Pressing Concerns: Downhaul, Jill Whit, J. Marinelli, Mike Uva

Welcome back to Pressing Concerns, the almost-weekly new music column on Rosy Overdrive. Today I’m highlighting new albums from Downhaul, Jill Whit, and Mike Uva, as well as an upcoming J. Marinelli EP.

Look for an end-of-May playlist post later this week or early next week (check the April one for what to expect with that), and in the meantime you can browse previous Pressing Concerns for hours of good new music.

Downhaul – PROOF

Release date: May 21st
Record label: Refresh
Genre: Emo, alt-rock
Formats: Vinyl, digital
Pull track: Eyesight

The cover art for Downhaul’s PROOF is on my shortlist for album artwork of the year. The photograph, taken by Norwegian artist Øystein Aspelund, is of a silhouette standing in front of the headlights of a car pulled off to the side of a small winding Scandinavian road, and mirrors the thematic heaviness, sonic darkness, and visible light that’s contained in the Richmond band’s second album and fifth overall release.  PROOF, produced by Chris Teti of The World Is a Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid to Die, is an album carefully crafted to give off a serious, smoldering listening experience for the entirety of its ten tracks. Even when lead vocalist Gordon Phillips raises his voice to find a bit of extra emotion, its stoic drawl is still a grounding force throughout PROOF’s instrumental controlled burn, led by Phillips’ prominent baritone guitar. Downhaul are so steadfast in their commitment to this titanic sound that small touches that wouldn’t merit much notice in most other similar emo-influenced rock albums—such as the short acoustic interlude track “The Ladder”—come across as jarring in comparison.

The baritone six-string is an under-utilized instrument that’s perfect for emotional daggers of rock albums like PROOF, and it reminds me of one of my favorite bands of all-time, Bottomless Pit, whose Tim Midyett similarly used its tones to probe harrowing thematic depths. While Bottomless Pit was lyrically reckoning with the death of a former bandmate, the losses and trials Phillips and Downhaul face feel ultimately within one’s own self. PROOF doesn’t hold one’s hand from the get-go, beginning with the seven-minute “Bury”, which is about suffocating baggage and the struggle to toss it off. “It’s all too often a wayward comment can derail five years of progress”, confesses Phillips over pounding percussion. While “Bury” contains imagery of stepping back from the brink and pressing on after personal failure, it becomes clear that this struggle can’t end so easily. Reflecting on the dissolution of something between two people merely one song later in “Dried”, Phillips turns the album’s underlying damage 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.

The specter of collapsed relationships, both romantic and otherwise, hovers over PROOF: “I’ve been a poor friend / A dozen friendships I let fade in great passivity”, observes Phillips in “Circulation”, displaying little confidence in the moment that this will change, and nobody’s in their best moment when declaring “You’ve got me dead to rights, another spineless hypocrite” as he does in “Curtains”. On album closer “About Leaving”, Phillips comes off more clear-eyed and Downhaul tie together a lot of what’s seething under PROOF. Both the song title (which comes from a 2017 Downhaul EP) and its music (which recalls the alt-country of earlier Downhaul releases, right up to a cathartic twangy guitar solo) bring long-standing elements of the band to the forefront, while Phillips finally responds to the question of “proof” that was introduced in “Bury”. Phillips runs through a list of personal improvement goals, including a vow to “chase the ways that we felt before this stood ten feet tall”. This metaphorical object is still standing right in front of him, but after everything else in PROOF, Downhaul doesn’t sound daunted at the notion of scaling that canyon. (Bandcamp link)

Jill Whit – Time Is Being

Release date: May 28th
Record label: Orindal
Genre: Synthpop, ambient pop, spoken word
Formats: Cassette, digital
Pull track: Internet Cowboy

This year has been, perhaps unsurprisingly, a good one for unabashedly introspective songwriting, and it’s been a banner year for albums that incorporate spoken-word poetry into musical compositions as well. I’ve already heard great albums from Anika Pyle and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson that fall under the category of the latter, and now Salt Lake City songwriter Jill Whit has put out a record that merits a seat at this particular table. Time Is Being was birthed from isolation in 2020, which Whit addresses head-on in the spoken-word opening track “Touchless” and the instrumental “Quarantine”. Most of Time Is Being is more interested in where this isolation leads Whit, however. On one end of this spectrum is “Windows”, a very passive song vividly describes both time and Whit herself slipping away (“Like something you can’t hold”, she says of herself). But Time Is Being also contains “Maybe Means No”, a half spoken/half sung list of resolutions Whit is actively making with herself: to take care of herself, to appreciate simple things, to feel worthy of the appreciation of others, to breathe, and so forth. “Maybe Means No” is about using “true silence” to discover new things about one’s self; in Whit’s case, it’s realizing how the titular phrase applies to her feelings, among other developments.

Time Is Being is an “ambient pop” album, and while the spacious atmospherics may be its more immediately noticeable feature, it doesn’t skimp on the “pop” front either. The first non-spoken track, “Internet Cowboy”, floats along for two minutes and lets Whit’s voice and lyrics (“Your love is so simple / Like a river that runs while I’m standing still”) take the record to a completely different place than the poetry pieces, despite having the same surface-level ingredients. Some of the more melodic moments on Time Is Being evoke the feeling of timeless—pre rock-and-roll even—pop songwriting, which is remarkable for a synth-driven ambient record, but does feel like a deliberate juxtaposition from the moment the phrase “internet cowboy” enters one’s mind. The most obvious example of this is in “Make It Seem True”, in which Whit sings what could pass for doo-wop lyrics over top of minimal synth touches, and her version of Merle Haggard’s “I Always Get Lucky with You” is the like a positively giddy mirror image of the former song’s heartbreak. The cassette release of the album comes with a zine of photos and drawings by Whit that underlines the record’s strength, which is that it doesn’t just say that Time Is Being—it shows it, too. (Bandcamp link)

J. Marinelli – Fjorden & Fjellet

Release date: June 4th
Record label: Commodity Fetish
Genre: Lo-fi pop rock
Formats: Digital
Pull track: Worker and Parasite

Nearly twenty releases and fifteen years into his solo career, the Norway-based, West Virginia-originating J. Marinelli has changed up his sound for his latest EP. After putting his time in recording and performing as a “one-man punk band”, which had entailed manning a crude drumset with his feet while hammering things out on the six-string, Marinelli has taken the unthinkable step of recording his instruments separately for the Fjorden & Fjellet EP. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still on the side of lo-fi—if you enjoyed last year’s Laughing All the Way to the Fretex (one of Rosy Overdrive’s favorite albums of 2020) then this isn’t a huge departure. However, the four songs on Fjorden & Fjellet hint at some newfound freedom into which to roam: Bass guitar! Less rudimentary drumming! And handclaps! Lots of handclaps!

Although he may be undergoing a sort of musical evolution, songcraft-wise Fjorden & Fjellet is still vintage Marinelli, continuing his Appalachian spin on Robert Pollard-esque lo-fi pop rock. Three of these tracks are short, sweet, straightforwardly-catchy numbers, but as breezy as they sound, they resist easy lyrical interpretation. Despite (or perhaps because of) this, Marinelli still manages to be evocative: “Where they’d have us swim / See them muddying the water so we cannot see the shallowness therein” from the opening track is his own version of punk rock agitating and sloganeering. Closer “Worker and Parasite” is perhaps the most interesting moment on Fjorden & Fjellet, in the way it seems to use the political as a metaphor for the personal (or is it the other way around?). Either way, “There’s no struggle quite like your fight for attention” is a great one-liner in any context, and Marinelli harmonizing with himself is a nice surprise. The EP’s one outlier, the lumbering, three-minute “Dinosaur Dan”, presents as a less immediate but still intriguing alternate path forward. These songs were culled from a fertile songwriting period for Marinelli—as a preview for the proper full-length follow-up to Fretex, it’s undeniably appetite-whetting. (Bandcamp link)

Mike Uva – Are You Dreaming

Release date: May 14th
Record label: Self-released
Genre: Lo-fi, indie folk, jangle pop
Formats: Cassette, CD, digital
Pull track: Safety Zone

Cleveland’s Mike Uva has been making his own style of lo-fi folk rock since the beginning of the century, although it sounds like he’s shaken up his creative process for his latest album. The songs on last month’s Are You Dreaming began in late 2019 as electric guitar improvisations, and their development also found Uva experimenting with phone recording and beat-making. Although he’d intended to continue to flesh them out, Uva decided to leave them mostly as-is, with only drum overdub from Elliott Hoffman transforming them from their original state, and then topping it off with cover art drawn by his son. Nearly half of the album’s eight songs are instrumental guitar meanderings (one of them is literally titled “Meander”), and it gives the album a very casual feel, allowing the “proper” songs to float in and out of focus as the instrumentation washes over Are You Dreaming. These passages on Are You Dreaming can lull the listener into missing that there are some very strong songs hidden within the album, until they sneak up on you after a few listens.

The first song with vocals, “Safety Zone”, lays out a lazy, languid hook that has only grown on me, and accents it with some tuneful keyboard. Uva’s sincerely confident vocals help make “Oh for the Day” sound particularly like something that could’ve come from Woodsist Records, although it’s far from the only moment on the record that does this— the rustic feel of the entire of Are You Dreaming evokes Woods and other bands of their ilk. The only song that doesn’t feel descended from the album’s electric guitar origins is the title track, with the electric only contributing some musical accents to what’s otherwise the album’s most straightforward folk song. Though these songs may have started out as “noodling”, all the songs with vocals feel like fully-formed compositions, with the exception of the one-minute closer “Hollywood Dancer”. That track, which begins as another instrumental passage before the actual forty-second acoustic song begins, feels more like a snippet, like one of the brief but captivating interlude songs on Alien Lanes or Lolita Nation. In Uva’s context, it’s a deliberate tribute to immediacy, much like the appeal of the simple drawing on the cover of Are You Dreaming. (Bandcamp link)

Also notable:

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