Pressing Concerns: Under the First Floor, MJ Lenderman, Carmen Q. Rothwell, Grace Vonderkuhn

This edition of pressing concerns covers new albums and EPs from MJ Lenderman, Carmen Q. Rothwell, and Grace Vonderkuhn, as well as the latest edition of the Under the First Floor podcast mixtape. You can browse previous editions of Pressing Concerns for plenty of new music, and the end-of-August playlist will hopefully go up later next week.

Various Artists – Under the First Floor Mixtape Volume 3

Release date: August 30th
Record label: Living Lost
Genre: Lo-fi, indie folk, noise rock, alt-country, post-punk…
Formats: Cassette, digital
Pull track: Radiator

The first various artist compilation featured in Pressing Concerns is certainly a heavy hitter. David Settle, who leads the bands Psychic Flowers and The Fragiles, has also hosted the Under the First Floor music podcast for the last three years or so, and the four track-recorded performances from Settle’s show make up Living Lost Records’ latest cassette release. The third “mixtape” culled from these sessions covers the latest twenty episodes of Under the First Floor, spanning from March 2020 to August 2021. Although the past two volumes featured a more geographically diverse selection of bands and musicians, most of these recordings were made in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning that for the most part Settle’s guests are restricted to those from his current home of Philadelphia. Thankfully (and this should come as no surprise to those who keep tabs on modern indie rock), Philly has more than enough working musicians to carry this cassette.

The cassette is split into a “quiet side” (which is more acoustic-based, with primarily folk and singer-songwriter content) and a “loud side” (full-band, electric recordings of hardcore punk, noise rock, garage rock, etc.). Regular Rosy Overdrive listeners will recognize a lot of these artists, particularly on the quiet side, where six out of the ten featured acts have been covered by Rosy Overdrive in some form. The cassette’s tagline is “shitty recordings of bands you should like”, but the lack of bells and whistles attached to these versions allows a lot of them to shine even brighter, particularly the “quiet ones”. Delicate contributions by The Goodbye Party and Michael Cormier enhance songs I already liked, and the front-porch version of “Lucinda on June Bug” by Dan Wriggins is from the same session as a song from his Utah Phillips covers EP Still Is, which I wrote about earlier this year. The biggest treat might be a slowed-down, bass-led version of “Making It Right” by Remember Sports that transforms the indie pop punk highlight from their 2018 album Slow Buzz into a different but still great track.

Some of the best songs on here are by acts I’d never heard of before: Amby Moho (who is most notably a guitarist in Speedy Ortiz) channels early, lo-fi Of Montreal in the folk-pop nugget “Open Corridor”, and the emo-country shuffle of “Radiator” by Sadurn…well, I would not be surprised at all if this band ends up “going places”, so to speak. The “loud” side of the album opens with the pure assaulting chaos of “Rolling Loud Hear My Cry” by Soul Glo, just to make sure that one understands the difference between the two halves. The rest of this side isn’t quite as intense—the garage-y post-punk selections from Mesh and Vacation in particular are highlights, and the pop hook of “Hole” by Gorgeous (one of the only non-Philly bands here) shines through the fuzz provided by the band and the recording. While I think it’s clear from the content and overall vibe of Rosy Overdrive that I tend to gravitate towards side “quiet” over side “loud”, I still must give credit to Ooloi for ending the whole tape with a blast of six minutes of improvised instrumental noise rock, which couldn’t have closed things out any better. Every U.S. city should be so lucky as to have a chronicle of its underground music talent that Under the First Floor Mixtape Volume 3 provides for Philadelphia. (Bandcamp link)

MJ Lenderman – Knockin’

Release date: August 20th
Record label: Dear Life
Genre: Lo-fi folk, alt-country
Formats: Digital
Pull track: Knockin’

Michael Jordan Lenderman is having a pretty eventful 2021. Knockin’ is the third release under his own name to come out this year, and that’s not even counting his other band Wednesday’s breakthrough album Twin Plagues (more on that one soon). January’s Guttering (credited to “MJ Lenderman and Wednesday”) combined the feedback-heavy country rock of his “main” band with hints of the songwriting of his recent solo career, and March’s Ghost of Your Guitar Solo fully embraced scuzzy alt-country. Knockin’, then, is Lenderman getting comfortable with his chosen style—there are none of Guitar Solo’s instrumentals, no “blink and you’ll miss it” 60 second tunes, just five full-fleshed out MJ Lenderman songs. By relying as fully on his songwriting as ever, Lenderman risks losing some of the spontaneous magic that made Ghost of Your Guitar Solo work, but Knockin’ only serves to affirm that Lenderman can write a hell of a song.

Like Ghost of Your Guitar Solo, Lenderman’s still wearing his influences on his sleeve—“TLC Cage Match” finds Lenderman sounding even more than usual like Jason Molina, the subject matter of “Happiness” recalls a certain Purple Mountains song while Lenderman’s delivery reminds me of Daniel Johnston above all else, and the the fuzz and distortion that fight for attention with the traditional songcraft throughout the EP is very Sparklehorse. Knockin’, however, is the work of somebody who’s constructing their own world with the medium. From the title track, John Daly singing “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” is nearly as effective an image as Jack Nicholson sitting courtside at Lakers game was for Ghost of Your Guitar Solo, and then he casually rhymes it with a line that’s nearly as good on its own (“Bird calls comin’ from the rafters at the hardware store”). The country groove of “TV Dinners” (featuring a guitar solo from 2nd Grade’s Jon Samuels) feels like another musical step forward. While “TLC Cage Match” is one of the most tender songs about wrestling this side of the Mountain Goats, to me at least there is an added significance to someone who’s taken inspiration from Molina, Berman, Linkous, and Johnston singing “All our heroes now are dead” in a song that wears its bittersweet nostalgia as well as that coat can be worn. Few are doing it better than MJ Lenderman at this moment in time. (Bandcamp link)

Carmen Q. Rothwell – Don’t Get Comfy / Nowhere

Release date: August 6thth
Record label: Ruination
Genre: Upright bass
Formats: Cassette, digital
Pull track: Will I Find

It’s been a fertile time for upright bassist/singer-songwriters as of late, apparently—last month, I wrote about Nat Baldwin’s Common Currents, and now I’m back to discuss the debut record from New York’s Carmen Q. Rothwell, which features six tracks where Rothwell is accompanied only by her bass. Music like this is by nature instrumentally sparse, but Don’t Get Comfy / Nowhere earns this distinction even in the context of entirely bass-led albums. While Common Currents was able to make fully fleshed out songs with warm bowing, Rothwell adds layers with her vocals. Unless you count background noise, “Don’t Get Comfy” and “Brain” are effectively nearly a capella, the former introducing the record on a floating but unsettling note, and the latter summing up Don’t Get Comfy / Nowhere’s themes rather bluntly with its “How do I get my brain to do what I want it to?” refrain.

Rothwell’s jazz background is most noticeable on early highlight “Blissful Ignore”, which has a beautiful vocal and instrumental melody and is lyrically the clearest example of the romantic frustration that Rothwell cites as side one’s biggest inspiration. The record’s other overtly melodic song, closing track “Will I Find”, is also about a relationship, but deals with Rothwell’s father, who passed away from cancer during the songwriting process. The song takes place before his death, and deals with Rothwell attempting to make peace with and find the strength to confront this inevitability. Rothwell also gets to distilling the therapeutic nature of these songs in “Will I Find”: she describes Don’t Get Comfy / Nowhere as comprised of “songs she wrote because she needed them”, and the song’s lyrics explain why: “With the ups and downs of days it’s been hard to feel / As though anything I’m saying is really real,” she confesses to herself. At the very least, Rothwell is able to end “Will I Find”, and therefore Don’t Get Comfy/ Nowhere as well, in a moment of clarity. (Bandcamp link)

Grace Vonderkuhn – Pleasure Pain

Release date: August 13th
Record label: Sheer Luck
Genre: Garage rock, psych-rock
Formats: Vinyl, CD, digital
Pull track: Deep Ends

The second album from Wilmington, Delaware group Grace Vonderkuhn is a godsend for anyone looking for loud rock music that can command one’s attention with just a no-frills, power trio setup. Lead singer Grace Koon is remains one of indie rock’s more compelling vocalists in the band’s follow-up to 2018’s Reveries, and she inhabits straight-up rippers like the pummeling “Put It on Me” and the galloping glam of “Rock & Roll Gary” in a way that more than injects the personality necessary for songs like these to fully hit.  The band (Koon, drummer Dave McGrory, and bassist Brian Bartling) can also show the restraint necessary to make slow-burners like the title track and “Outside Girl” pop in their back halves, and the mantra/thesis that closes the title track in particular has just enough repetition to work.

Although Grace Vonderkuhn remain serious about rocking out, Pleasure Pain is a fun listen as well. The bouncy riff and pop hooks of “Deep Ends” remind me of the lighter end of a band that draws from the same well, Screaming Females. Along with “Things Are Changing”, it helps add some lighter colors to the album’s midsection. Elsewhere, “Rock & Roll Gary” mostly lives up to its title, which should immediately be enshrined in the “best song titles ever” Hall of Fame, and mid-tempo songs like “Defeat” and “To the Top” would be filler in the hands of a lesser group, but upon repeated listens, the details contained within them begin to show themselves. Pleasure Pain closes with the only song on the album that could really be described as a ballad, “Illuminated”, and although musically it is perhaps one of the record’s most subtle moments, its glowing lyrics clearly make the case for pleasure winning out in the end. (Bandcamp link)

Also notable:

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