Pressing Concerns: Wendy Eisenberg, Grass Jaw, Thalmus, Log Across the Washer

Pressing Concerns returns! New albums from Wendy Eisenberg, Grass Jaw, Thalmus, and Log Across the Washer are featured this week. If you’re a fan of alt-country, broadly-defined folk music, and “weird Americana”, whatever that means to you, then this edition is for you. If you’re not, then it’s still for you, because these albums are all just plain good.

If you’re looking for more new music, you can browse previous editions of Pressing Concerns or visit the site directory.

Wendy Eisenberg – Bent Ring

Release date: November 5th
Record label: Dear Life
Genre: B A N J O
Formats: Cassette, CD, digital
Pull track: Little Love Songs

Wendy Eisenberg is building something. Eisenberg first came on my radar with 2020’s Auto, a genuinely exciting album that suggested its creator was capable of making many more quality records. I didn’t necessarily expect that to happen over the next 12 months, however—Eisenberg kicked off this year with Tell Me I’m Bad, the debut full-length from their math-jazz-noise rock band Editrix, and a couple of limited-release solo albums (particularly March’s Cellini’s Halo) probed the edges of Eisenberg’s output thus far. Which brings us to Bent Ring, an album made “on a dare”—the accomplished guitar player has made a record without any guitar. While Eisenberg is far from the first to challenge themselves in this fashion, Bent Ring is notable in that, rather than trying to distract from this absence using a hodgepodge of other instruments, Eisenberg fully embraces their chosen replacement: a “strange, salvaged, nameless banjo”.

While Bent Ring is not 100% banjo-made audio—Eisenberg plays bass and enlists Michael Cormier on percussion, not to mention their strong-as-ever vocals—nobody is going to mistake this record for anything other than capital-B Banjo music. It’s a singer-songwriter album that has a stubborn pop side like Tell Me I’m Bad does, but by necessity it’s a quieter affair (and this is even without factoring in the two renditions of the hymn “Abide with Me” that nearly bookend the album). While Editrix traded in organized chaos, Bent Ring almost feels like a musical purgatory over which Eisenberg sings and speaks contradictions—mid-tempo songs like “Mental Image” embody the concept of pacing back and forth very well, and the whispered “Amends” is a leveling-up moment of subtlety. Eisenberg is still pushing, however—“Analogies” and “Don’t Move” are about as driving and nervy as Eisenberg’s version of banjo-vocal music could be. Very rarely does Bent Ring musically resemble a typical-sounding banjo/folk record, but when it does (“Evening Song” and “Little Love Songs” in the album’s second half), it does that well too. Even in what is in theory their most restrictive record thus far, Eisenberg succeeds on several levels with Bent Ring. (Bandcamp link)

Grass Jaw – Anticipation

Release date: November 5th
Record label: Habitforming
Genre: Alt-country, folk rock
Formats: Vinyl, digital
Pull track: Siblings

Brendan Kuntz is a longtime punk drummer who’s recently veered hard into a solo career as Grass Jaw—Anticipation is Kuntz’s fourth record in two and a half years under the name. Although at first glance one might slot Grass Jaw as another adherent to (or causality of, depending on your perspective) the punk-to-country pipeline, Anticipation is as much an alt-rock record with rootsy influences as the other way around. Album opener “Dark Months” slowly creeps into view as a doom-y piece of gothic alt-country that reminds me of The Handsome Family, and the title track boasts pedal steel (courtesy of Sam Norris) that embellishes the song’s slowcore-indebted twang. Kuntz’s deep voice helps Anticipation acquire a dark feeling, but the instrumentation and subject matter that the upstate New York-based musician pursues on the record service this overarching vibe just as well.

On some of the album’s louder songs, Kuntz sounds like a less scream-y Rick Maguire of Pile, another band that reaches into country territory without ever constraining themselves to it. Perhaps this is best exemplified by the winding, multi-part “Weight/Chemicals”, a ragged noise rock song that twists from haunted chamber country to a mid-tempo descending-chord stomper to a frightened garage rock belter. The narcotic meditation of that track is a glimpse into the anxious, nervous center of Anticipation. Despite being one of the calmer songs on Anticipation, the aptly-titled “Juggling” reflects this as well as anything else, featuring Kuntz lamenting “On days like these when I’m not at my best / Days like these, I hope you forget” with a lonesome vocal. The other song on Anticipation that employs the quiet, time-out backing music is album closer “Siblings”—Kuntz sings a steady, cautiously optimistic message that suggests that “tired” doesn’t necessarily mean “hopeless”. (Bandcamp link)

Thalmus – Midnight Country

Release date: October 1st
Record label: Self-released
Genre: Alt-country, country rock, dream folk
Formats: Digital
Pull track: Schizophrenia

While Midnight Country is the first release by Atlanta’s Jonathan Merenivitch that I had heard, the artist currently known as Thalmus hasn’t been waiting for my attention to put together a body of work. He’s been making music in the compelling post-punk group Shepherds for a while now, and his Thalmus project finds him taking on roots and country music. If you’d assume a post-punk musician would have an “abnormal” take on country, well, you’re right and you’re wrong—before Midnight Country, the last Thalmus project was Low Country, a country re-imagining of side one of David Bowie’s Low, and this latest release also features a selection of covers. Midnight Country’s eight songs are four (mostly) Thalmus originals interspersed with an equal amount of covers that run the gamut from Sonic Youth to Anita Baker.

Other than the opening title track, which has a bit of Shepherds’ post-punk stomp (and incorporates elements of Thundercat’s “Them Changes”, covered in full later in the album), however, Merenivitch embraces a country music structure wholeheartedly. His takes on Anita Baker’s “Rapture” and Rae Stremmurd’s “Swang” both loosely end up translated into dreamy, R&B-adjacent folk, but Merenivitch doesn’t try too hard to bridge the time gap between the two songs—his torch song vocal distinguishes the former, while the latter uses an acoustic guitar to approximate the song’s rhythm and applies some modern vocal effects. Among the Thalmus originals, “Pharaoh Sings the Blues” is a simple acoustic strummer that’s as tastefully traditionalist musically as it is fiery lyrically.

With “Pharaoh”, Merenivitch continues the tradition of great political southern rock by drawing on the still-strong vestiges of the Civil War (“Mourning your brother who died in a traitorous war / While glossing over the atrocities that he died fighting for”) and Old Testament metaphor (“When a little bit of equality begins to creep in / That’s when the Pharaoh cries out that he’s being oppressed”) all over a rollicking country-rock backdrop.  Meanwhile, the “death isn’t nothing to make a fuss over” gospel undertones of “Bury Me Loose” might feel a little lighter, but even it is laced with economic realism (“You said caskets are how much?”). “House of God” might be Thalmus’ best overall performance, a confident, twangy number that bridges the gap between some of the other songs’ straightforward country-folk and the more exploratory cover selections. If this is what Midnight Country means, then I’m all for it. (Bandcamp link)

Log Across the Washer – It’s Funny How the Colors

Release date: November 12th
Record label: Crash Symbols
Genre: Psychedelic pop, experimental pop
Formats: Cassette, digital
Pull track: Listen to Xasthur

Around a decade ago, Tyler Keene began releasing music under the name Log Across the Washer, and was also contributing to Portland post-punk group And And And. However, Keene left that band after two years, and the steady stream of Log Across the Washer releases seemed to dry up as well. Several years, a hiatus from recording music, and one relocation to South Orange, New Jersey later, West Virginia experimental label Crash Symbols is releasing It’s Funny How the Colors, a sixteen-song cassette that’s culled from what sounds like a creative rebirth for Keene. Self-recorded and self-produced at home and in a rented practice space, It’s Funny How the Colors is as intimate as any modern bedroom pop release—and despite Keene’s experimental inclinations and interest in jazz, the record certainly puts itself squarely into the “pop” end of that genre too.

Single “Listen to Xasthur” works itself up into a piece of Martin Newell-esque reverb-y jangle pop, while Keene’s tinkering doesn’t take away the gorgeous ballad at the heart of “Over My Head” or the sincere groove of “Oregon”. The leisurely, almost-twee “Arizona” is a grin-inducer, and even opener “Plates of Grass” presents a bouncy acoustic welcome before an odd left turn in its last few seconds. It’s Funny How the Colors does have some off-color moments like the end of “Plates of Grass”, but they’re subservient to the album’s songwriting and most of them (like the amusing spoken word of “Ok Dorks” and the jazz piano in the first half of “Arguably Never Recovered from the Season”) are overall enhancements. It’s Funny How the Colors is a record that asks the listener to hand over the reins and trust Log Across the Washer, and Tyler Keene is, at this stage in his music career, working at a level that justifies this request. (Bandcamp link)

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