Pressing Concerns: Mister Goblin, Nightshift, Kittyhawk, The Hold Steady, Styrofoam Winos, Bailter Space

In the fifth installment of Pressing Concerns, I highlight new albums by Mister Goblin, Nightshift, The Hold Steady, and Styrofoam Winos, and also discuss a compilation cassette of Kittyhawk’s non-LP material and the 25th anniversary reissue and remaster of Bailter Space’s Wammo.

Be sure to check out previous editions of Pressing Concerns for more good new music from the past two (or so) months. After doing three of these posts for three consecutive weeks (and each longer than the last), this column will probably be taking a week or two off. Nothing I’m certain I’m going to cover releases until March 19th, so in theory it could be until then, but don’t be surprised if it comes back a bit earlier.  In the meantime, look out for a playlist post or two in the coming weeks—one of what I’m listening to at the moment and another that’s a time capsule/archival playlist.

Mister Goblin – Four People in an Elevator and One of Them Is the Devil

Release date: February 19th
Record label: Exploding in Sound
Genre: Post-hardcore, indie folk pop
Formats: Cassette, digital
Pull track: At Least

Over a decade or so of making music with suburban D.C.’s Two Inch Astronaut and on his own as Mister Goblin, Sam Goblin has honed in on a recognizable sound, led by his golden, effortlessly melodic voice combined with thorny guitar and rhythm sections reminiscent of several bands from the local Dischord Records roster. Since making Mister Goblin his primary outlet, however, he’s increasingly mixed in different elements into his music—acoustic instrumentation, some drum machines here and there—while still keeping a foot in the post-hardcore department. The excellent Four People in an Elevator and One of Them Is the Devil feels like the Goblin’s fullest realization yet of these new components.

There has always been a theatrical streak to the bands and projects fronted by Sam Goblin (not unlike another D.C.-area band, Shudder to Think). Two Inch Astronaut’s “Play to No One” added a positively musical-worthy sensibility to the decidedly unglamorous life of empty basement shows, and Four People in an Elevator… makes this undercurrent delightfully explicit with “Hook in the Eye”. The song is a character sketch about a wannabe actor who rationalizes his job as a predatory telephone scammer by acting as if it’s all one grand performance, and its proclamation of “This is my theater, your landline my stage” lends an absurd gravity to trying to trick an 80-year old grandparent into handing over the keys to their bank account.

Despite being a step forward, “Hook in the Eye” eventually does revolve into a classic Two Inch Astronaut-esque torching outro, which puts it closer to Sam Goblin’s origins than the majority of …Elevator… The entirely acoustic “Cover Song” sets itself up in “Play to No One” country but, rather than proudly wear its chip on its shoulder, it quietly looks out upon and contemplates a “tedious apocalypse” soundtracked by “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Freebird”. The mortally wounded bird of “Cardboard Box” ends its life (and the album) on its own terms over programmed beats and string accents. And I haven’t even covered two of the strongest songwriting flexes in “Six Flags America” (which I’ve already written about) and “At Least” (which I will write about soon). Coming in at less than a half hour in length and only available physically as a cassette, Four People… could’ve easily come across as a stopgap or lower-stakes release, but this album is the real deal. Sam Goblin has put together a collection of songs with appeal well beyond that of the underground alt-rock circuit without abandoning the strongest aspects of his past successes. (Bandcamp link)

Nightshift – Zöe

Release date: February 26th 
Record label: Trouble in Mind
Genre: Post-punk, no wave indie pop
Formats: Vinyl, CD, cassette, digital
Pull track: Outta Space

For their second album, Glasgow’s Nightshift have fashioned together an inviting collection of minimalist indie rock songs from unlikely sources. Zöe pulls from lofty places both musically and conceptually, but still leaves the gates wide open for the listener. Nightshift cite the abrasion of “No New York/early Sonic Youth/This Heat” as the starting point for the band, but they’ve strayed quite a bit aways from point A in their two years of existence. That footprint is still there, but they’ve molded these tools into the melodic, utilitarian pop structures harkening to Young Marble Giants or Marine Girls. The transition reminds me of last year’s releases by Magik Markers, although Nightshift’s songs come across as more deliberate and calculated than 2020’s compromised experimentation did.

Zöe is an album where many, many instrumental and vocal parts come unadorned, placed front and center for the listener to take in. The pressure is on to take full advantage of this prime real estate, and in this Nightshift deliver—hooks pervade the waters of Zöe. “There’s no air in outer space, there’s no air in outer space” floats over tick-ticking rhythms and easily into my head over and over again, while the cycling guitar riffs from the album’s first two songs are as memorable as the accompanying hypnotic recitations of the songs’ titles. Despite the amount of empty space on Zöe, there are plenty of inspired instrumental choices—the liberal clarinet on early highlight “Spray Paint the Bridge” helps the song bend but not break in its second half, and later helps accent the spoken-word musings of “Make Kin” (which is also the album’s “rave up” song, in my view).

Though Zöe hits right out of the gate with three ace variations on their concoction of influences, the most ear-catching number comes at the start of the record’s second half: the 7-minute “Power Cut”, which casually stretches out to twice the average Zöe song length like it’s nothing. The steady, buzzing synths and rhythmic backbone steer “Power Cut” nearly into krautrock territory, despite not deviating too far from the rest of the album. If the more insular nature of Zöe’s last couple of songs initially feels kind of slight in comparison, this is more a reflection on the instantaneous (ahem) power of “Power Cut” rather than a weak ending. The aptly-titled confusing swirl of “Romantic Mud” particularly revealed itself to me with repeated listens, and the shuffling title track feels like a logical deconstruction of the album’s earlier accessible bits. The ethereal yet grounded Zöe is a sculpture of an album that doesn’t hide what makes it worth appreciating. (Bandcamp link)

Kittyhawk – Mikey’s Favorite Songs (2012-2016)

Release date: February 26th
Record label: Count Your Lucky Stars
Genre: Indie emo rock
Formats: Cassette, digital
Pull track: The First One

Chicago’s Kittyhawk—like any good emo-tinged DIY indie rock band from the past decade—amassed a collection of songs over their initial four-year ride which rivals that of their proper LP output. And Count Your Lucky Stars—like any good DIY label in the service of emo-tinged DIY indie rock—has helpfully compiled all thirteen of them in one place, the Mikey’s Favorite Songs cassette. The band’s lineup connects them to such notable names as Pet Symmetry, Dowsing, and Into It. Over It., but Mikey’s Favorite Songs reveals a band with its own unique footprint, anchored by the voice of frontwoman Kate Grube and an interest in classic pop songcraft.

The tape’s first five songs comprise their 2012 debut EP, which makes it clear that Kittyhawk had hit on something right out of the gate. It kicks off with the most straightforwardly sweet song here, the infectious (and correctly-titled) “The First One”. The rest of the EP puts up the other core tent poles of their sound, with the moody dual vocals of “Older/Wiser” (Guitarist/vocalist Erik Czaja cites the underappreciated Rainer Maria as an influence for this one, and I certainly hear it) and the dramatic rocker “He Travels in a Suit”. The rest of the compilation is built from various-artist compilation appearances, splits, and singles. It doesn’t hang together in the same way that the Kittyhawk EP songs do (unsurprisingly, as these songs weren’t meant to), but it does find the band stretching out a bit more to rewarding results. The songs become a little more complex despite still being recognizably Kittyhawk—“The Green” liberally piles on to its steady, driving drumbeat for two minutes, while the various sprawling, intricate parts of “The Daily Dodger” can make one’s head spin in a good way. And I will always have a soft spot for “Soft Serve”, my introduction to Kittyhawk via the Sundae Bloody Sundae split single.

It’s always going to be a bit odd to hear a Christmas song smack dab in the middle of Mikey’s Favorite Songs, but the tape’s primary purpose is making Kittyhawk’s stray recordings easier for us all to access, and given that I will now be happy to add their fuzz-pop version of “Silver Bells” into my future holiday rotation, it succeeds on this front. The other cover, a heartbreakingly slow version of The Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hanging On”, actually does work as an album closer—if for no other reason than I’m not sure how you’d follow it. Kittyhawk are, as I understand it, back together after a three-year pause, and perhaps we will get new material out of their second act. Whatever the future holds, the material on Mikey’s Favorite Songs reveals a past that’s worth a good, long look back. (Bandcamp link)

The Hold Steady – Open Door Policy

Release date: February 19th
Record label: Positive Jams/Thirty Tigers
Genre: The Hold Steady
Formats: Vinyl, CD, digital
Pull track: Lanyards

I could go on for four times the length of this entire post about my relationship with The Hold Steady, Craig Finn, and its many peaks and valleys over the last decade or so, but I will try to keep most of this about the new album itself. By way of introduction I will say that after nearly disintegrating with the twin “mixed reception” records Heaven Is Whenever (underrated) and Teeth Dreams (no comment) in the first half of the 2010s, their return to form in the decade’s latter half has been a relief to people like me—“Entitlement Crew” in 2017 turned trepidation into anticipation for new Hold Steady music, and the half-album, half-singles-comp Thrashing Thru the Passion fully delivered in 2019.

Open Door Policy, then, is the band’s first attempt to create an entire LP’s worth of songs that work together in seven years, and after Passion proved them capable of flexing the right muscles, ODP is their bid to try evolution once more. The band seems to have learned after Teeth Dreams that it would be unwise to try to bury the most unique and important part of their music (Craig Finn’s speak-singing lyrics); Open Door Policy thusly begins with much higher floor than that record. Instead, the most notable departure seems to be the lower ratio of unapologetic sing-along choruses than their mid-2000s work and Passion. The worst-case scenario for this Hold Understated would be the weakest moments in Finn’s solo albums: well-written but musically generic. Thankfully, though, it’s more analogous to the highlights of those records—in fact, it could be seen as a convergence of Finn’s most recent and best solo album (2019’s I Need a New War, which contained more tuneful moments than the two previous ones) with the Hold Steady’s full band power.

The opening sequence of the album is a big commander of attention, but not in typical Hold Steady fashion. We get two conceptual numbers—opener “The Feelers” is no “Stuck Between Stations” or “Constructive Summer”, while the dark “Spices” harkens back to Separation Sunday, but not to any of that album’s most immediately accessible parts. I respect these and appreciate the color it adds to Open Door Policy, but it wouldn’t work if they didn’t let loose and run up the score with new classic Hold Steady moves in the album’s center—and they do. The run from “Lanyards” to “Heavy Covenant” rivals any stretch from the band’s “golden” period, and they do it by nailing left turns (“Unpleasant Breakfast”), very clear callbacks (“Family Farm”), and in-betweeners (“Heavy Covenant”) alike.

With that out of their system, the band ends Open Door Policy with some more puzzles to sort out. “Me & Magdalena” contains some of Craig Finn’s best storytelling on the album, and I’m still trying to sort out how “Hanover Camera” and “Riptown” fit in with both that song and the earlier tracks. And those are the twin pillars of The Hold Steady—Finn leaving lyrical breadcrumbs that make the listener want to go back, and the rest of the band making it feel anything but academic or laborious to do so. Nearing two decades together, they’re still working with the same roadmap, but aren’t afraid to annotate it, circling new routes and marking out all the diners that serve gross toast. (Bandcamp link)

Styrofoam Winos – Styrofoam Winos

Release date: February 12th
Record label: Sophomore Lounge
Genre: Alt-country, indie folk
Formats: Vinyl, digital
Pull track: Skyline Top Removal

A supergroup of sorts, Nashville’s Styrofoam Winos have been notably cosigned by Rosy Overdrive favorite Simon Joyner (who has also written favorably of member Lou Turner’s solo work). Featuring three songwriters with notable discographies of their own—Turner, Joe Kenkel, and Trevor Nikrant—Styrofoam Winos has a lot to pack into its 40 minutes, and it certainly sounds like it. Just in the first three songs, they rip through the country-fried egg punk of “Stuck in a Museum”, the charming southern folk duet of “In Your Room”, and the plaintive, Tweedy-esque “Once”. Most impressively is “Skyline Top Removal”, which marries the record’s brightest and most pleasing music with its most striking images and biting lyrics (“It was built on the backs of the underpaid….but isn’t it minimal? Isn’t it great?”, chiefly, not to mention the song title itself) to make a modern southern-urban classic.

Styrofoam Winos floats away after that, the instrumental “Open Mic” giving way to a final trio of songs that make good use of the group’s subtler tendencies. The light strumming and caught-in-a-moment reflections of “Maybe More” shine the brightest for me, while album closer “Wrong Season’s Length” builds around mundane observation with strings and piano to remind me of another Nashville mainstay, Lambchop. Even though I find myself gravitating towards these quieter numbers on average, Styrofoam Winos stick out due to their ability to nail both those and, say, the fuzzy “School in the Morning” in the same breath. (Bandcamp link)

Bailter Space – Wammo (25th Anniversary Reissue)

Release date: February 12th
Record label: Matador
Genre: Shoegaze, noise pop
Formats: Vinyl, digital
Pull track: Colours

New Zealand’s Bailter Space will—due to their place of birth, time on the Flying Nun label, and some personnel overlap—forever be associated with the scrappy jangle pop of Dunedin Sound bands like The Chills, The Bats, and The Clean, but they have always drawn from heavier musical influences than those bands generally did. Dating back to their proto-Bailter Space band, Gordons, in the 1980s, they’ve filled their albums with various concentrations of noise rock and reverb. 1995’s Wammo, reissued this month by Matador Records as part of their “Revisionist History” series, is their most accessible effort of their initial run, their rightfully most-revered single LP and their nearest brush with indie rock immortality. The fuzz-drenched production is still there, but underneath lie several excellent pop songs. The starry-eyed “Splat” and the wistful “Glimmer” could’ve been vintage shoegaze anthems a la Ride, while “At Five We Drive” recalls Sonic Youth circa their populist 1990 peak just as the actual Sonic Youth were retreating into experimentation and opacity. The defiant “Voltage” near the end of the album indicated their deconstructive streak hadn’t been completely buried, but they follow this with the exuberant 6-minute romp of “D Thing”, recalling a slightly shier version of Eleventh Dream Day’s Neil Young-influenced freak-outs. Wammo does not have the indie rock footprint of some of the other albums in Matador’s reissue series like Alien Lanes or Electr-o-Pura, but I take their point wholeheartedly that what Bailter Space accomplished with this album deserves to be celebrated 25 years down the line. (Bandcamp link)

Also notable:

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