in help for Cool Choices. Not only did she turn S into a proper band (bringing in Carrie Murphy on guitar, Betsy Olson on bass, and Zachary McNutty on drums), she also enlisted Chris Walla (now ex-Death Cab for Cutie) to produce the record. The results flesh out the sound without sacrificing her sense of lo-fi intimacy. The step up in production quality is found more in the details—like how terrific the echoing guitar tones on "White House" and "Like Gangbuster!" sound—rather than an adding extra layers of shinny varnish to the overall pop rock formula. The variety of song styles also helps keep Ghetto's melancholy from becoming oppressive. The vague sense of pop punk melodicism makes tracks like "Vampires" catchy enough to get stuck in your head like the ex she's struggling to forget, while the quiet anthemic piano tune "Pacific" shows faint traces of Death Cab for Cutie's "Transatlanticism."
Cool Choices is that comfort item for when you're too emotionally numb and broken to really feel anything. It's an old black hoodie zipped tight to keep you warm as you throw yourself into a bawling fetal heap on the empty bed; it holds you're bones together when everything seems shattered and softly cradles you need something, anything, wrapped around your skin. On the album's finale "Let the Light In," Ghetto sings: "This was how I thought I'd get over you / I'd write it all down like it makes this true / Let go of the things that you said to me / And now in the end we can feel so free." Catharsis has to begin somewhere.