Pressing Concerns: Idle Ray, Keen Dreams, Cusp, tvfordogs

Today in Pressing Concerns, we’re looking at new albums from Fred Thomas’ Idle Ray, Keen Dreams, and tvfordogs, as well as the new Cusp EP. Between this and the April playlist post that went up earlier this week, I’m pretty exhausted. Look for one or two smaller posts later this month, and some bigger fish in early June. In the meantime, you can read earlier editions of Pressing Concerns for more new music.

Idle Ray – Idle Ray

Release date: May 7th
Record label: Life Like Tapes/Half-Broken Music
Genre: 4-track indie rock, power pop
Formats: Vinyl, digital
Pull track: Dreamed You Were a Dog

The last full-length record from Michigan’s Fred Thomas, 2018’s Aftering, was the third in a trio of (very good) albums released under his own name that constituted his musical output for the back half of the 2010s. Since then, the former Saturday Looks Good to Me frontman has been Idle Ray, quietly releasing a couple singles and a demo EP under the name since late 2019—quietly, that is, until Idle Ray’s self-titled debut album showed up out of nowhere (at least for me, maybe I’m out of the loop) last Friday. Even though some of those earlier Idle Ray demos show up in a more refined state on Idle Ray, the album feels like a cohesive piece, and its dozen songs stand up against anything else I’ve heard from Thomas. Even though Idle Ray comes under what’s ostensibly a band name, these songs were mostly recorded by Thomas alone on 4-track—the only other person credited on the album is his partner Emily Roll for her vocals on “Water Comes Through the Windows”, which would make Idle Ray more of a “solo” endeavor than the stacked-by-comparison Aftering. Perhaps because of this, Idle Ray is also a more straightforward sonic affair than the last couple Thomas solo albums—there’s no eight-to-nine minute spoken word pieces here, for instance.

What Idle Ray does have are great pop songs, and it begins delivering immediately on this front with the flagging synth-led, mid-tempo power pop of “Emphasis Locater” rolling right into “Dreamed You Were a Dog”. The latter is the platonic ideal of a Fred Thomas song—vaguely urgent-sounding, incredibly melodic, and smartly affecting lyrically, in this case by using the titular dog dream as a way to long for basic compassion and affection (“They’re never sure what’s happening / But everyone is so happy for you”). A few tracks later, the twin melodic guitar line and vocal of “Terms” nearly matches it in strength. The relatively-barebones structure doesn’t stop any of the previously-mentioned songs from rocking out, but elsewhere Idle Ray strips things down even further. The 90-second, entirely acoustic “Coastline” is the best song on the record’s entire second side, and the similarly sparse album closer “Last Show” brushes up against the current state of the world from the perspective of a touring musician by singing about just what its title suggests (“I can still remember, but it gets less vivid each time”).

Idle Ray also explores what Thomas perceives as fractured and fading friendships, singing about feeling left behind by people who used to be genuinely interested in him in  “Coat of Many Colors” (“Last year’s friends aren’t pretending they’re still listening”), worried about being forgotten in “Polaroid” (“I used to take pictures of people / So they’d remember I was there”) and feeling a disconnect between how people talk about and interact with him on “Friends (Standing in the Corner at Another Busted Function)”. It would be tempting to say that, like “Last Show”, these topics have been brought about by the last year’s prolonged isolation, and they probably are to some degree, but given some of Thomas’ other recent songs, the fixation here isn’t so much a new development but rather an exacerbation of it. It deserves reiteration that Thomas is working all of this out over some of the most effortlessly catchy pop music I’ve enjoyed this year—every song except maybe “Friends…” has an obvious and very effective hook. With Idle Ray, we’ve all been gifted the perfect soundtrack to what’s sure to be a weird, confusing, frustrating, but hopeful summer. (Bandcamp link)

Keen Dreams – The Second Body

Release date: May 14th
Record label: Strange Daisy/Whatever’s Clever
Genre: Dream pop, heartland rock
Formats: Vinyl, CD, cassette, digital
Pull track: Porchlight

The debut record from New Orleans trio Keen Dreams is a big, shiny pop album that doesn’t concern itself with sticking to the basics of what a “big shiny pop album” should be, but remains no less open and inviting for doing so. The Second Body begins both of its sides with formless, floating ambient tracks, and the “normal” songs often stretch into the six-to-seven minute bracket and are marked by lengthy instrumental passages featuring instrumentation well beyond that of the band’s trio of members (guitarist James Weber Jr., bassist Shana Applewhite, and drummer Eric Martinez). The songs bleed into one another, and the transition from one to the next might catch one off guard if not paying full attention. Despite refusing to hold the listener’s hand with friendlier structures, The Second Body is an undeniably catchy album with big choruses that burst through everything else going on in the music. When everything converges, Keen Dreams recalls the better moments of maximalist “heartland” rock like The War on Drugs, whereas everything in between these bursts of catharses is reminiscent of the likes of 1980s sophisti-pop, later-period Destroyer, and mid-period Talk Talk.

After the dreamy instrumental opener “Herons”, the first few songs on The Second Body offer up expansive but melodic walls of sound.  The lengthy “Pasted” is a workout for the entire band, as well as guest saxophone player Jonah Parzen-Johnson. “Pinks & Reds” and “Big Gulps” both take this sound and run with it, but they don’t charge forward the entire time and take a few breaths that hint at The Second Body’s more eclectic second half. “Porchlight” introduces a synth line into the mix as well as what I’m pretty sure is Matt Lavelle’s bass clarinet, while “Unsubscribe” manages to condense The Second Body’s widescreen sound into three minutes and just might be the most straightforward pop song here. “Pressing Eyes” mirrors “Pasted” in length, but where the latter song was a virtually-nonstop rush, “Eyes” holds back a bit and makes something that’s still propulsive but (befitting of its lyrics) dreamier. Album closer “Immediate Tonight” also refines Keen Dreams’ sound for maximum effect, and ends the record with some more triumphant saxophone. While I did list some acts that could be mentioned in the same conversation as Keen Dreams earlier, one should note that none of those are fellow underground bands from mid-sized American cities that have only just put out their debut album. Merely shooting for something of this scale would be notable—Keen Dreams did not have to put together something that stands up against several records from festival-level “big indie” rock bands to impress, but that’s exactly where they end up with The Second Body. (Bandcamp link)

Cusp – Spill

Release date: May 7th
Record label: Dadstache
Genre: Fuzzy gnarly indie rock
Formats: Digital, cassette
Pull track: Spill

Spill, the debut release from Rochester, New York’s Cusp, is an impressive collection of songs from a new group that feels like anything but the product of inexperience. This might have something to do with the members’ background in other projects—half of Cusp comes from the shoegazers Full Body 2, and the other half from the post-hardcore band Rut, but even so, it sounds like all four members had been playing together long before this EP. Cusp is pure indie guitar hero rock that recalls both the Northwest and Northeast corners of the United States. From the former, it’s nineties groups like the obvious (Built to Spill), as well as plenty of bands who worked the heavier end of Kill Rock Stars and K Records, and for the latter, it’s the current crop of contemporaneous acts from New England and New York on newer labels like Exploding in Sound and Dadstache, Cusp’s current home.

Though Spill does lapse into noisy rock instrumentals, lead singer Jen Bender’s vocals are just as frequently pushed cleanly to the forefront of the mix, creating a sound that’s distinct from either of the members’ previous projects. The opening title track is their version of pop, getting a lot of mileage out of Belcher’s repetitive vocals that press forward with and without the instrumental squall. The zippy guitar line running through “Not Certified”, as well as Bender’s vaguely pissed off lyrics (“It’s so fucking frustrating / Always needing somebody’s help”) make it the punchiest moment of Spill. The clearest example of Cusp’s duality is in the swirling “Illusion Controlling”, which is the closest Cusp get to math rock, and “Resume” is the EP’s slow-burner, featuring the quietest two minutes on the record before taking off in its final third. “Resume” also features some of Spill’s most interesting lyrics, and seeing where Bender goes from here as a lyric-writer as nearly as intriguing to me as the grasp Cusp already have on their music. (Bandcamp link)

tvfordogs – I Only Wanted to Make You Cry

Release date: May 14th
Record label: Gare Du Nord
Genre: Post-grunge, psych-pop-rock
Formats: CD, cassette, digital
Pull track: Heading for the Sea

My quest to write about every act on the 2003 After Hours: A Tribute to the Music of Lou Reed compilation continues—I covered The Crowd Scene a couple months ago; does anyone know what Brook Pridemore is up to now? Anyway, today we have the long-running London trio tvfordogs, who released their first album, Heavy Denver, back in 2002, and are now on their fifth LP with I Only Wanted to Make You Cry. Sonically, the band sounds somewhere between classic British psychedelic pop-rock and slick, American nineties alt-rock. They unapologetically cite Stone Temple Pilots as a touchstone for I Only Wanted to Make You Cry, and it certainly does sound like someone in tvfordogs has had Tiny Music…Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop, the Pilots’ own flirtation with psychedelia, in their frequent rotation (this is a good thing). I can pick up on this influence most readily in the straight-ahead rockers from I Only Wanted to Make You Cry, like the classic-rock red herring opener “I’m a Liar” or the glam-flavored “Lead Boots”.

I Only Wanted to Make You Cry really shines in its quieter moments, however—these are where they probe the other major touchstones for this record, the psych-pop music nerdery of XTC and Todd Rundgren. The mesmerizing “Heading for the Sea” in the center of the album sounds like a Skylarking song reimagined as a heavier, shoegaze-influenced track and proves that tvfordogs are onto something with their particular blend of influences, while the gorgeous ballad “Flags” is an early highlight as well. The title of the album is about songwriting and the desire to pen something that is genuinely emotionally affecting, upon which “I Only Wanted to Make You Cry” the song reflects. While I can’t say that it reduced me to tears, I can tell that I Only Wanted to Make You Cry is an album purely derived by passion. It exists because tvfordogs and the people around them still believe in their music after two decades and want to create and release it, regardless of where it might fit in with trends and movements in the larger “music world”. Give me that over the alternative any day. (Bandcamp link)

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