Pressing Concerns: Ross Ingram, Jacober, Oblivion Orchestra, Birthday Ass

Welcome to a special early-in-the-week edition of Pressing Concerns! Since we last spoke, a piece that I contributed to went up on the great Osmosis Tones blog. Zach Zollo (Mr. Tones himself) and I discuss a few bands we both think deserve more attention—in this issue, we discussed The Cleaners from Venus, Pere Ubu, Brainiac, and The Flaming Lips. I think there’s a lot of insightful commentary on these bands in the article (mostly from Zach but I do what I can) and if you enjoy Rosy Overdrive you should add it to your reading list. It’s a two-parter, and the second part goes up later this week.

Also going up later this week, assuming I have my shit together, is another Pressing Concerns. I have a lot of new music I want to talk about! Almost too much of it! And, hopefully, the next playlist post will go up sometime in the first half of May. In the meantime, peruse older Pressing Concerns posts for more new music.

Ross Ingram – Sell the Tape Machine

Release date: May 3th
Record label: Hogar
Genre: Folk-tronica
Formats: Vinyl, CD, digital
Pull track: Marionette

Ross Ingram plays in the El Paso shoegaze band EEP and runs Brainville Recording Studio, where he frequently produces and engineers records for other bands. Sell the Tape Machine, partially recorded at Brainville, is Ingram’s debut solo full length, and it’s hard not to pick up on subtle sonic flourishes throughout the album and attribute it to his studio background. Even if he has more experience and notoriety as a producer, however, Sell the Tape Machine has a surprisingly songwriting-forward approach, with Ingram’s vocals and lyrics coming through crystal-clear at center stage. It’s clearly a deftly-crafted record, but Sell the Tape Machine treats this as a tool for the songs, rather than the entire point of the album. Early on in the record, “Home” is anchored by a strummed acoustic guitar and folk-rock instrumentation with with synth accents, whereas the synths and drum machines in the Postal Service-esque closer “Ashes” drive the entire song, but neither end of this spectrum feels incongruous with the other, because neither overwhelms Ingram. The most Ingram obscures himself on Sell the Tape Machine is on the hypnotic early highlight “Come Sunlight”, which glides along like something from Flotation Toy Warning and has a fogginess that services lyrics about the passage of time and how disorienting it can be these days.

Although a lot of the album is slower-paced and contemplative, Sell the Tape Machine musters up some bite with the one-two punch of “Oh You’re So Silent Now” and “Marionette” towards the middle of the LP. The panicked “Oh You’re So Silent Now” finds Ingram insisting “I’m still here” all the way to an unresolved conclusion, repeating it almost like a mantra.  This frantic repetition continues with “Marionette”, with Ingram thundering “I am no cause, I’m no effect / This too shall pass, right through us” for the majority of the song’s length, his strained vocals reminiscent of the earlier, angrier work of fellow producer-songwriter John Vanderslice. Sell the Tape Machine cools off a bit after that with the dreamy “So Stay” and the sweet “I Like Having You Here”, both of which take the album back from the brink explored by its middle section. Ingram refuses to let the album float off quietly, however, by ending it with a peppy but morbid reckoning with death in “Ashes”.

Lyrically, Sell the Tape Machine is all over the place, as Ingram maps his own internal ups and downs. Sometimes, the highs and lows come in the same track, like in the internal fight song of “Marionette”.  Sell the Tape Machine begins with a song (the title track) where Ingram considers giving up on making music, fantasizing about getting a boring office job or going back to school. Obviously, we know Ingram hasn’t sold his recording equipment, and in “Bookshelves”, near the end of the album, Ingram vows to continue to create music: “I’ll fill our home with warm sounds / Songs I’ll write for no one else”. But even then, he sounds far from as confident as his rising vocals would suggest (He follows this declaration with “And if you have your doubts, please don’t say it aloud”).  Ingram opens “I Like Having You Here” by singing, “For the first time in years, I think I may have everything figured out”, and it feels so impactful because he spends so much of Sell the Tape Machine not having it figured out. People like to write about autobiographical music as “diary entries”, but of course, this isn’t entirely true. Some lyrics may start out that way, of course, but so much work happens between this point and the moment that you or I hear a finished product. What’s impressive about Sell the Tape Machine isn’t just that it’s “confessional” songwriting, but that Ingram builds something around this foundation that enhances these initiating emotions. He’s figured out how to convey not having it figured out. (Bandcamp link)

Jacober – Light Years

Release date: May 7th
Record label: Crafted Sounds
Genre: marimba-space-lounge-pop
Formats: Vinyl, cassette, CD, digital
Pull track: One I Was

Although I hadn’t heard of David Jacober before his latest album was announced, it turned out that I had heard his music before. He also has recorded with the likes of Dan Deacon, Future Islands, and Ed Schrader’s Music Beat, but my familiarity lies with his work as the drummer for the quite good Baltimore noise rock band Dope Body. On his own, however, Jacober makes songs that sound, well, light years from that band’s post-hardcore bent. Light Years (the album) is marked by Jacober’s marimba playing, which features prominently on every song. Although this instrument’s use in indie rock might conjure up formless, long post-rock passages a la Tortoise (or even some of Jacober’s earlier work), most of Light Years’ songs are concise and structured, despite the non-traditional choice of lead instrument. It’s not as large a leap as one might think: the marimbas here don’t exactly stand out starkly the way they did on, say, that one Moonface album, but rather they form part of a woozy, psychedelic wall of sonic sound that includes more traditionally “rock-band” parts, synths, and Jacober’s hypnotic vocals.

As its title hints at, Light Years finds Jacober preoccupied with the concept of time. On the propulsive title track, it sounds like Jacober is the one that’s traveling across distance and time, admitting, “We don’t wanna fear the future, but we can’t help feeling alarmed”. Later on, “Time” finds him at peace with this force he can’t control: “Time moves so fast and we’re so slow / But all the highlights find the daylight, always worth the while”. “Like Stone” features guitar from Infinity Knives that makes it perhaps the most “rock” song on the album, but it doesn’t pivot to rock music so much as swallow it up and add it to the sounds already found on Light Years. Album closer “One Thing” similarly finds new ways to expand Light Years’ musical reach, and in this case it’s trombone and saxophone (from Sarah Manley and Matthew Pierce) and prominent female vocals (from Allison Clendaniel) that join Jacober and his marimba. “One Thing” is a gorgeous love song that ends the album on a high note, celebrating grabbing these moments (and the people at the center of them) when they come and truly appreciating them. (Bandcamp link)

Oblivion Orchestra – Scene to Scene

Release date: May 7th
Record label: Self-released
Genre: Orchestral indie folk             
Formats: Vinyl, digital
Pull track: High/Low

Oblivion Orchestra is the solo project of New York’s Josh Allen. Allen plays every instrument on the project’s first album, Scene to Scene, which in this case means his voice, a guitar, and cello. Downer folk music from New York prominently featuring a cello would seem to invite Arthur Russell comparisons, and while I think fans of Russell’s music will find much to like in Scene to Scene, Allen’s cello playing is rarely as clear and sparse as Russell’s signature sound. The cello tracks on Scene to Scene have been meticulously layered upon each other (sometimes up to twenty layers, according to Allen), run through reverb, edited—tricks from Allen’s time as a film composer, apparently. While recognizable cello still features prominently on Scene to Scene, just as frequently the instruments pile up and the songs lapse into something else entirely: the Oblivion Orchestra.

This isn’t to say that all of Scene to Scene is a cacophony; just that Allen has a handle on when to dial the noise up or tone it down. “Lay You Down” is positively calming, with the cello forming a warm drone over which Allen convincingly sings the titular line over and over. The gorgeous opener “High / Low” is Allen’s strongest vocal turn as he floats over the orchestra, while on the other end of the spectrum is the sparse, haunting “Let You Down”, where Allen accompanies himself mainly just by knocking on the cello to turn it into a percussive instrument. Allen’s lyrics also seem to communicate with and acknowledge what’s going on beneath them. “In the middle of a sky blue / Yesterday’s clouds come rolling on through”, he sings in “Middle of the Night”, mirroring the ebb and flow of the cello tracks over Allen’s voice and guitar. The loosely-defined genre of “indie folk” in 2021 often uses traditional instrumentation as an excuse for dull songwriting and boring production, to the point where it’s tempting to reduce it to a creatively bankrupt brand of background muzak. Scene to Scene, which evokes the cinema soundtracks in which Allen is versed yet still grabs one’s full attention on its own, is a breath of fresh air. (Bandcamp link)

Birthday Ass – Head of the Household

Release date: April 23rd
Record label: Ramp Local
Genre: Post-punk, no wave, jazz-rock
Formats: Vinyl, digital
Pull track: Jello

Brooklyn/Boston’s Birthday Ass (yeah, I know) make wildly adventurous, jazz-rock music featuring a horn section and the equally wild vocals of bandleader Priya Carlberg. Their second album, Head of the Household, is a kinetic and chaotic affair that’s certainly informed by their New England Conservatory background, but both Carlberg’s vocals and the twists and turns of the band give the album a playful, and not infrequently pop-tuneful, vibe. Birthday Ass come off as a jazzier, bigger-band version of Editrix, another New England band with a music school background, or Squitch, who I seem to keep finding ways to bring up on Rosy Overdrive. “Blah” sets the tone for Head of the Household early on with music that starts, stops, and writhes around, as well as a spectacular motor-mouth vocal from Carlberg that evolves into a full-scale breakdown before the song runs its course. “Jello” holds itself together for the most part, the band playing melodically enough to turn the lyric “Oozing sugary glue, I can’t even conquer you” and Alex Quinn’s trumpet into hooks.

Carlberg’s interpretation of being “head of the household” seems to involve a lot of 1950s cuisine, which feature heavily in songs like “Jello” and “Broccoli Face”, among others. Key track “Spiced Twice” even mentions “cooking in the kitchen” and the seasoning to which the title alludes. While Birthday Ass’s twisted, skronky version of American nostalgia is in step with the ghosts of no wave bands past, this specific Cold War-era fixation reminds me of David Thomas’ brand of writing. Also Pere Ubu-esque are Carlberg’s vocal interjections—like how she wrings the maximum impact out of “blahs” in the opening track, or the almost-but-not-quite-nonsense of “Plubbage Blubbage”, or basically the entire second half of “Sunlit Toes”. All of these contributions work very much in tandem with the music; as much as they might sound “tossed off” or “random”, I’m sure a lot of work went into making these songs come off in such a way. There isn’t a dull moment on Head of the Household, and if you can learn to accept the Birthday Ass way of looking at the world, it can be quite rewarding. (Bandcamp link)

Also notable:

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