Pressing Concerns: The Cocker Spaniels, Williamson Brothers, Supreme Joy, Parting

It’s been awhile since Rosy Overdrive just had a good old-fashioned album roundup post. In the time between that last one and now, RO premiered a new single from Jack Habegger’s Celebrity Telethon, went long on the newest St. Lenox album, and gathered up the forty best albums to come out in 2021 thus far. Today, I’m writing about new albums from The Cocker Spaniels, Williamson Brothers, Supreme Joy, and Parting. I’m hoping to have another one of these up a week from now; I’m going on vacation soon, so things may be a bit erratic until mid-July. In the meantime, browse previous editions of Pressing Concerns for a lot more good new music.

The Cocker Spaniels – The Cocker Spaniels Are Still Alive, and So Are You

Release date: June 4th
Record label: Self-released
Genre: Indie rock, psychedelic pop, power pop
Formats: Digital (cassette/vinyl pending)
Pull track: Racism Priest

Although The Cocker Spaniels Are Still Alive, and So Are You is the project’s first full-length album in over a decade, I doubt Cocker Spaniels bandleader Sean Padilla views the interstitial years as “lost time”. Padilla begins the album’s Bandcamp description by deeming the record “a tribute to my spouse, our children, and our cats”, and many of …Are Still Alive’s twenty songs are directly about Padilla’s family life. This includes more lighthearted tracks like the cat-versus-cat turf war of “Eternal Grudge” or the extended-family-interrogation of “Family Narc”, the latter of which finds Padilla threatening to “do more than just unfriend” to whoever told his mother that he’s “started getting high and stopped going to church”. …Are Still Alive also features songs like “No Steps or Halves”, a soaring ode to the part of Padilla’s family that’s bonded by “by the law and by our love”, and “I Sleep Well at Night”, a bouncy track that details Padilla’s determination to be a different kind of “man of the household” than those who came and went from his childhood (“My home is where the family curses end”). And those who know me shouldn’t be surprised that “A New Hello”—which is instantly one of the best non-John K. Samson-penned songs about a cat—is the one that hit me the hardest.

Despite its familial focus, The Cocker Spaniels Are Still Alive refuses to be an album that doesn’t interact with the outside world. I doubt Padilla would recognize a dichotomy, anyway—the analysis and rejection of toxic masculinity in “I Sleep Well at Night” shows he’s more than aware of how they’re connected. Moreover, given the events of the past year, …Are Still Alive doesn’t have much of a choice. “Cousin Chat Room” is about staying connected to family during a global pandemic, and also directly addresses what COVID-19 has taken away from Padilla and his anger at those who refuse to take it seriously. Coming in the wake of a summer of widespread protests against anti-black police violence, several more of…Are Still Alive’s songs directly speak to Padilla’s experience as a black man in America. As someone who once sang about being “The Only Black Guy at the Indie-Rock Show”, his attempts to address these peers lead to some strong songwriting—the furious “Snuff Film”, about not wanting to have to become a headline for them to stick up for his right to exist (“Are you gonna wait for Shaun King to tweet the snuff film before you march for me?”), and the humorous but pointed “Racism Priest”, in which Padilla politely declines to take on all of his acquaintances’ white guilt at their past misdeeds or silence (“I’m gonna give it back to you to do what thou wilt”). “Cops Don’t Care About the Drip” is addressed to a different audience, but its point about not being able to use “respectability” to skip the effects of white supremacy is just as sharp (nearly every line is quotable; I’ll go with “You’ll die watching the goalposts shift”).

The Cocker Spaniels Are Still Alive covers a lot of sonic ground over its considerable breadth, but its most frequent mode is a psychedelic-pop-rock sound that successfully hybridizes Padilla’s twin influences of Robert Pollard and Prince (and if you think the Prince influence is entirely musical, “Biker Shorts” would like a word). It might seem a bit odd to describe Are Still Alive… as one of the most “fun” albums of 2021 after everything I went into earlier in this review, but Padilla takes the musical joyfulness of his “two P’s” as much as anything else from them, and the record’s further genre diversions (including a dub outro on one song and a surprise hardcore track near its conclusion) continue the excitement. It feels like I’ve only really scratched the surface of The Cocker Spaniels Are Still Alive here—this is one long-in-the-tooth record that sounds like it took full advantage of its gestation period. (Bandcamp link)

Williamson Brothers – Williamson Brothers

Release date: June 18th
Record label: Dial Back Sound
Genre: Southern rock, alt-country
Formats: Vinyl, CD, digital
Pull track: This War

Birmingham, Alabama’s Williamson Brothers are Adam and Blake, who have played in the bands Vespre and Black Willis, and currently make up the rhythm section for the scorching southern rock band Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires. Although much of their self-titled debut album falls under the same umbrella of “political southern punk rock” that also characterizes the Glory Fires, the Williamsons carve out a style distinct from their other band over the record’s course. Bains’ songwriting is lyrically dense and nearly always delivered with the passion of a fire-and-brimstone preacher—the kind of music that comes with a list of reading suggestions. Adam and Blake, meanwhile, come off as two regular guys from Alabama who just happen to be passionate and politically active, particularly in songs like “I Hate It Here”, a classic “fuck this town” anthem that runs through both systemic issues and minor annoyances. “God for Government” reminds me (not musically, but topically) of XTC’s “Dear God”—it’s more of an angry release of frustration against organized religion and its nefarious social influence than a rational, principled argument against Christianity, because sometimes that’s all one can muster up. This sort of “everyman” songwriting evokes another clear sonic touchstone for the Williamsons, the Drive-By Truckers, whose Jay Gonzales plays keyboard on the record.

The Williamson Brothers’ strongest political moments are what feel like their most personal ones, as well. “This War” is a protest anthem that’s both a declaration of solidarity for the Black Lives Matter protests that have reverberated not just in their native Deep South but across the United States, and also a plea for other white folks to join them. “You shouldn’t need any more proof,” sings Adam, before reminding passive onlookers that “this is the time to pick your side, climb down off of the fence”. Another strength of Williamson Brothers is that it’s not afraid to deviate from its southern country-rock and throw in some sonic left-turns. “Avenue H” is oddly atmospheric in its verses, before exploding into a garage-rock-power-pop chorus that recalls Teenage Fanclub at their most ragged. “Pass the Blame” is even more surprising: a synth-and-keys pop song that imagines what it would sound like if Fountains of Wayne’s suburban satire originated in Alabama instead of New Jersey. Even the more conventional songs like “Kick and Scream” gain an extra dimension due to Gonzales doing his best Franz Nicolay impression over the track’s garage-rocking skeleton.  There’s plenty of meat on this record’s bones, and for as strong as they are in The Glory Fires, I would certainly welcome it if the Williamson Brothers were to step further into the spotlight in the future.  (Bandcamp link)

Supreme Joy – Joy

Release date: May 28th
Record label: Self-released
Genre: Garage rock, lo-fi rock, psych-rock
Formats: Cassette, digital
Pull track: Palace of Oranges

Ryan Wong is probably most renowned for his work with the San Franciscan band Cool Ghouls, who have made a name for themselves mining 60s psychedelia over their past decade of recorded output. Joy, the first album from the now-Denver-based Wong’s new solo project, doesn’t abandon the influences of his “main” band, but comes off as a much looser amalgamation of them compared to Cool Ghouls’ more rigid devotion. After the spacey intro of “Peace Curls”, Joy barrels out of the gate with the shambling garage rocker “Body Contact” and the midtempo groove of “Doldrums”, which evoke both its Troggs/Nuggets source material and fellow West Coast revivalists like John Dwyer and Ty Segall. With Joy running under twenty minutes, I might expect Wong to run through a few more like-minded numbers and call it a day, but the album takes a nicely unexpected turn with “She Plants a Garden” and “Palace of Oranges” in its midsection. The minute-long “She Plants a Garden” is a tribute to Wong’s late grandmother and her gardening led by acoustic guitar and some psychedelic flourishes, and the languid stroll of “Palace of Oranges” might be Joy’s strongest moment. A country shuffle, “Oranges” features inspired lap steel guitar from Wong and a Beatles-y playfully melodic feel—it’s the longest song on the album by a good amount, but never drags. 

Though Supreme Joy do crank up the amps again in Joy’s second half, songs like “EastWest” and “Yūrei” have as much going on below the surface as the quieter ones. The former is a dizzy but determined reflection on growing up as a mixed-race person in a “white culture”; Wong has referred to it as “the mission statement of the band”. “EastWest” and the album’s cover art (taken from a World War II-era Japanese internment camp) find Wong connecting a “personal identity crisis” to unavoidable cultural and historical touchstones, as does “Yūrei” (literally translating to “ghost”), a rhythm-heavy track inspired by the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The acoustic closer “Rain” can’t neatly resolve Joy over its short runtime, but it does feel ever so slightly cleansing. “Take your time and wait for a chance, it’ll find you” are the last words Wong imparts on the listener as Joy closes out; I, for one, am glad these songs found their way from a Denver basement to me. (Bandcamp link)

Parting – Unmake Me

Release date: June 4th
Record label: Count Your Lucky Stars
Genre: Emo
Formats: Vinyl, cassette, digital
Pull track: After the Fact

Michigan’s Parting has been either blessed or cursed with the “emo supergroup” designation—the band’s four members come from notable fourth-wave bands including Empire! Empire! (I Was a Lonely Estate), Dowsing, and Annabel. My familiarity with these acts is surface-level at best, so for me Unmake Me is just another solid release from Count Your Lucky Stars, who’ve put out quality material from both newer and older bands this year. The band’s debut 10” EP is an inviting collection of songs that emphasizes the melodic aspects of the band’s contributors, such as singer Keith Latinen’s clear, ageless vocals. Parting cite bands who flirted with a friendly pop-punk sound like The Promise Ring and The Get-Up kids as their influences—but like those acts’ best work, there’s no mistaking Unmake Me for anything other than an emo record.

The urgent backing vocals from Ben Hendricks provide a nice counterbalance to Latinen’s dulcet tones, and Unmake Me tackles big emotions from the get-go with “Jesse Eisenbird”, a second-person account of someone’s mother dying of cancer, and “Ratt Michards”, a song about working all day at a terrible job that begins with “I wanted to sleep all day / I was miserable, and I knew it”. “Stapler’s Monster” has some great imagery about being kept awake in the middle of night by good old-fashioned existential worry (“I am buried under covers and I feel so heavy / Like my legs are a mountain range and I am anchored to the sheets”). Still, Parting allow some lyrical light to peek into Unmake Me to match the music: “Ratt Michards” ends with Latinen vowing not to be defined by his employer (“I am not a sunk cost, I will not bend, I am better off without this”) and the cathartic group vocals on closing track “Living Proof” feel more than earned. “Living Proof” finds an undercurrent throughout Unmake Me coming to the surface—the fear of being broken and wasting life by giving into dull routine. “Today will be different, today will be the same / The same can be different, in some weird kinda way” Latinen sings, committing to doing something harder than making a huge, drastic change—taking control of what’s already there and making it work for you. (Bandcamp link)

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