New Playlist: May 2021

Another month in the books, another round-up of the best songs I heard over its contents. Mostly containing songs from the last couple of months, but there are a few older selections whose identities you’ll have to continue reading to find out. Rosali and The Bevis Frond are the only ones to land multiple songs on the list this time around. Be sure to check out previous playlist posts if you’ve enjoyed this one.

You can hear and follow the entire thing on Spotify here, and Bandcamp embeds are included when available. Without any further ado, and with apologies to the new Teenage Fanclub album, here are the songs:

“7 Smile”, Lily Konigsberg
From The Best of Lily Konigsberg Right Now (2021, Wharf Cat)

Originally released on her 2018 EP 4 Picture Tear, “7 Smile” is one of a handful of Lily Konigsberg songs rounded up by Wharf Cat Records for their The Best of Lily Konigsberg Right Now compilation. I’ve covered the fractured post-punk of her band, Palberta, before, but “7 Smile” is Rosy Overdrive’s first foray into the material released under her own name so far. The Konigsberg of The Best Of… is one of freewheeling, anything-goes pop music, much like a band with which she’s recently collaborated, This Is Lorelei. The songs on the compilation range from danceable synthpop to acoustic folk-pop to a moving instrumental called “Lily’s National Anthem”.  “7 Smile” is a sneakily-catchy piece of lo-fi pop marked by drum machine and Palberta bandmate Ani Ivry-Block’s guitar. Lyrically, the song finds Konigsberg preoccupied with the passing of time and the changes inherent therein, repeating “The point is not exactly where I am, the point is what I’m not” like a mantra as the seasons cycle and years pass in front of her.

“Bones”, Rosali
From No Medium (2021, SPINSTER)

The third album from Philadelphia’s Rosali Middleman was recorded with Midwestern lo-fi garage rock band David Nance Group, and the two converge early on in No Medium to make fireworks with “Bones”. The song’s forceful, careening opening riff is an instant attention-grabber, and Middleman doesn’t let up from there as she sings of extricating herself from an unpleasant relationship over top of the instrumental blast. “I’ll gather my bones and go back home / And be alone, be alone” anchors an anthem about the power in just existing on one’s own. Read more about No Medium here.

“A Fake Idea”, Hurry
From Fake Ideas (2021, Lame-O)

Philadelphia’s Hurry have been responsible for some of the best power pop of the past few years, and their most recent album, 2018’s Every Little Thought, ranks among my favorite records from that year. Now the band is gearing up to release their fourth LP, Fake Ideas, next month, and if this almost-title track is any indication, we can expect a group of songs that at the very least should stand up to Hurry’s previous work. Lead singer and songwriter Matt Scottoline’s unabashedly melodic vocals are as unabashedly melodic as ever, and the music continues to evoke the likes of Teenage Fanclub or Hurry’s like-minded contemporaries such as Portland’s Eyelids. Despite creating the perfect backdrop for a starry-eyed song about girls, the summertime, or girls in the summertime, however, Scottoline’s thoughts lie elsewhere on “A Fake Idea”. While there may be a relationship in the song, it’s discussed in the context of anxiety and mental illness—all of Scottoline’s troubled thoughts on himself and skewed views of relationships were “just created by my mind, and twisted over time / to make a fake idea start feeling true”. The song finds Scottoline being very open about the dangers of believing all of one’s overwrought conceptions of one’s self and loved ones. It’s not the most common sentiment for this kind of music, but given that it exists in a genre known for sincerity and earnestness, it’s not at all out of place.

“Hey Annabelle!”, Fightmilk
From Contender (2021, Reckless Yes)

London’s Fightmilk (yes, I’m pretty sure their name is an Always Sunny reference) make big, go-for-it pop punk for people who have a hard time choosing their favorite Letters to Cleo or that dog. songs. They’ve garnered some Martha comparisons—that band’s Blisters in the Pit of My Heart was one of the greatest punk albums of the last decade, and considering that Martha themselves haven’t even reached those heights since, I don’t think it’s a slight to Contender to say it doesn’t quite either. The album does, however, have “Hey Annabelle!”, which has the same infectious, completely undeniable charm that marks Martha’s best moments, and functions well as a “pay attention to this band from now on” song. “Hey Annabelle!” finds lead singer Lily Rae, post-breakup, oh-so-casually trying to ascertain just how her former girlfriend is taking the separation. The titular addressee of the song is the sister of Rae’s ex, who she’s now soliciting to check in on her former lover, but “please don’t make it obvious, because I definitely don’t care”. That last bit seems odd, because indifference is rarely the driver of a song that packs this much of a punch.

“I Wanna Get High to the Music”, Pardoner
From Came Down Different (2021, Bar/None)

Pardoner’s third album is some nice comfort music, for me at least. Came Down Different splits the difference between the hooky 90s indie rock revival of 2018’s Playin’ on a Cloud and the fuzzed-out, Polvo-inspired noise rock of 2017’s Uncontrollable Salvation. The last track on the new album, “Fuck You!”, even shouts out Polvo’s Ash Bowie, in addition to a bunch of other “dumb old guys” from which the Bay Area band have taken notes. Still, it’s the one-minute simple pop of “I Wanna Get High to the Music” that allows Pardoner to shine brightest. Are there meatier songs on Came Down Different? Sure, but the way that “I Wanna Get High to the Music” erupts from a breezy jangle rock tune to full-on alt-rock in its last few seconds is exhilarating, merging the two in a way that few others than, say, Grant Hart would’ve even thought to attempt.

“The Great Blue Heron (Song of Solomon)”, St. Lenox
From Ten Songs of Worship and Praise for Our Tumultuous Times (2021, Don Giovanni/Anyway)

If you haven’t been following the press cycle for St. Lenox’s upcoming fourth album, you’ve been missing out. The rollout for Ten Songs of Worship and Praise for Our Tumultuous Times has found Andrew Choi (who, uh, is St. Lenox) doing everything from writing about the drift of America away from organized religion to sharing his favorite quarantine recipe discovery. “The Great Blue Heron (Song of Solomon)” may be the best moment yet—the song itself, with its keyboard-on-organ-setting and a characteristically strong Choi vocal, is great, but half the reason it’s here on this list is so I can point you in the direction of its accompanying music video. The video ties everything the song touches on together—Biblical interpretation, queer love, and, of course, the titular heron. It’s above all else a love song to Choi’s husband, who stars in the video literally alongside the heron, and also goes into detail about Choi’s personal interpretation of Song of Solomon and its position in the Bible, which—oh, just watch the video, you’ll get it. I will have more to say about Ten Songs of Worship… soon.

“Prudence”, Sieve
From Prudence b/w Around (2021, Ramp Local)

As Mick Jagger once said, “It’s a bittersweet symphony, that’s life”.  Such wisdom is applicable in the case of Philadelphia’s Sieve, who I learned about through the release of their two-song “farewell single”, Prudence b/w Around. The A-side is a spiky two-minute post-punk/no-wavey track that doesn’t take itself too seriously or overstay its welcome. The four-piece band (lead singer/guitarist Em Boltz, drummer Madeline Rafter, bassist Rachie Weisberg, and synth player Emily Bliss Lyon) all sound great together, and it makes one wish they’d been able to stick it out for more than just a single and EP. Of course, the members of Sieve are still active in other places—singer Em Boltz plays guitar in Corey Flood and is one half of Enchanted Forest, drummer Madeline Rafter plays in Snake Boy Gang and The Original Crooks and Nannies, and so forth. We should all take a moment to appreciate “Prudence” before everyone moves on to bigger and better things, however.

“Love Song #5”, Upper Wilds
From Venus (2021, Thrill Jockey)

Here I was thinking “Oh, Upper Wilds are back!” after “Love Song #2” came out last month with the announcement of the power trio’s upcoming third record, Venus. That song is still quite good, and it serves as a solid introduction to Dan Friel and company’s unique brand of sonically assaulting, anthemic noise pop, but the album’s fifth love song is the advance track that feels like the transcendent one—something like “The Gold We’re Digging”, or “Roy Sullivan”. For one, it starts with a similar “lit fuse burning down on a cartoon block of TNT” guitar intro to the one that begins “Roy Sullivan”, and Friel’s lyrics go toe-to-toe with the squealing instrumental that follows in terms of sheer power. “The sun won’t care if you fall in love / And the void still stares if you fall in love” begins the verse, before it further enumerates all the reasons why the connection between two people pales in comparison to the infinity of space and time. The chorus, as a rejoinder, is merely “But you know you will, you know you will, you know you will, you know you will tonight”—the most defiant “So what?” ever.

“Disappearing”, Benjamin Belinska
From Lost Illusions (2020, Hidden Bay/Kocliko)

The Newcastle-based songwriter Benjamin Belinska makes a breezy style of folk rock that falls somewhere in between his two most prominent stated influences, Tom Petty and The Feelies. Lost Illusions, his first solo album, is full of these sweet jangly-pastoral songs, flying by in under thirty minutes, and “Disappearing” is the record’s best-executed version of this sound. Perhaps it is due to my own biases, but despite Britain’s own strong tradition of folk music, Lost Illusions feels more in line with the version that recalls the American heartland. Belinska holds onto his words when he’s singing like Petty or Bob Dylan, and the songs place as much emphasis on evoking a specific feeling musically as what Belinska’s literally saying in his lyrics (not that there’s nothing going on lyrically with “Disappearing”). Lost Illusions was self-released by Belinska last year and has just received CD and cassette pressings through Kocliko and Hidden Bay Records, respectively. Listening to Belinska make his sincere professions of love throughout “Disappearing”, it’s easy to understand why one might be moved to make his music exist in the physical world.

“Daisy”, (T-T)b
From Suporma (2021, Acrobat Unstable)

I won’t pretend to be an expert in the genre, but when I think about bands that incorporate vintage video game soundtrack instrumentation into their sound, I think of—and I say this with no judgment attached to this at all—tryhard music. You know: high-energy, sensory-overload, sugar-rush, aggressive Nintendocore stuff. So when I became aware of (T-T)b, a chiptune “bitpunk” band named after an emoji on emo label Acrobat Unstable, I wasn’t necessarily expecting…slacker rock? And yet, that’s exactly where “Daisy” and the rest of the Suporma EP end up, and it rules. The song is a fairly straightforward 90’s emo-pop-rocker that just happens to have some 8-bit accents between the chugging, “When I Come Around”-esque guitar chords. (T-T)b utilize their bleeps the way another band might use a horn section or, hell, a melodica, and it works just as well as any of those more “traditional” musical embellishments might. Also: “Daisy” seems to be about a possum, which the song’s music video helpfully illustrates.

“New River Head”, The Bevis Frond
From New River Head (1991, Reckless/Fire)

The Bevis Frond seem tailor-made to be a cult band. They have a very specific, defined sound—J. Mascis-level guitar hero inferno rock combined with 60’s psychedelia and power pop hooks—that for a small subsection of music fans is probably exactly what they’ve been looking for their whole lives. Just as importantly, there’s a lot to take in with the Frond, on every level—from song length (tracks regularly stretch into eight-minute and beyond range) to album length (the “restored as originally intended” tracklist of New River Head nears two hours, and that’s not even counting bonus tracks) to career output (do you really think they’ve made less than twenty records?). But one doesn’t need to commit fully to the school of Nick Saloman and his collaborators to appreciate the title track to the band’s 1991 landmark album. “New River Head” has it all—soaring guitar solos, a gorgeous, melancholic vocal melody from Saloman, gleeful usage of classic pop song chords—and gets its point across in a relatively manageable five and a half minutes.

“Control”, Mannequin Pussy
From Perfect (2021, Epitaph)

I saw a tweet recently that said something to the effect of “There are no casual Mannequin Pussy fans”. Well: hello, it is I, the casual Mannequin Pussy fan, here to casually enjoy the songs of the Mare of Eastown-famous band. At least, that was my relationship with Thee MPs before their new Perfect EP, which I think is very good and is more or less exactly what I wanted from this band since they showed up on my radar. It’s a nearly 50/50 mix of exciting hardcore-influenced tracks and stately, capital E-emotional indie rock, both of which are executed about as well as one could hope. I even considered one of the more confrontational songs for the playlist –“Pigs Is Pigs”, sung by bassist Colins “Bear” Regisford, is worth an honorable mention. But there’s no getting past “Control”. Marisa Dabice sells the hell out of the anxious lyrics, the music gives her space but still has more bite than your average modern rock-crit approved indie rock instrumental, and that bridge (“Something’s in your eyes something’s in your eyes something’s in your…) lodged itself firmly in my head from the moment I heard it.

“High / Low”, Oblivion Orchestra
From Scene to Scene (2021)

The debut album from New York’s Oblivion Orchestra is a unique record of cello-heavy indie folk. While I did compare the “head” of the Orchestra, Josh Allen, to Arthur Russell, the way Scene to Scene layers and distorts its chosen string instrument makes it a distinct entity rather than a modern-day version of the same sound. The album’s gorgeous opener, “High / Low”, is Allen’s strongest vocal turn as he floats over the ebbing and flowing of instrumental build-up beneath him that mirrors the “highs” and “lows” alluded to in the song’s title. Read more about Scene to Scene here.

“Cents”, Enumclaw
From Jimbo Demo (2021, Suite A/Youth Riot)

Tacoma, Washington’s Enumclaw only have one release to their name so far, but that one—April’s Jimbo Demo EP—is a captivating record of ever-so-slightly-crooked Pacific Northwest indie rock that both hints at the band’s full potential and works quite well on its own. I could’ve chosen any of the EP’s five songs for this playlist and been happy with them, but there’s something about the short, driving opener “Cents” that keeps me coming back to it. As catchy as it is (an attribute aided amply by Nathan Cornell’s prominent bass playing), lead singer Aramis Johnson injects the song with a darkness caused by longing for a more innocent time. “Remember when we were kids / How did it end up like this?” he wonders in the verse, and his plea of “Can you make it last? / Can you bring it back?” in the chorus is left unanswered.

“Resist the Urge”, Matt Sweeney and Bonnie “Prince” Billy
From Superwolves (2021, Drag City)

I am not a Will Oldham superfan. I like I See a Darkness, sure, (I mean, who doesn’t?) and I’ve written favorably about Palace Music here before, but I’ve only ever scratched the surface of the Kentuckian’s prodigious output. It wasn’t a guarantee that I was even going to get around to Superwolves, but I’m glad I did, for “Resist the Urge” if nothing else. I did find Superwolves—an Oldham collaboration with Matt Sweeney (Chavez, Zwan, Guided by Voices- adjacent) and a sequel to 2005’s Superwolf—to be a worthwhile listen, but “Resist the Urge” is something else. It’s an extremely potent folk song that wastes not a single moment or word in getting to its message. It takes the perspective of a parent reassuring a child not to mourn their death, because in one form or another they will live on (“You’re not without that much of me / I wasn’t just a body”) and it’s one of the more affecting songs about death (or, as the narrator of the song might say, the end of one’s physical existence) I’ve heard…this year? Ever?

“Dried”, Downhaul
From PROOF (2021, Refresh)

Calling Downhaul’s PROOF a record akin to a “car crash in slow motion” seems like an undersell—perhaps a more accurate pull would be “the sinking of the Titanic”. “Dried” is one of the more spirited moments found in the album’s cold, dark majesty. Lead singer Gordon Phillips spends much of PROOF reflecting on dissolving relationships, and here he turns the album’s damaged undercurrents towards himself explicitly: “Gordon, get it together / You’re supposed to be better/…/So tell me right now if I’m wasting my time here”, he rages against himself in one of PROOF’s most dramatic moments, lifting his voice above the churning waters of the six-minute song to remind you that, no, things are not okay in case you were wondering. Read more about PROOF here.

“Chaos Magic”, Death Hags
From Big Grey Sun #3 (2021, Big Grey Sun)

I’m always here for ambition, and the Los Angeles-based Death Hags can’t be accused of wanting for it. The “interstellar psychedelic noise pop” led by one Lola G. is in the middle of slowly rolling out a seven-album project called Big Grey Sun that began in late 2019 and crested its third volume earlier this month. Big Grey Sun #3 was co-released with an ambient record that is not part of the Big Grey Sun series, and is also available in VHS form. None of this would be all that interesting if the music wasn’t good as well, so I’m happy to report that I found Big Grey Sun #3 to be an entertaining listen. It splits the difference between spacious, synth-driven darkwave and more straightforward, guitar-grounded dream pop, the latter of which is where “Chaos Magic” falls. The first half of the song, led by Lola G.’s melodic verses and bass-heavy instrumentation, is satisfying enough, but then the song finds another gear as the second-half chorus kicks “Chaos Magic” into overdrive.

“Flyin’ the Flannel”, fIREHOSE
From Flyin’ the Flannel (1991, Columbia)

Add fIREHOSE to the list of bands I’ve finally listened to after years of thinking “you know, I really should…” The fourth album and major label debut from notorious flannel-wearer Mike Watt and drummer George Hurley’s post-Minutemen band is…alright. It’s no Double Nickels on the Dime, but I knew that going into it. If you do like the Minutemen, I would recommend giving it a spin for the more memorable tracks, like the roaring opener “Down with the Bass” and the title track, which we have here. Ed Crawford’s guitar playing—which alternates between a spindly riff that’s kind of the main hook and some fuzzy power chords—puts this pretty far away from a typical Minutemen song, and I like that fIREHOSE seemed to be plumbing their own sonic territory around this time. Watt’s lyrics are the strongest link to his and Hurley’s pasts, with lines like “I use deduction to reveal / New assumptions from old spiel” making “Flyin’ the Flannel” sound like a reaffirmation of a long-held mission statement.

“I’ll Hold the Mirror”, Hello Whirled
From No Victories (2021)

“I’ll Hold the Mirror” is probably the friendliest song on No Victories, a warped and frequently intense but nevertheless transfixing record. This track finds Hello Whirled in full jangle pop mode, cruising through a three-minute pop song that’s effortlessly catchy. Lead singer and sole member Ben Spizuco’s vocals sound like Franklin Bruno here again, although the instrumental is more Guided by Voices or even something more straightforward, like a peppier Teenage Fanclub song. The lyrics have been described by Spizuco as “nonsensical”, but lines like “Paint the rocks with beautiful hearts out of sync” don’t really need to make sense to work in the context of “I’ll Hold the Mirror”. Read more about No Victories here.

“Baleful”, Needles//Pins
From Needles//Pins (2021, Dirt Cult)

I try not to get hung up on the discrepancy between the bands I think should be big and the bands that actually become so, but that being said, when I heard Vancouver punk band Needles//Pins’ 2017 album Goodnight, Tomorrow, I remember thinking that they’d be rocking festivals if there was any justice in this world. Adam Solomonian’s gruff vocals may be an acquired taste, sure, but once one has acclimated themselves to them, they become a feature instead of a bug. Four years later, their new self-titled album has picked up right where the band left off, its only demerit being that, at 23 minutes, it feels all too short. Depending on time, I may have more to say about Needles//Pins in the coming weeks, but for now I’ll leave you with the one-minute “Baleful”, a full-throated pop punk declaration that features surprising but welcome backing vocals from (I think?) drummer Macey Budgell.

“Don’t Understand the Shorthand”, Mope City
From Within the Walls (2021, Tenth Court)

Within the Walls is an electric slowcore album that’s equal parts thorny and nervy and subtly beautiful. “Don’t Understand the Shorthand”, an early highlight from the Australian band’s third record, starts off as the former with a winding guitar riff that turns into a squall. Then, however, the track gives into shimmering bursts of melody in the verses and especially in its chorus, where Mope City’s two vocalists Matthew Neville and Amaya Lang sing over top of each other to complement the song’s tale of communication woes over languidly-picked guitar.  Read more about Within the Walls here.

“I Refuse to Believe (You Could Love Me)”, John Murry
From The Stars Are God’s Bullet Holes (2021, Submarine Cat)

“I Refuse to Believe (You Could Love Me)” is John Murry’s attempt to write a song that sounds like Ric Ocasek fused with UK Surf-era Pixies (he said this himself; I’m not that good of a musical analyst). From a purely musical perspective, Murry has succeeded in his stated goal—the precision in the song’s arrangement and instrumentation is Ocasek through and through, and the roaring guitar and controlled uncontrollability does remind me of Frank Black and company’s more refined moments. “I Refuse to Believe” is just as obviously a quintessential Murry creation as well, though. This isn’t the first time he’s taken advantage of power chords and whoa-ohs to soften (or perhaps sharpen) the blows of his lyrics, which—well, I can’t say the song’s title didn’t warn me about the level of self-laceration enclosed therein. No embed, but there’s a fun music video.

“I’ll Make It Up to You”, Sunny Jain
From Phoenix Rise (2021, Sinj)

Right in the middle of Sunny Jain’s Phoenix Rise—a collaborative, celebrative album that features contributions from over fifty musicians and artists and incorporates nearly as many genres of music—is the record’s one straight-up rock song that also grapples with some of the heaviest themes on the LP. The strongest sonic feature of “I’ll Make It Up to You” is the blistering guitar solo from Black Pumas’ Adrian Quesada, while Darius Christian’s trombone takes its turn in the limelight too. Both of these instruments add an extra punch to vocalist Kushal Gaya’s lyrics about the horror of American gun violence. Like much of Phoenix Rise, however, the song ends in a vow to fight for a better future, with Gaya promising the song’s titular phrase to those whose lives have been affected or cut short due to one country’s firearm obsession. Read more about Phoenix Rise here.

“Broken Glass Shore”, Refrigerator
From So Long to Farewell (2021, Shrimper)

So Long to Farewell is lo-fi pop band Refrigerator’s twelfth album since the early nineties, and little of their charm has been lost in their three decades as a group. Right out of the gate, the band greets us with the warmly familiar album opener “Broken Glass Shore”, which exemplifies the slow-moving, deliberate and delicate atmospheric pop rock at which Refrigerator excels, with lead singer Allen Callaci’s half-sung vocals gliding over the live-in-studio instrumental. Their toolkit hasn’t changed much since the days of How You Continue Dreaming, but they make what’s there count: the steady drumbeat pulls the song along amiably, soul singer Claudia Lennear’s guest vocals provide a nice touch but aren’t overused, and new member Mark Givens (Wckr Spgt) weaves in and out of the instrumental but never gets too showy either. Read more about So Long to Farewell here, and watch the music video for “Broken Glass Shore” here.

“Unsubscribe”, Keen Dreams
From The Second Body (2021, Whatever’s Clever/Strange Daisy)

The Second Body, the debut record from New Orleans’ Keen Dreams, is an expansive, widescreen pop album that treads in the same water as everything from The War on Drugs to Talk Talk to Destroyer. Songs stretch out to 6-7 minutes, instrumental interludes and horns abound, but the album remains warm and inviting. “Unsubscribe”, which manages to condense the maximalism of The Second Body into a digestible three minutes, just might be the record’s biggest triumph, and it’s certainly Keen Dreams’ most welcoming moment. Read more about The Second Body here.

“It Hasn’t Happened Yet”, Okkervil River
From In a Light b/w It Hasn’t Happened Yet (2021, ATO)

Okkervil River might be my favorite band I hadn’t yet covered here directly—part of which has to do with Rosy Overdrive’s relative infancy, and also because in recent years Will Sheff and his crew of increasingly-changing backing musicians have moved away from the sound of those first five records, which are all “pry from my cold, dead hands” level for me. That’s fine, we all change, and even the Okkervil River album that’s the furthest from my cup of tea still has at least one breathtaking song. All that said, “It Hasn’t Happened Yet” is a smart, well-crafted song that rolls together most of what I like about their later-period work, like the nostalgic brassy pop of The Silver Gymnasium, or the surprisingly earnest meta-ness of “Okkervil River R.I.P.” “It Hasn’t Happened Yet” has a pretty straightforward message: Sheff has missed playing music for other people and he can’t wait to get back out there (“Meet again, meet again, I can swear that we will / Meet again, meet again, at the closest of range”) but of course being an Okkervil River song it meanders and wanders into all sorts of asides in between its thesis: listing all the old standards that Sheff’s eager to cover, recognizing a fan in a crowd, buying “a couple loose joints” in Amsterdam. And you gotta love that swinging instrumental outro.

“Small World”, Cheer-Accident
From Dumb Ask (1991, Complacency/Pravda)

Cheer-Accident are a long-running Chicago “avant-prog” band that are not well-known at all, but if they are known, it’s for their wilder, more experimental later work that seems to have started in the late 90s and peaked in the 2000s with Introducing Lemon. I’m not sure how many people, even among the small subset of folks who know about Cheer-Accident, have heard 1991’s Dumb Ask, but I do know that it’s nowhere near enough. Dumb Ask, recorded in late 1989 by Steve Albini, is a fascinating, dynamic noise rock record that hints at their future genre experimentation just enough to make this album stand out. What little discussion of it I’ve read has compared it to two other landmark 1991 albums: Slint’s Spiderland and The Jesus Lizard’s Goat, and while Dumb Ask can’t really be reduced to “sounding like” either of them, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be held up as a similar underground rock achievement.  Just listen to “Small World”, which bounces and grooves through six minutes of sludge without dragging in the slightest, the vocals switching from an aggrieved scream to a credulous, Devo-esque croon as the music shifts.

“Ye Old Man”, Mia Joy
From Spirit Tamer (2021, Fire Talk)

The debut album from Chicago’s Mia Joy Rocha is a dream pop record that’s even less tethered to the ground than anything by the Cocteau Twins (a stated influence on Spirit Tamer), but still maintains a foot in the pop corner despite the floating atmosphere (her Spotify bio refers to her as “Chicago’s melodic dove”). The driving, full-rock-band sound of “Ye Old Man” makes it one of the more Rosy Overdrive-core songs on Spirit Tamer, but it’s far from the only one—“Across Water” and “See Us” utilize the same setup in a more subdued fashion. “Ye Old Man”, however, is the instant-classic modern dream pop single. Everything’s in its right place here: the prominent bass, the heavy reverb on the simple but effective guitar, the breathy melodic vocals from Rocha that pack a lot into relatively few words, such as the role reversal in the titular line (“Sometimes you’re the baby and I’m the old man”) or Rocha’s reaction to it (“It doesn’t get me down”).

“Mouth Breather”, Antonioni
From Antonioni (2021, Lauren)

Seattle band Antonioni have been releasing singles and EPs on small labels like Den Tapes for the last couple of years, and their self-titled debut that came out earlier this year on Lauren Records sounds like a group that’s already found their sea legs together, so to speak. They do recall the sound of their geographical neighbors and former tourmates Great Grandpa, except Antonioni skipped the scrappy first album and went straight to the “mature follow-up LP”. “Mouth Breather” isn’t nearly as cheeky as its title might suggest—one might expect a pop punk anthem, but the seeds of such are overpowered by a surprising reverb-y, jangly dream pop sheen. The titular mouth-breather is none other than Antonioni bandleader Sarah Pasillas herself—and she’s also a “backwards-walking, shit-talking bitch with such bad timing”, and the curious refrain at the end (“Are we a dying breed?”) makes “Mouth Breather” fairly thorny for a three-minute pop song.

“Waving”, The Bevis Frond
From New River Head (1991, Reckless/Fire)

As I established when I talked about the title track to The Bevis Frond’s New River Head earlier: there is a lot going on in that sprawling album. On the one hand, that leaves plenty of space for psychedelic guitar freakouts, but on the other hand it might overpower something like the acoustic baroque pop of “Waving” on first blush. This song gives me Renaissance fair vibes, and I will not apologize for saying so (it’s probably the Britishness of it all). Of course, just because it takes me to that particular universe and because of its instrumental choices (violin and acoustic guitar are, I believe, the only players) doesn’t mean Nick Saloman’s writing isn’t squarely in modern day. “Waving” is populated with city buses, Q.P.R. supporters, and the alleyways and debris of London. It doesn’t sound like he’s particularly pumped about it, though (“Are you cash inside a cylinder in Mother London’s shop / To be popped around the system ‘til the air is all used up?”). The entire last verse reads like a full-on rejection, though what exactly that entails to Saloman’s second-person narrator eludes me.

“This One Is Your One”, Palms
From Intensity Sunshine (2021, Ivy League/Mushroom)

Sydney’s Palms are something of garage rock revival veterans—they rose from the ashes of the Red Riders, who played with Franz Ferdinand and Jet and contained one of The Vines at one point. Some twenty years removed from that genre’s cultural peak, Palm’s Intensity Sunshine EP isn’t going to be mistaken for a Kid A-esque turn away from their roots, but that they still play their sunny power pop with such enthusiasm more than makes up for any garage rock fatigue. What it all comes down to is that “This One Is Your One” is just too infectious too deny. It’s got a bouncy energy that only an unabashed love song can truly inhabit (the song’s “about how rad my boyfriend is”, according to frontman Al Grigg), and it’s hard to argue with that Ramones-y “never gonna let you go-oh” in the chorus.

“The World of Tomorrow”, Syntax Valley
From Music for People (2021)

The latest album from New Jersey artist Syntax Valley is an ambitious, stuffed-to-the-brim collection of psychedelic synthpop helmed by the project’s leader, Dan Spizuco. Dan is the sibling of Hello Whirled’s Ben Spizuco, and they share an affinity for pop wizardry, but while Hello Whirled evoke underground 90s indie rock, Syntax Valley feels more descended from older influences—XTC, Todd Rundgren, progressive rock. The opening track from Music for People, “The World of Tomorrow”, exemplifies this lineage in the way it marries the aggressive cheeriness of XTC’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” with the dystopian pomp of the latest Hello Whirled release. Spizuco’s voice reminds me of Okkervil River’s Will Sheff’s, but grafted onto a sterile, chrome-laced synthetic environment. “Working machines, dance in moonbeams / Everything’s clean in the world of tomorrow,” Spizuco sings as if to drown out the darkness underneath the world they’re describing—“Where can we run, where can we hide / Unsafe in the world of tomorrow,” warns a vocoder-cloaked voice to send the song into full-on science fiction mode.

“Montreal – Live”, The Tragically Hip
From Saskadelphia (2021, Universal Canada)

“We’d like to do a song now about the identification process. It’s called ‘Montreal’.” So begins Gord Downie’s introduction to “Montreal”, a “lost” Tragically Hip song circa 1991 that finally saw release this month as part of the Saskadelphia EP. Even after the surviving members of the Hip rediscovered the Road Apples studio outtakes that make up the EP, “Montreal” wasn’t among them, so it’s represented in the form of a live version recorded in its titular city in 2000. The song is in the lineage of Gord Downie’s spinning scenes from Canada’s dark past into rock anthems—in this case, it’s the École Polytechnique massacre (major content warning for gun- and gender-based violence for those unfamiliar). Downie does his job almost too well—hearing the Montreal crowd cheer the name-check of their city in the midst of a song about horrible, unspeakable violence is disorienting, and honestly makes me kind of glad that the band held this one back lest its powerful simplicity become cheapened via the ever-dulling effects of Canadian rock radio and bar playlists. Even if that had happened, however, I believe that “Montreal” would still be potent in 2021.

“When Will When Come?”, Cozy Slippers
From When Will When Come? (2021)

Seattle’s Cozy Slippers only have a handful of songs to their name so far, but they’ve already established themselves as gifted students of classic guitar pop with “When Will When Come?”. The A-side of their latest single, “When Will When Come?” is a breezy three-minute song that starts off with a bass-driven, almost Breeders-esque opening bit only to explode into a joyous jangle pop chorus that sets the tone for the rest of the track. “When Will When Come?” evokes bands from their own part of the country, such as Tiger Trap (among other K Records alumni) and The Spinanes, but also reminds me of some “across the pond” acts like The Sundays and Heavenly. “When Will When Come?” is a “don’t be afraid to live your life” anthem, the titular phrase nodding to the excuses of “whens” the people make to prolong pursuing whatever it is that they dream of pursuing. When bassist Sarah Engel and drummer Barbara Barrilleaux join together to harmonize in the chorus, it becomes a convincing argument.

“I Feel So Good”, Richard Thompson
From Rumor and Sigh (1991, Capitol)

I am always very aware of whenever I put a song on one of these playlists that also appears in Scott Miller’s Music: What Happened?, the book from which these blog posts are pretty much a straight rip-off. I haven’t read the 1991 section of M: WH? recently, however, so any similarities between this and Miller’s thoughts on “I Feel So Good” are either from the subconscious or pure coincidence. Anyway, here we have Richard Thompson’s paean to debauchery, illegal activity, and resistance to reformation. The narrator is a genuinely disturbed individual who’s “old enough to sin but too young to vote” and is planning to celebrate his release from prison (“two years, seven months, and sixteen days”) with a briefcase full of questionably-obtained money and by “break[ing] somebody’s heart tonight”. It was Thompson’s best-known song in America until getting overtaken by some song about a motorcycle over the past few years. I’m sure there’s someone out there who could deftly analyze “I Feel So Good” in the context of the war on drugs, the “tough on crime” era, and 80s moral hysteria, but that sure isn’t me.

“How Can a Plumb Be Perfected?”, Guided by Voices
From Earth Man Blues (2021, GBV, Inc.)

Hidden near the end of Earth Man Blues, the half-demo quality of the chill-inducing “How Can a Plumb Be Perfected?” captures the magic of Robert Pollard’s sparse poetic side. The song is reminiscent of classic understated Guided by Voices songs such as  “Learning to Hunt” and “Kiss Only the Important Ones”, but it’s updated musically with tasteful flourishes from the band. The song’s lyrics seem weightier than your typical late-era GBV song—typically opaque, but the central question it’s asking (“How can a plumb be perfected, and how would you know?”) definitely seems to be getting at universal questions about subjectivity, art, and work, all of which figure heavily into approaching Pollard’s music. Read more about Earth Man Blues here.

“All This Lightning”, Rosali
From No Medium (2021, SPINSTER)

“All This Lightning” is the centerpiece of No Medium, the acoustic eye of the record’s folk rock storm. It’s a smoldering song about staring down the blossoming of an interpersonal relationship and taking joy in giving into wherever it goes without fear. Rosali Middleman declares “I wanna wrap my legs around your neck, finding pleasure in our recklessness” in the middle of the track, and it’s just one of the many bold statements that comes pouring out in the heat of the moment. The capturing of this radical honesty and openness of “All This Lightning” that comes from a rush of euphoria is an impressive songwriting feat from Middleman, and is only one of the moods explored in No Medium. Read more about No Medium here.

“Wyoming County”, Fust
From Evil Joy (2021, Dear Life)

“Wyoming County” ends Fust’s Evil Joy with the final realization that the relationship that had been central to the entire album’s narrative has now run its course (“I looked and you and I thought / How I could live without you / Even though we had a good day”). It’s Evil Joy’s most upbeat number, beginning with Fust bandleader Aaron Dowdy literally singing about driving down the highway as a way to cope with the physical and emotional departure of a partner, and against all odds it works as a windows-down car song. “It was almost like we were still in love in Wyoming County,” sings Dowdy in the chorus, and it sounds like he’s okay with “almost”. The track ends with an instrumental outro marked by a triumphant mid-tempo guitar solo that serves as the album’s punctuation mark. Read more about Evil Joy here.

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