Pressing Concerns: Telethon, Smoke Bellow, Cashmere Washington, Buffalo Daughter

The second September edition of Pressing Concerns takes on new albums from Telethon, Smoke Bellow, and Buffalo Daughter, as well as the debut EP from Cashmere Washington.

If you need more new music, you can browse previous editions of Pressing Concerns. Rosy Overdrive has also recently added a site directory, which will hopefully make navigating and accessing archival posts easier. We’ll be back in a week or two.

Telethon – Swim Out Past the Breakers

Release date: August 20th
Record label: Take This to Heart
Genre: Power pop, pop punk
Formats: Vinyl, CD, digital
Pull track: Positively Clark Street

There’s a moment a little over halfway through Telethon’s fifth album, Swim Out Past the Breakers, that I can only describe as “pure Counting Crows”—after the first chorus of “Positively Clark Street”, the keyboard fill that immediately grabs center stage would make any Crows aficionado swear that Charlie Gillingham was the featured musician on the track, instead of Gary Louris of The Jayhawks. Perhaps this very 90s interjection shouldn’t be so surprising in the midst of a record named for an Everclear song, but Swim Out Past the Breakers covers so much ground and stuffs so much into its 48 minutes that it’s easy to get lost in the indie rock star-studded, hook-heavy terrain. Seeing all the featured musicians listed on Swim Out Past the Breakers made me raise my eyebrows a bit, but it all hangs together as a whole work made by one band. It’s nice to hear the voices of Tiny Stills and Chris Farren singing on their respective featured tracks (“Shit (Jansport)” and “Matrix (One Down at Least)”), for example, but neither distract or overstay their welcomes.

Telethon are the true stars of Swim Out Past the Breakers, and they more than deliver throughout the record’s sixteen songs. They play an all-out, earnest brand of power-pop-punk that, in addition to their 90s alt-rock tribute-paying, calls up everything from Fishboy’s indie rock operas (on numbers like “Panorama (The Polynesian)”, Jeff Rosenstockian overflowing punk anthems (“Shit (Jansport)”), and even a bit of heartland emo on the mid-record breath-catcher “House of the Future, Pt. 4”. Hold Steady keyboardist Franz Nicolay also guests on the record, which underscores the similarities between Telethon and his band’s souped-up bar rock, although lead vocalist and lyricist Kevin Tully reminds me more of a young, pop punk misfit John K. Samson (who, I am old enough to remember, was once dismissed for trading in the perceived shallow waters of 90s alt-rock).

Tully’s voice is what helps anchor Swim Out Past the Breakers as the band barrel through one mini-epic after another. He firmly has his own style of singing, but gets plenty of mileage on subtle shifts to it. Two of the record’s biggest-sounding upbeat anthems are “Checker Drive” and “Travelator”, but Tully deftly switches between the sunglasses-mugging, radio-rock suaveness of the former and the insistent, worried timbre of the latter to give them completely different feelings. And then there’s “Positively Clark Street”. One part “One Great City!”, one part Suburban Indie Rock Star, Tully’s begrudging acceptance of his new adopted home of Chicago is some of the record’s most fertile lyrical ground (Key line: “It’s easy to play crank when you’re not the one having fun”). I’ve only really touched on a handful of songs on Swim Out Past the Breakers here—every time I go back to it, I find something else remarkable about its contents. (Bandcamp link)

Smoke Bellow – Open for Business

Release date: September 17th
Record label: Trouble in Mind
Genre: Post-punk
Formats: Vinyl, CD, digital
Pull track: Furry Computer 2

Smoke Bellow has been kicking around for a decade or so, formed in Australia by the duo of Meredith McHugh and Christian J. Best, and adding drummer Emmanuel “Manny” Nicolaidis upon settling in Baltimore, Maryland. Open for Business, their first album for Trouble in Mind, consciously shapes the band’s experimental rock into something more welcoming, dialing back the long instrumental breaks and eight-plus minute runtimes for a more song-based record. Like their label-mates Nightshift, they hone in on a brand of minimalist, almost no wave-influenced post-punk, but it’s nowhere near as “cold-sounding” as a lot of that music can be. The biggest reason for this is Smoke Bellow’s prominent use of keyboards and synthesizer blanketing, which provide a friendly contrast to the simple but sturdy rhythms that build up the songs’ backbones.

Songs like “Anniversary” and “Furry Computer 2” are draped in warm tones; the rumbling conclusion to the former is one of the most musically intense moments on Open for Business, but it reaches this endpoint so gradually that it doesn’t come off as jarring. “Hannan” opts for a whimsical take on the Smoke Bellow sound, as does the spoken-word “Night Light” to a lesser degree. The front-and-center keyboard drone and plain-spoken vocals are similar to yet another Trouble in Mind band, Dummy, in its Yo La Tengo and (especially) Stereolab evocation, but while that group hoovers those influences up as one part of their noisy psych-pop, Smoke Bellow take inspiration from those bands’ more economical choices in order to streamline Open for Business as much as possible. The band’s rhythmic senses shine particularly brightly in the record’s second half, where tracks like “Maybe Something” and “Take the Line for a Walk” walk across the tightrope of a single riff for pretty much their entirety, with only a couple strategically deployed additions (organ chords and what sounds like a guiro in the former, some strings and horn sounds in the latter). Open for Business is a deliberate, carefully-constructed album, and that it’s a joyful listening experience is the direct result of Smoke Bellows’ meticulousness. (Bandcamp link)

Cashmere Washington – The Shape of Things to Come

Release date: September 17th
Record label: Fish People Birds/Black Ram
Genre: Emo-indie-rock, R&B
Formats: Cassette, digital
Pull track: Cowboy Dan

Michigan has not traditionally been on my radar in terms of modern indie rock, but after strong releases from Idle Ray, Parting, and Matthew Milia this year, perhaps I need to start paying more attention to the Mitten. The latest example is Cashmere Washington, the solo project of Midland’s Thomas Dunn II. The formal debut from Dunn (who previously made music under the name Guero) is an EP that’s been placed in the realm of “post-emo” (by their tape label) and “bedroom punk/hip-hop” (by Dunn). This melding of emo-adjacent rock and rap bears some surface similitaries to one of last year’s breakout sensations, Bartees Strange, but The Shape of Things to Come distinguishes itself by committing to a lo-fi, fuzzy sound anchored by Dunn’s guitar playing (Dunn plays every instrument, except for drums on half of the EP). This isn’t to say the hip-hop influence isn’t felt; in particular, it features prominently in the basement R&B feel of “Last Year” and “Another Forest Drive”.

The soft, jazz-chord opening of “Another Forest Drive” counterbalances Cashmere Washington introducing themselves with heavy lyrics that touch on everything from gender identify and childhood trauma to debilitating depression. This confessional writing holds for the heart of The Shape of Things to Come, with more traditionally-rock songs like “Cowboy Dan” (in which Dunn seems to contrast their own personal rut with the unflappability of the titular local character) and “Second Wind (Coming Round the Bend)” (which hides a dark undercurrent below what could easily be mistaken for an upbeat, positive anthem). Cashmere Washington earns their place in the “emo-adjacent” world with ragged EP closer “Everything”—as in “You’re everything, I’m nothing”. Dunn sings of being stuck in what sounds like a terrible relationship, straining their voice over a rickety instrumental that feels like it could fall apart at any moment, only to give way to a scorching guitar solo that closes out the EP. Cashmere Washington declares that The Shape of Things to Come is the first in “a series of EPs” on their Bandcamp page—if they live up to the promise that The Shape of Things to Come demonstrates, then perhaps they’ll just be the beginning. (Bandcamp link)

Buffalo Daughter – We Are the Times

Release date: September 17th (digital)/October 15th (vinyl)
Record label: Anniversary Group
Genre: Experimental rock, art pop
Formats: Vinyl, CD (Japan only), digital
Pull track: Don’t Punk Out

The long-running Tokyo band Buffalo Daughter has been mining their psychedelic mix of electronic and experimental indie rock since the mid-90s; We Are the Times is their eighth record, and their first since 2014. The album’s 70-second opening track, “Music” is a bit of a red herring, more of a minimal techno introduction track that functions a bit as the thesis statement of the record (“Music is the vitamin to live under…Take some everyday, it won’t hurt you”) before the lengthy, kaleidoscopic “Times” reveals what the bulk of We Are the Times is going to sound like. “Times” is the first glimpse of the loopy, dance-funk influenced sound that they explore even more enthusiastically later on in “Loop” and “Don’t Punk Out”, sounding something like The B-52’s breaking up upon re-entry.

“Loop” devolves into a chaotic finish that’s one of the more discordant musical moments on We Are the Times; lyrically, however, “Global Warming Kills Us All” is the one that sticks out like a sore thumb. The song’s multi-lingual lyrics are opaque until a robotic voice broadcasts out the titlular line over a mechanical, almost industrial backing soundtrack. The other outliers aren’t quite as dire, at least not explicitly. Although “Jazz” doesn’t exactly sound like the genre after which it’s named, the spacious instrumentation and the open emotion depicted by the lyrics and mirrored in the music do end up justifying the nod. We Are the Times dips into full-on party mode and doomerism flirtation, but the propulsive “Everything Valley” sends everyone off on an uncertain note. The first half of the track describes feeling helpless and believing the present as we know it is destined to become lost, before a Black Lodge-esque distorted voice declares “Music ever played is still playing” in a mid-song break. Buffalo Daughter then take up the task one more time to close out We Are the Times. (Bandcamp link)

Also notable:

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