Pressing Concerns: Upper Wilds, Psychic Flowers, Hello Whirled, Nat Baldwin

The latest edition of Pressing Concerns highlights new albums from Upper Wilds, Psychic Flowers, Hello Whirled, and Nat Baldwin. Plenty of familiar faces this time around! The next post on Rosy Overdrive should be the end-of-July wrap-up playlist, so look for that either next week or the week after, depending on time. Meanwhile, you can go back to previous editions of Pressing Concerns or June’s end-of-month post for plenty of new music.

Upper Wilds – Venus

Release date: July 23th
Record label: Thrill Jockey
Genre: Space rock, noise rock, noise pop
Formats: Vinyl, digital
Pull track: Love Song #5

New York’s Upper Wilds have slowly morphed into a band with an ambition that matches their galactic fixation. Formed by guitarist/vocalist Dan Friel because he missed being in a rock band after the breakup of the eternally underrated Parts & Labor, the project began rather unassumingly with the short but promising Guitar Module 2017. Merely a year later, however, Upper Wilds unveiled the science-fiction-interplanetary-colonialism concept album Mars with a muscular power-trio bombastic sound to match. Three years later, delayed by the forces that delay everything these days, Venus arrives with a similar title, album artwork, and sonic assault (bassist Zach Lehrhoff has been replaced by touring member Jason Binnick, but Friel and drummer Jeff Ottenbacher with still anchor things) that all position the record as a sequel of sorts to Mars. The second entry in Upper Wilds’ solar system series (which Friel has talked about as an ongoing project) doesn’t have a similar corkboard-inducing loose through-line, but Venus does find inspiration in the planet’s namesake: all ten of the LP’s tracks are designated a “love song”, and merely numbered to differentiate them.

Only the album’s opening track seems to actually take place on the titular planet (“They came and tried to see life at 800 degrees / But the cameras melt, the god of love cheers”)—if one is searching for similarities, the love song aspect is the more fertile soil on Venus. But what does a “love song” mean to Friel? Upper Wilds find inspiration both in the cosmos (“Love Song #7”, about the secret marriage of two astronauts before a mission together, and “Love Song #6”, about two surviving members of the Heaven’s Gate  “UFO religion” cult who continue to tend to the group’s website) and close to home (“Love Song #2”, about Friel’s long-haul trucker cousin Amy who also co-stars in its music video, and “Love Song #3”, where the “new constellations” described therein are the freckles on Friel’s son). Centerpiece “Love Song #5” surveys all of this and lays out what might be the record’s thesis statement: two people who love each other remain mortal and are not, in a technical sense, stronger than the sun and the void of space—but that sure doesn’t seem to matter to them, no?

Musically, Venus is perhaps the most straightforward Upper Wilds have come across since their inception—there aren’t really any behemoths of noise like Mars’ “Ex-Frontiers” or Guitar Module’s “Black Holes”. Friel has always been an ace pop songwriter, but Venus is almost entirely in-the-red melodies: the album rollout’s six advance singles (seven if you count the bridge track “Love Song #4” which debuted alongside #5) seem a little bonkers, but all of these songs really could be the “single”. In the brief amount of time these songs have been in my life, I’ve already had “We know how to be alone now, we know how to be alone no-ow” from “Love Song #6” or the guitar riff from “Love Song #7” lodged in my head on countless occasions. The record’s left-field moments are basically restricted to the backwards-played verse tucked at the end of the lightly-psychedelic “Love Song #8” and the wordlessness of closing track “Love Song #10”, which centers a guitar solo the same way in which Friel’s solo albums do synths, and also sort of functions as the album’s “Alright”. Both of these come along at the exactly the right time and help Venus feel like 225 days around the sun in just over a half-hour. Looking forward to Mercury! (Bandcamp link)

Psychic Flowers – For the Undertow

Release date: July 30th
Record label: Living Lost
Genre: Garage rock, lo-fi rock
Formats: Vinyl, digital
Pull track: Coming to Collect

Any avid reader of Rosy Overdrive (if such a person does exist) should be familiar with the work of David Settle. His various projects have appeared in Pressing Concerns, on playlists, and our most recent year-end list. Settle seems to adhere to the Robert Pollard school of needing multiple bands to bear the brunt of his recorded output—Psychic Flowers are a little more ramshackle than the relatively measured psychedelia of The Fragiles, and both are hookier than the scuzzy post-punk of Big Heet, but the lines are a little blurry to my ears, and For the Undertow further muddies the waters by actually clearing up some of the muddiness. For the fourth record under the Psychic Flowers name, Settle has taken what had been his “loosest” project and turned in what feels like his cleanest, shiniest album yet. The fuzz is still there, but the assistance of real-live drummer Leo Suarez on the majority of these songs and a cleaner sound is unmistakable. Lo-fi pop bands like The Cleaners from Venus and Guided by Voices have always figured into Settle’s sound, but the percussion plus a heavier guitar sound make this more or less a straight garage rock record i.e. something off of Goner or In the Red Records.

For the Undertow barrels out of the gate with two absolute rippers in the whoa-oh-ing “Coming to Collect” and the punchy “Animated Songs from a Lonely Planet” (which manages to cram that mouthful of a title into an excellent hook), after which the astronomy-focused “Spaceboy” and the slick, glam-riff-led “Undoing” turn the dial down from “very loud” to merely “loud”. Most of the record then ping-pongs between these two moods (the curious, bouncy fuzzy acoustic “For the Record” is followed up by the grungy power chord workout of “Ten Sided”), although the penultimate track, “Gloves to Grand Air” (which is not on the album that shares its title) is a pensive number that recalls the most recent record by The Fragiles and presents the listener with a moment of introspective clarity before soaring in its second half. That song’s grand finale would be a great final send-off, but For the Undertow ends with the stream-of-consciousness epilogue “Wondering” that befits a musician that seems to always be moving forward. The song begins (on a relatable note) with Settle musing about Robert Pollard before moving onto his art (whether or not he will just be a “flicker” if no one hears his songs) and his interpersonal relationships (“When you need it, will I be able / To stay stable, and soothe your burn?”). No moment, it seems, is too large or too small to be captured in a song for Settle. (Bandcamp link)

Hello Whirled – History Worth Repeating

Release date: July 30th
Record label: Sherilyn Fender
Genre: Lo-fi, power pop
Formats: Digital
Pull track: Egregore

Release three good-to-great albums in seven months, kids, and you too can be a member of the Pressing Concerns three-timers club. At the moment, however, Hello Whirled is the only earner of such a distinction. Compared to the impressive scope of January’s Down on Sex and Romance covers album or the apocalyptic grandiosity of the “100th Hello Whirled release” No Victories, the (mostly) “short songs” of History Worth Repeating might seem slight, but this set of tracks is every bit as deliberate and cohesive as those two are. History Worth Repeating is a remarkably tired-sounding album—No Victories wasn’t really any less dark than this record, but while that album found Hello Whirled architect Ben Spizuco doing his best to burn along with the world around him, History Worth Repeating is resigned to its more insular fate of merely fading away. The beginning of the record finds Spicuzo at his most animated—album opener “Witness” is an uncharacteristic post-hardcore thrasher that finds Spicuzo shouting “You don’t have to look at me! You don’t have to look at me!” over an increasingly anxiety-inducing cacophony.

History Worth Repeating’s equally-uncharacteristic other bookend is the fourteen-minute closing track “Thousand”, which finds Spicuzo probing his deepest fears, anxieties, and desires over a slow-burning indie rock instrumental that stretches but never feels like it needs to showboat to make it across the finish line (it sounds like if Doug Martsch had started to fuck with long song lengths when Built to Spill was still a K Records band). “Thousand” emphasizes with a silent video game protagonist and ends with Spicuzo asking the listener to forget his name—it’s a bit of a, as the kids say, “downer ending”, and if there’s something positive to be found here in a sort of cathartic exorcism kind of way, Hello Whirled certainly aren’t handing it to us on a silver platter. However towering “Thousand” may be, it certainly doesn’t negate the rest of History Worth Repeating, which contains several lo-fi pop highlights: the agitated “Acquiesce” chugs along to its titular demand, the 60-second pop-punk rave-up of “Datura” distills that genre’s ennui better than entire bands’ careers, and the melancholy thesaurus-core of “Quaintrelle” is Hello Whirled at their Pollard-esque best. Perhaps most impressive is “Egregore”, in which History Worth Repeating’s themes of (im)mortality, the mundanity of eternity, and isolation all (literally!) manifest themselves in the form of Spicuzo quipping to a perhaps-imagined spiritual entity that “believing you is not the problem, but it’s a grief to believe in me,” in the middle of a classic bummer pop song. History Worth Repeating is certainly an album worth…listening to multiple times. (Bandcamp link)

Nat Baldwin – Common Currents

Release date: July 10th
Record label: Dear Life
Genre: Orchestral folk
Formats: Cassette, CD, digital
Pull track: All We Want Is Everything

Common Currents is the tenth record by double bassist Nat Baldwin under his own name, the latest in a nearly two-decade career. If you haven’t heard any of his solo material, Baldwin’s fingerprints are also all over the era of indie rock where it made sense for the biggest bands to employ a double bassist—his credits include Vampire Weekend, Deer Tick, and Grizzly Bear, and he was a full-time Dirty Projector for virtually their entire peak of relevance. A few of his solo albums have augmented Baldwin’s double bass and earnest vocals with percussion and more strings, putting it not in an entirely different world than the orchestral pop of Andrew Bird, while others find him piloting his main instrument into experimental noise range. Common Currents (which, at five songs and 24 minutes, is either a full-length or EP depending on one’s personal religious beliefs) splits the difference: these are traditionally-structured songs, to be sure, but they’re also very sparse, carried entirely by Baldwin’s voice and bass.

The gently-humming “All We Want Is Everything” starts off Common Currents as friendly as possible, and while “Communal Luxury” is a little darker with the rustling and squeaking of the bass on top of Baldwin’s bowing and crooning, it’s still a forward-pushing track that’s carried by a beautiful vocal melody. Between the two songs, however, is the most “difficult” song on the record—the 8 minute, glacially-paced “Abundance”. The song’s first half features a lot of sonic emptiness between the stabs of bass and Baldwin’s relatively sparse singing, before slowly building and giving way to two minutes of drone as the song fades away. There’s nothing else quite like it on Common Currents, but the closing track, a cover of Sibylle Baier’s “I Lost Something in the Hills” comes close with its cinematic feel and plodding tempo. All five of these songs come off as unique despite being created from the same toolbox, and I don’t think one has to have any particular fondness for upright bass to appreciate Common Currents. (Bandcamp link)

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