Pressing Concerns: Fust, Paper Mice, HUSHPUPPY, Speak, Memory

Fust – Evil Joy

Release date: May 28th
Record label: Dear Life
Genre: Country-folk
Formats: Cassette, CD, digital
Pull track: Wyoming County

The last album I heard (and wrote about) from Philadelphia’s Dear Life Records was MJ Lenderman’s Ghost of Your Guitar Solo, whose punk influence and lo-fi recording put it firmly on the “alt” end of alt-country. Durham, North Carolina’s Fust share some surface genre-level similarity with their label-mate on their debut album, but they approach their musical influences more traditionally. Evil Joy is a record of gentle, deliberate, and clear Americana/folk rock that evokes the work of troubadours like Richard Buckner and Bill Callahan. Fust bandleader Aaron Dowdy particularly reminds me of early Buckner albums in the way he can spin memorable songs out of little more than a wearily melodic vocal and relatively sparse instrumentation. The tracks on Evil Joy are all pleasantly hummable—Dowdy turns the title of “When the Trial Ends” into an inviting vocal hook for a song about picking up the pieces of something shattered together on one’s own, and when he sings “But they’ve got better things to do / Then sitting around here, loving you” in “Night on the Lam”, his confident voice belies the line’s role in a lyric about making mistakes with one’s friends that can’t be reversed no matter how hard one may try.

Similarly to the work of the folk singers mentioned previously as musical reference points, Evil Joy has some deep and occasionally dark introspection going on beneath its breezy surface. The album has been described by the band as a narrative that follows the emotional ups and downs of a deteriorating relationship. Dowdy alludes to this throughline across the record in references to leaving and of being released (one doesn’t have to dig much deeper than some of the song titles, which include “The Last Days”, “The Day That You Went Away”, and “When the Trial Ends”).  There’s even a rough timeline if you try to put everything together—the rewarding but difficult April, the summer of “pitiful shame”, the day in August where one person in the relationship returned. Even though Evil Joy feels like an album written in the past tense, much of it is spent reckoning with matters that don’t seem wholly resolved. Dowdy’s lyrics seem preoccupied with being “wrong”, and with feeling the “wrong” way about major life decisions and events—the idea of experiencing “evil” joy instead of the “pure” version. The contradiction at the heart of the album’s title seems to point towards the emotional turmoil of watching something die between two people, and the oddness inherent in experiencing positive emotions at the death of something. Contradiction is another preoccupation of Evil Joy, like in “Long Hard Days in April” where Dowdy yearns to “go back, forever” to those hard days.

“Wyoming County” ends the record on a note of finality that Evil Joy hadn’t quite achieved up until those last couple of minutes. The closing song is able to look at the album’s central relationship with fresh eyes, and only then can Dowdy fully realize that it has 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 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. The track ends with an instrumental outro marked by a triumphant mid-tempo guitar solo that serves as the album’s punctuation mark. “It was almost like we were still in love in Wyoming County,” sings Dowdy, and it’s clear that he and Fust are riding off into the wild blue yonder without being haunted by coming just shy, close but not quite. (Bandcamp link)

Paper Mice – 1-800-MONDAYS

Release date: May 7th
Record label: Three One G
Genre: Math rock, post-punk
Formats: Vinyl, digital
Pull track: The Cynic Route

The first album in eight years from the math rock trio Paper Mice is a recording from a world of fear, stupidity, anger, and flammability (Did I mention they’re from Chicago?). Nomeansno is a clear influence, and the band also cite The Beach Boys, whose impact on Paper Mice manifests itself in the warped catchiness the songs on 1-800-MONDAYS possess, the vocal harmonies peppered throughout the album, and the orchestral touches in “Trial by Fire” and “The Cynic Route”. A contemporary point of reference might be the math rock side of fellow Chicagoan NNAMDÏ, who has toured with the band and directed a music video for the album.  Paper Mice continue their songwriting method of taking inspiration from oddly humorous news headlines for the album, with an emphasis on darker subjects this time around. “Fight Fire with Firearms” kicks off 1-800-MONDAYS with a vignette of a man whose van full of guns and ammunition goes down in flames, and both fire (“Trial by Fire”, about a lawyer whose pants catch on fire) and firearms (“Taking the Heat”, an exhausting and circular song about exhausting and circular gun control debates) weigh heavily on 1-800-MONDAYS.

The album’s title track is a pretty clear lamentation of the cumulative effects of ocean pollution (sample lyric: “But that’s in the past, now at last everything is fantastic / No it isn’t, I was being sarcastic”), and “For the Birds” (about a parrot who returns to his owner speaking Spanish after being gone for several few years) could be a metaphor for all sorts of things, but Paper Mice wisely let the absurdity stand on its own. 1-800-MONDAYS does a lot of letting these stories stand on their alone, for the listener to sort through to their own ends. One can gravitate towards the way irrational hatred leads people to do stupid things that endanger themselves, like the man who tries to kill a spider with a lighter at a gas station in “Fight Spider with Fire”, or one can read a sort of odd nobility to the Russian pedestrians who try to dress up as a school bus in a futile attempt to cross a vehicles-only bridge in Vladivostok (“The Cynic Route”). 1-800-MONDAYS remains a unique and captivating listen either way. (Bandcamp link)

HUSHPUPPY – Singles Club (Remastered)

Release date: April 23rd
Record label: Babe City
Genre: Lo-fi indie rock
Formats: Cassette, digital
Pull track: I’m at Home with You

I was unfamiliar with HUSHPUPPY’S Zoë Brecher before I stumbled onto last month’s Singles Club, although perhaps I should have been, as the New York drummer has played with several bands and acts I care about, including Sad13, Kalbells, and King Tuff. Even though this collection of songs seems to be the first time Brecher’s solo work has seen a relatively wide release, she’s been making music on her own for several years now. Even the tracks that make up Singles Club have been around for awhile, having been “semi-secretly” released on Bandcamp five years ago. Brecher collected a dozen of these recordings and, as the title suggests, had them remastered (by Amar Lal of Big Ups) for a cassette from Babe City.

Singles Club does resemble an album with humble origins—Brecher plows through twelve songs in seventeen minutes, and they do have a slapdash, home-recorded feel to them. Some of these tracks, like the 45-second slice of bedroom pop “I Wanna Be Your GF”, feel like they’re over as soon as they began, and the production and brevity give Singles Club a sincere immediacy. This only works to serve the tracks’ subject matters, with songs like “If Only You Were My Girl” and “I Like Girls” being open treatises on queer romance, longing, and loneliness. Still, Brecher doesn’t overly commit to quick runtimes and lo-fi distortion when it’s not what suits the song.  “I’m at Home with You” is a highlight because it sounds clean, Brecher’s voice is front and center, and it feels like it accomplishes a lot in two minutes. Album closer “Alone with Me” splits the difference—it slows the tempo down, but the recording still feels like it could fall apart at any moment. It never does, though, instead bringing Singles Club across the finish line on a bittersweet but relatable note. (Bandcamp link)

Speak, Memory – Adirondack

Release date: May 21st
Record label: Clerestory AV
Genre: Emo, post-rock, math rock
Formats: Vinyl, digital
Pull track: Lakes

Oklahoma City trio Speak, Memory make a mostly-instrumental, expressive strain of emo and post-rock. Adirondack is the band’s first release since 2014, and a lot has changed over the past seven years, including the band’s original bass player, Bartees Strange, becoming one of the hottest names in indie rock. Strange mixed Adirondack, whose three songs were recorded in late 2019, a couple of months before the onset of another “big thing” that’s happened since Speak, Memory’s debut EP. Adirondack is bookended by “Trails” and “Cabin”, two long and twinkly instrumentals. Both of them flow, ebb, and contain multiple distinct “parts”, but the opening “Trails” in particular maintains a steady feeling of hopeful optimism throughout its musical shifts.  “Lakes” is the odd song out—for one, it’s the only song under four minutes long, and it’s also the only one of the three to feature vocals.

Guitarist Timothy Miller only sings a few lines towards the back end of “Lakes”, however, and they’re easy to blink and miss, especially after the first half of the track. Even more so than the vocals, the song is striking because of how it tumbles out of the gate instrumentally, with galloping, four-minute-mile drums and appropriately matching tossed-off guitar riffs. The closing “Cabin” eventually reaches the same propulsive, charging drive as “Lakes”, but it takes its time getting there. The first three minutes of “Cabin” are the calmest moments on Adirondack, so much so that the song’s initial build-up reverts back to the calmness before the real peak happens. The final two-minute crescendo is the closest to the feeling of cresting the top of one of the mountains for which Adirondack is named. Or, I suppose, it’s what I imagine the feeling of climbing to the top of a mountain feels like; I’m more than happy to stay at home and let Speak, Memory do the work of taking me there in spirit. (Bandcamp link)

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