New Playlist: October 2021

The Rosy Overdrive monthly playlist is back! It’s the October edition this time! This one is very good, in my opinion! You will find plenty of new music here, as well as a few discoveries from my 1996 deep dive, and a couple of miscellaneous tracks.

Artists with multiple tracks this time around: Mo Troper (4), Lilly Hiatt (2), Superdrag (2). Not very many this time, huh. Casting a wide net this month, I suppose.

You can hear the entire thing on Spotify here, and be sure to check out previous playlist posts if you’ve enjoyed this one. Thanks for reading.

“Southern Mark Smith (Big Return)”, The Jazz Butcher
From A Scandal in Bohemia (1984, Glass/Fire)

Even though I was never a huge Jazz Butcher fan, I still was outraged on behalf of the late Pat Fish that his death seemed to garner little to no acknowledgement from the current indie rock landscape. Wouldn’t have happened if I’d won the primaries, not under my watch. Like I said, not particularly qualified to write the man an elegy, but I do know that “Southern Mark Smith (Big Return)” is one of the great guitar pop songs of history. Seemingly the closest thing to a signature Jazz Butcher song, it’s a charmer that’s actually distinguished by its appropriately-opaque nod to Mark E. Smith, who is one of the most defiantly northern people that I as a non-Brit know of, and whose music has maybe never been described as “charming”. I’d imagine Fish had a hand in solidifying the strummy British version of jangle pop, and “If I find out nothing else, I’m gonna find out what makes your heart sing” probably wouldn’t fly on the other side of the pond. I’m glad it all came together here.

“The Expendables Ride Again”, Mo Troper
From Dilettante (2021)

“The Expendables Ride Again” is the lead single and first (non-intro) track on Dilettante AKA Mo Troper IV, and it introduces the new incarnation of a looser, fuzzier, but still firing-on-all-cylinders Troper perfectly. Vocally, it’s a non-stop hook-fest from Troper, and the crunchy guitar stomp underneath him is nearly as captivating. Lyrically, it’s some of Dilettante’s most classic Troper writing—I don’t know exactly what “I woke up a bitter pill / In a clown car en route to the loser’s circle” means, but it wouldn’t be out of place on Exposure & Response, and there’s a part where he offers this song to another songwriter who, presumably, doesn’t have a 28-track just-released record to their name. But it closes with the carefully-balanced ambivalence of Troper musing “What’s the name of your new band? / The one with you and my old friends? / I can’t lie, I’m a fan,” before hanging onto the titular line for just long enough. Read more about Dilettante here.

“Face”, Lilly Hiatt
From Lately (2021, New West)

Speaking of Mo Troper—here is another artist that released a record at the beginning of pandemic times and has just now returned with a follow-up palpably shaped by the ensuing year and a half. For Lilly Hiatt, it was last March’s Walking Proof (one of my favorite records of 2020), which hinted at worlds beyond her (very solid) brand of alt-country, and now it’s October’s Lately, a stripped-down, mid-tempo-heavy roots rock collection that finds Hiatt embracing an earned subtlety. “Face” is a classic simple double entendre, of which the mostly single-word titles on Lately make ample use—“Your face is saying what your words would never let you” for the noun, and “It hurts to look at you anymore” for the verb.

“Be”, Frogpond
From Count to Ten (1996, Columbia)

Alright, so Frogpond was and is a band from the Kansas City area who knocked out two records of Breeders/Pixies-influenced, unabashedly 90s power pop in the latter half of the relevant decade. I’d already heard their 1999 sophomore album, Safe Ride Home (“I Did” is an all-timer), but I’ve just gotten to their 1996 debut, and it holds up pretty well too. The “hit” is probably “Be”, a pop-song-power-chord anthem that would’ve sat nicely on a radio playlist in between “Not Too Soon” and one of those Veruca Salt songs in a more just world. Frogpond are gearing up to release their third record—their first in over 20 years—in mid-November, which is a complete coincidence with regards to their appearance here. But if there’s another “Be” on that one, we’ll be hearing from Frogpond again soon.

“A Message to You”, EEP
From Winter Skin (2021, Hogar)

The second record from El Paso shoegaze five-piece EEP finds the group stepping out of their comfort zone with some electronic, funk, and even Mexican balladry-influenced material, but “A Message to You” shows that they can still nail their primary genre just as easily. The message that singer Rosie Varela is attempting to convey was inspired by trying to comfort a clearly distraught woman in the chaos of a loud rock show, and the heavy but warm layers of fuzz that adorn a beautiful pop melody are just as consoling as the lyrical comfort that Varela imparts (“It’s okay to cry”). Read more about Winter Skin here.

“Head on the Ground”, Bulletin
From Hiding to Nothing (2021)

The difficult-to-Google band Bulletin have been kicking around the Boston (and possibly Providence) area for the last few years, and they sound to my ears very much in line with the strong undercurrent of 90s alternative/indie rock-inspired bands that have been pouring out of New England in recent memory. Their latest record and debut full-length album Hiding to Nothing actually does a fair bit of genre-hopping, but single “Head on the Ground” is a distinct blend of grunge and power pop that’s as warmly familiar as it is immaculately executed. Landing somewhere between a harder-charging Superdrag and a more tuneful Foo Fighters song, singer David Khoshtinat stoically intones the titular lines for an instant eerie hook, before letting “Head on the Ground” loose as it should be.

“Big Sky”, Alexa Rose
From Headwaters (2021, Big Legal Mess)

This single from Headwaters, the second album from Asheville, North Carolina’s Alexa Rose, features a clear, clean chugging power-chord foundation, a timeless roots-pop chorus, and awestruck lyrics about leaving the South and finding out just how damn big the Western United States is—it couldn’t have been called anything else but “Big Sky”. What I keep coming back to about it is how it’s such a big, wide, open song about what is ultimately an insular feeling—“It takes a big sky to feel small”, as Rose says in the found chorus, as well as feeling “both alone in the company of a friend”. Rose is a very good singer—but then, so are plenty of other people who have exactly zero “Big Sky”s to their names, with nothing that can actually transport a listener to “somewhere on the 113, playing ‘California Stars’, three-quarter tank of gasoline”.

“End of the World”, Gulfer
(2021, Topshelf)

The second stand-alone single from Montreal’s Gulfer in 2021 is an alt-rock heater of a track that doesn’t really waste any of its three and a half minutes of runtime. In “End of the World”, math-y riffs from guitarists Joseph Therriault and Vincent Ford dance around the edges of the song’s loud fuzz-rock foundation, and the vocals of Ford (who released a solid solo album as Stevenson earlier this year) are just distant-sounding enough to add a layer of intrigue to the song’s lyrics. “End of the World” is still unmistakably melodic in spite of everything going on, nevertheless—both in terms of the guitarists’ inspired playing and in Ford’s singing, the song stacks up against the hookiness any single by one of your more pop punk-indebted emo revival bands.

“The Moon”, Trace Mountains
From House of Confusion (2021, Lame-O)

The best Dave Benton songs always sound so easy. Not necessarily easy to write—in fact, it’s probably harder to write songs like this and make them good, deep, and memorable—but easy to get, easy to understand, and easy to feel like they’ve always existed in the air somehow. Starting with LVL UP and blossoming with Trace Mountains, Benton’s songs have always felt like they’ve inhabited their own world, and now it makes sense to hang “The Moon” over it. House of Confusion embraces the Americana of last year’s Lost in the Country (“Late June, I took a ride in the country with you” is one of this song’s lyrics), and maybe Benton couldn’t have penned these lyrics a half-decade ago (“I’m at the point of my life when all these kind of things come rushing through”), but “The Moon” feels like a foundational Trace Mountains song, even years after the foundation has been laid.

“Destination Ursa Major”, Superdrag
From Regretfully Yours (1996, Elektra)

I knew I would like Regretfully Yours. There are plenty of 1990s major-label money-losing power pop records that I already like (some of which, unfortunately, made by absolute monsters of human beings), and I have already heard and liked Superdrag’s 1998 cult classic Head Trip in Every Key. That brings us today to Regretfully Yours, which is the big one, the one with the only ever actual hit single (which we will get to). It’s definitely more slick and zeitgeisty than Head Trip (or, apparently, their pre-major label EPs, which I haven’t heard), sure—“Destination Ursa Major” here is a good old-fashioned roaring alt-rock pop song. I would imagine that John Davis’ vocals being buried might be a deal-breaker for more traditionalists, but this isn’t exactly a shoegaze song. I can make him out well enough. He’s going to Ursa Major. Superdrag is taking us all up there, I think. It sounds like a blast.

“September”, The Stick Figures
From Archeology (2021, Floating Mill)

The Stick Figures, who formed at Tampa’s University of South Florida, released one four-song EP in 1981 that was a shining example of American post-punk before disbanding. An archival campaign from Pittsburgh’s Floating Mill Records, however, (aptly titled Archeology) has unearthed quite a bit more than that. “September” was one of those original four, but it still stands out even among reissue’s baker’s dozen of solid tracks. It’s one of the poppiest of Archeology’s songs—the dance-punk influence from the likes of Pylon and Gang of Four is felt in the bassline and in Rachel Maready Evergreen’s commanding vocals, but it also has a jangly undercurrent that wouldn’t be out of place on Captured Tracks’ Strum and Thrum college rock compilation from last year. Read more about Archeology here.

“Better Than That”, Mo Troper
From Dilettante (2021)

“You said you wanted somebody normal / But you know I’m better than that”: Mo Troper chooses to come out swinging in the 75-second “Better Than That”, a song that’s more or less all hook. It’s lo-fi power pop at its best, and Troper even finds the time and space to sneak a little call-and-response vocal somewhere in the middle of the song. Is this a sequel to “Somebody Special” from 2016’s Beloved? Unlikely, but at least Troper sticks up for himself a little more in this one, if so. Read more about Dilettante here.

“Never Graduate”, ME REX
From Pterodactyl (2022, Big Scary Monsters)

Well, it looks like it’s time for what I’m pretty sure is Rosy Overdrive’s first foray into upcoming 2022 releases. You may remember London’s ME REX from their ambitious 52-song experiment Megabear that I wrote a bit about back in June, which will (spoilers) probably claim a spot on the Rosy Overdrive year-end list whenever I get around to that. But the group is already prepping a follow-up, an EP called Pterodactyl that’ll come out on Big Scary Monsters on February 4th. It sounds like the band is to a degree returning to the dinosaur*-titled EPs that gained ME REX notoriety in the first place, back when it was effectively a Myles McCabe solo project. Still, the leveling-up that happened with Megabear hasn’t been lost with “Never Graduate”, which features what may eventually come to be known as a “classic McCabe” lyric over a sharp but unobtrusive synth-pop-rock instrumental.

*no paleontology or taxonomy on my post please

“That’s the Way I Like It”, Lily Konigsberg
From Lily We Need to Talk Now (2021, Wharf Cat)

What, you thought we’d get another month without a Lily Konigsberg song? Her “main” band, Palberta, helped kick off the year back in January, released a compilation of her solo material in May, released an EP as My Idea with Nate Amos two months later, and appeared on several releases by Amos’ This Is Lorelei project throughout 2021. Amos produced Lily We Need to Talk Now, which is somehow only Konigsberg’s debut full-length, and there is definitely some of This Is Lorelei’s bouncy pop-rock in songs like “That’s the Way I Like It”. Or, maybe This Is Lorelei sounds like “That’s the Way I Like It”. Konigsberg hops around genres quite a bit on Lily We Need to Talk Now (check the ambient haze of “Don’t Be Lazy with Me” or the minimalist pop of “Hark”), but they work and hang together alongside the stream-of-consciousness power pop of “That’s the Way I Like It” because when it comes down to it, it’s all distinctively Lily Konigsberg.

“Fresh Cut & Bessie”, Galactic Static
From Friendly Universe (2021, Corrupted TV)

If you haven’t experienced Galactic Static’s transmissions from a Friendly Universe, then “Fresh Cut & Bessie” might be the Rosetta Stone that interprets their interplanetary pop rock for our human senses. Lo-fi, fuzzy, and above all else catchy as hell, it’s a captivating lead single that even has some lyrics that could be seen as relatable to (some of) us Earth dwellers. Sure, the title feels like it was translated to a different language and back, but the bummer pop message hits home in the final verse (“Some say to look on the bright side, but when I go outside it just burns my eyes / Forever doomed to a sedentary life”). Read more about Friendly Universe here.

“The Bastard Overture”, Superconductor
From Bastardsong (1996, Boner)

I listened to Superconductor for the first time this month. I was, uh, unprepared for it. I knew that they were/are different from A.C. Newman’s other bands, of course, in theory, but I didn’t know Carl was effectively making Fucked Up albums in the mid-90s. Bastardsong is a chaotic trip, and it seems like it’s not their most beloved release, but it’s definitely an album that I’ve heard in full now. Is it good? Do I like it? Well, something kept me going back to it. Maybe just the novelty of Newman screaming his way through a prog-post-hardcore double album but still being recognizably A.C. Newman. “The Bastard Overture” is great—the first half could be a New Pornographers song if it was cleaned up and had less screaming, before it devolves into the frantic noise piece that attempts to justify the “overture” title. Even if I’d rather listen to Electric Version (or, for that matter, Look What the Rookie Did) nine times out of ten, I wouldn’t mind Newman revisiting this well at some point.

“Cat Song”, Gold Dust
From Gold Dust (2021)

“Can I really be that bad if the cat follows me around?” is one of the best opening lyrics of the year. Stephen Pierce ponders this age old question, as well as the follow-up “Is it ’cause she needs a friend and I’m the only one around, or does she see something in me I can’t see?” in “Cat Song”, one of the musically lightest and brightest moments on Gold Dust. Pierce notably plays in a couple of heavier bands (Kindling and Ampere) that could be described as “definitely not what Gold Dust is doing”; the delicate folk of “Cat Song” is one of the furthest moments away from Pierce’s past work, lacking even the distorted rock of some of the record’s other tracks that would put it in the same ballpark as Kindling’s shoegaze. But “I’ll try to be the good you see in me” wouldn’t quite have the same impact buried under a couple layers of reverb. Read more about Gold Dust here.

“3h et des personnes”, Pays P.
From Ça v aller (2021, Peculiar Works)

Paris noise rock band Pays P. have built up a following primarily through their live act that includes Big Thief’s Buck Meek (who invited them to open for his main band’s European tour) and Brooklyn’s SAVAK (who ended up recording Ça v aller and releasing it on their own label, Peculiar Works), and judging by “3h et des personnes”, I’d bet that they’re a force on the stage. Pays P. choose to open Ça v aller in confrontational fashion, with this dramatic six-minute crawler of distortion, pounding percussion, and a vocal that swings between muttering and wailing from lead singer Laura Boullic. The trio (also made up of brothers Lucas Valero on guitar and Pablo Valero on drums) are “on” all throughout Ça v aller, but ““3h et des personnes” in particular feels like a relentless showcase of their full force.

“Demolished”, Strange Ranger
From No Light in Heaven (2021)

I do remember Sioux Falls, the Bozeman, Montana duo that made the colossally underrated indie rock worship double album Rot Forever back in 2016 (and appeared in one of the first posts on Rosy Overdrive). It’s only been a half decade, but the band that would become Strange Ranger has kept moving forward. There have been pop classics, dreamy growers, a move to the West Coast (Portland) followed by the East (Philadelphia), and now No Light in Heaven, a highly experimental pop “mixtape” that’s assuredly caused at least one emo kid to have a meltdown. The synthed-up Remembering the Rockets-esque “Needing You” and the modern soft rock of “Pass Me By” are both successful left-turns, but fear not: I’ve chosen “Demolished”, the under-two-minute lo-fi pop-punk banger that’s the closest to vintage Strange Ranger. Oh wait, that’s not what “vintage Strange Ranger” sounds like either? Shit, what do they sound like?

“Miserable Ways”, Boyracer
From Assuaged (2021, Emotional Response)

Stewart Anderson’s band Boyracer has been around since the early 1990s and fourteen albums, but vocalist and lead guitarist Christina Ridley has only been with the band for two years and as many records. Despite this, Ridley leaves her distinct mark on Assuaged, and there’s no better example than her lead vocal on “Miserable Ways”, a kiss-off anthem to what sounds like a truly unpleasant person. At least, one would assume—for me, it would take a lot to get “You should hate yourself, not everyone else,” out of me, which Ridley gleefully sings over the song’s bridge. The bridge is also where the song breaks out its crowd-pleasing handclaps—this is Buzzcocks-esque pop-punk at its best. Read more about Assuaged here.

“Take It Back”, Salt
From Salt (2021, Sleeper Records)

The most recent release from Philadelphia’s Sleeper Records (2nd Grade, Friendship, Russel the Leaf) is the debut from Salt, the new project from Erased! Tapes’ Jon Hankof, who has also released music as Sundog in the past. The self-titled Salt album is, on the surface, the kind of low-key slowcore-influenced folk rock that has been chased by a lot of East Coast bands in the past few years, but Hankof offers a spirited take on it. This kind of music can easily fall into the “all the songs blend together” trap, but Salt has plenty of sneakily memorable melodies, and “Take It Back” is a steady highlight. Hankof’s voice is very matter-of-fact over top of gently chugging guitar chords and the simplest drumbeat, so much so that the ramp-up in the song’s final minute, featuring Salt turning “break it down and take it back, break it down” into some sort of mantra, just kind of arrives out of nowhere.

“Queen Sophie for President”, The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die
From Illusory Walls (2021, Epitaph)

Now, here’s a The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die song that I could dance to. That’s what we’ve all been waiting on TWIABP to do, right? No? Well, “Queen Sophie for President” is a pretty incredibly pop rock single that just happens to be by one of the premiere emo-post-rock-maybe-prog-metal-now bands out there. Keyboard player Katie Dvorak takes lead vocals on this song, and her synth playing is a pretty good counterpart to the driving rhythm section (which is also a feature of most of Illusory Walls). Apparently the title of “Queen Sophie for President” references a nickname earned by Dvorak’s late grandmother, but the dire lyrics seem to deal with a more realistic and subsequently more horrifying look at politics. But at least for three and a half minutes, “Never get better and never do anything” is head-bob-worthy.

“Breaking Glass”, K. Campbell
From Breaking Glass b/w More Than a Memory (2021, Poison Moon)

The very Rosy Overdrive-friendly fuzzy power pop of K. Campbell’s latest single, “Breaking Glass”, finds catharsis in the form of a big, grin-inducing chorus. The Houston-based Campbell trains his ire at one specific asshole who has negatively impacted the life of a friend (“This town’s a railroad track and he’s a bottle, so take aim and throw / Let’s hear some breaking glass”), but the song’s smashing solution can’t quite drown out the chorus’s starry-eyed declaration of “This is how it feels to be alone”. Although, maybe being alone isn’t that bad if it sounds like how “Breaking Glass” sounds. The frustration in the song seems only to be exacerbated by the ramshackle condition of the building in which it takes place (“Paint is peeling, collapsing ceiling…You can hear the red bricks screaming”), which adds a personal touch to Campbell’s decision to donate all proceeds from the physical single to Houston Tenants Union.

“Cry”, Thornetta Davis
From Sunday Morning Music (1996, Sub Pop)

Sunday Morning Music came out on Sub Pop, oddly enough, but I like the pairing after thinking about it for a bit. Considering how much grunge (I mean like real, actual grunge) at least attempted to incorporate the spirit of early rock and roll, why not just release a blues rock record from Detroit? I’ve seen Sunday Morning Music called a soul or gospel album (the latter most likely due to its title track), and those genres are certainly there, but the record has too many rippers for me not to think of it as rock music first. Album opener “Cry”, for instance, starts with a mid-tempo atmosphere-builder instrumental before ramping up in the chorus in a way that’s very mid-90s. Only, most people singing over those instrumentals couldn’t sing like Thornetta Davis.

“Sucked Out”, Superdrag
From Regretfully Yours (1996, Elektra)

Oh, here it is. The hit. Twenty-five years ago, “Sucked Out” shot all the way up to #17 on Billboard’s Modern Rock chart, which—okay, well, that’s higher than anything else on this playlist. While if I was trying to formulate a rock radio hit for 1996, it wouldn’t necessarily look like “Sucked Out”, that’s mainly because nobody seemed to know what a rock hit in 1996 looked like (#1 hits around the time of “Sucked Out” included “Ironic” by Alanis Morissette, “Pepper” by the Butthole Surfers, and a mediocre Cranberries song that no one remembers). But with the sing-song verses, surprisingly strained John Davis chorus vocal, and general Gen X jadedness—I get it. But even though it technically worked, “Sucked Out” still sounds like a single that forever gets referred to as one that “should’ve been a hit”—it’s not self-consciously stupid enough to be a “Buddy Holly” or a “Stacy’s Mom” and lodge itself into the culture.

“Sugar and Cream”, Mo Troper
From Dilettante (2021)

“Sugar and Cream” is Dilettante’s “fake musical theater song”, and even among that record’s grab-bag attitude, it sticks out like a sore thumb. Mo Troper slips into falsetto for the entire ninety-second track, and sings about the very pair of ingredients (“With berries or coffee, and everything else in between”) over a spare acoustic guitar instrumental. The most obvious musical theater nods (at least to a philistine like myself) are when Troper lists off other classic pairings (“Mac and cheese”, “Bert and Ernie”, “Woodstock and Snoopy”) as well as the “my favorite devices” line. Looking forward to the moment in the Mo Toper musical where he steps away from confusing emails and scrolling through his mentions to reflect on the finer things and sing “Sugar and Cream”. Read more about Dilettante here.

“People Die”, Travis Morrison
From Travistan (2004, Barsuk)

So, I had the idea to see if I wanted to talk about anything from the Dismemberment Plan’s Change since it just turned twenty this month, but I ended up falling down a rabbit hole, and long story short, we’re revisiting Travistan this time. “People Die” is a pretty clear highlight from the record, an electronic-based, mortality-observing pop song that blooms into a classic Morrison steamroller midway through. The mid-00s were an interesting and underrated time for the indie rock circles in which Morrison was steeped. Barsuk labelmate and Travistan guest John Vanderslice was forging his own brand of balancing a singer-songwriter outlook with his increasing interest in production, while former collaborator Chad Clark was challenging the D.C./Dischord crowd with his band Beauty Pill in a way that was both similar and different to how Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto’s band did the same a decade previously. It still pisses me off we didn’t get to see what would have happened if Morrison had been able to fully embrace the promise of songs like “People Die”.

“We Are”, Gates
From Here and Now (2021, Wax Bodega)

New Jersey’s Gates make a shimmery, atmospheric kind of post-rock-heavy emo—they’re currently on tour with The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die, which feels like a correct pairing. Here and Now is the band’s first record in five years, and the EP (which, at 25 minutes, is longer than plenty of fifth-wave emo “LPs”) is full of darkly dramatic rock music that’s accessible despite not being rigidly structured. “We Are”, with its anthem of a refrain, feels like Gates at their most front-facing—singer Kevin Dye’s voice is compelling throughout, but like any good post-rock-emo, you have to wait until the second half of the song for things to really take off. Also like good emo, Dye’s lyrics that ruminate on futility and shame are hardly “uplifting”, but do tap into something potent.

“Shirley Don’t”, April Magazine
From If the Ceiling Were a Kite: Vol. 1 (2021, Tough Love)

San Francisco’s April Magazine released a new record, Sunday Music for an Overpass, on Paisley Shirt Records in September. “Shirley Don’t” is a little older, however—first released in 2018, the song got a formal home last month on If the Ceiling Were a Kite: Vol. 1, a compilation of various bedroom four-track recordings that the band made over their first couple years of existence. The lo-fi medium suits “Shirley Don’t” just fine—it’s a sleepy, lazy pop song whose brilliance one might miss if they aren’t paying close enough attention (are you?). Singer Katiana Mashikian has also played in other Bay Area bands like The Reds, Pinks, & Purples, Flowertown, and her solo project Mister Baby—in a scene that’s rife with new music, I’d say she’s done plenty to make herself stand out.

“Psychocastle”, Taraka
From Welcome to Paradise Lost (2021, Rage Peace)

Taraka Larson made a name for herself as one-half of the psych-dance-new age duo Prince Rama—Welcome to Paradise Lost is the first music she’s made on her own since the group’s breakup. The whole album is a bit of everything—maybe it could be described as “a lo-fi garage punk record with several, uh, detours from that sound”. Lead single “Psychocastle”, however, is a straightforward psych rock ripper that boasts a classic pop hook of a chorus. In said chorus, huge fuzzy chords meet a compelling, dance-friendly call-and-response vocal performance from Taraka to herself—repeated as many times as necessary.

“Johnny on the Spot”, Texas Is the Reason
From Do You Know Who You Are? (1996, Revelation)

Texas Is the Reason (who were, unsurprisingly, not actually from Texas) are the latest untouchable 90s emo band that I can now say I understand well enough. Their sole album, 1996’s Do You Know Who You Are?, is a polished, punk-indebted album that, as the story goes, could certainly have broken out if the New York band could’ve stayed together (imagine if Dear You had less distinct vocals but better songs). “Johnny on the Spot”, which opens both the proper album and the CD-length compilation of everything Texas Is the Reason ever recorded, is a driving pop song that doesn’t noodle any more than the hooky opening guitar riff allows. It comes out of the gate strong but also does the classic emo thing of slowing itself down for a dramatic finish.

“Knapsack”, Amy Rigby
From Diary of a Mod Housewife (1996, Koch)

Oh, this is good. Amy Rigby has had a memoir-worthy career—she’s lived in Pittsburgh, Nashville, New York, played in The Shams, had a song of hers recorded by Ronnie Spector, and has recently made several records with her husband, power pop legend Wreckless Eric. Diary of a Mod Housewife, the first album she released under her own name, has several songs that could’ve been easily highlighted here, but “Knapsack” is streaming, so I’ll go with this one. “Knapsack” is just Rigby and her acoustic guitar: just three minutes of Rigby absolutely nailing the bullseye of a vivid, torrential world of imagined interaction and real infatuation with a stranger—in this case, the man who takes Rigby’s bag at the entrance to a bookstore. “I want to tell him I’m not just some soulless jerk / Hey—I got a band, I understand what life is for,” she insists to nobody, like a normal person.

“Lately”, Lilly Hiatt
From Lately (2021, New West)

“One day this will all be a distant memory / But right now it’s living inside of me,” is how Lilly Hiatt opens the title track to Lately, and it might as well be the thesis statement of the record. Hiatt doesn’t make it a secret that this record is a byproduct of the chaos of 2020, to the point where this collection of songs began “as a means of keeping sane”. Like the album art suggests, Lately ended up being a snapshot of a tumultuous time—although I don’t think the title track’s sentiment of confusion and an isolated imagination running wild (“You have no idea what this has done to me lately”) will end up dating it. Nor will the jarring keyboard that opens the song and dances between the verses—that’s just another distinct touch from a record that has a lot more of them if you look close enough.

“Still in Love”, Cat Power
From Myra Lee (1996, Smells Like)

I’m not really a Cat Power person—at least, I haven’t been. I’ve heard Moon Pix, and it didn’t leave much of an impression on me. But there’s something about “Still in Love”, a shambling, mid-tempo Hank Williams cover from her relatively unheralded debut record, 1996’s Myra Lee. Since I’m not really a Cat Power person, I have no idea how this record is viewed today by Chan Marshall stans, but What Would the Community Think came out on Matador mere months later and that’s probably where the Cat Power story begins for most. Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth is who’s on the steady drumbeat, but it’s the surprisingly faithful country guitar flourishes and Marshall’s restrained vocals that hint at passion behind the resignation that make the tune.

“My Master’s Voice”, Mo Troper
From Dilettante (2021)

Here is a fourth Mo Troper song! You’d think with all of this practice, I’d be able to spell Dilettante by now without looking, but nope—still want to add two “l”s and remove one “t”. “My Master’s Voice” is as good as anything else on that record, starting relatively restrained and exploding into a cascading guitar wall in about a minute and a half. All just in a day’s work for Troper. Is “My Master’s Voice” from the perspective of the dog on the cover, hearing the sound of its owner yelling? Is it a metaphor for domestic ennui? I don’t know! But it’s good!  Read more about Dillletttante here.

“Never Getting Older”, Zaq Baker

Minnesota’s Zaq Baker has been making “theatre-influenced pop punk” with his grand piano as lead instrument for a few years now, and his latest single leans hard into his orchestral side without abandoning pop song structure. “Never Getting Older” begins with Baker whispering over quiet piano chords, before both he and the keys swell to deliver the message the song’s title hints at: “I’m terrified of whatever comes next”. You can take the power chords out of the aging pop-punker, but you can never fully alleviate the confusion and anxiety that comes with everyone around them growing older, getting married, and doing general adult things. Oh, and is that a string quartet? Yes, it is.

“Freezing Rain”, Signal Valley featuring Sydney Atkinson
From Fire, Lightning, and Rain (2021)

The second Signal Valley album of 2021 feels like an ambitious step forward for Daniel Spizuco, the mind behind the project. While it might not be as straightforwardly accessible as April’s aptly-titled Music for People, Fire, Lightning, and Rain charts a path that nods to decades of art-pop music to traverse its hour-long, literally elemental journey. It all leads to album closer “Freezing Rain”, a duet with Sydney Atkinson that unsurprisingly falls under the “Rain” subsection of the album (I mentioned classic prog rock as a structural Signal Valley influence when I talked about Music for People, and I wasn’t kidding around). Although Spizuco throws a lot at the listener, they know when to hold back, and most of “Freezing Rain” is built up of piano and minimal synths that allow Spizuco and Atkinson’s chilly back-and-forth to shine. “I’m still here, still here for you,” Spiuzco bellows. “You’re still here because you can’t admit it—what else can you do?” Atkinson replies.

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