Pressing Concerns: Aeon Station, Beauty Pill, Ok Cowgirl, Shrimp Olympics

2021 is winding down. Music blogs sleep, their cookie-cutter year-end-lists hung as “do not disturb” signs until at least mid-January. Rosy Overdrive published its own Favorite Albums of 2021 list earlier this week (EPs forthcoming), but that’s no reason to ignore the brave few who have released new music in December (plus an October record I missed). Today, Pressing Concerns talks about new albums from Aeon Station and Shrimp Olympics, and new EPs from Beauty Pill and Ok Cowgirl.

If you’re looking for more new music, you can browse previous editions of Pressing Concerns or visit the site directory. There might be one more of these in 2021, might not.

Aeon Station – Observatory

Release date: December 10th
Record label: Sub Pop
Genre: Big old indie/alt-rock
Formats: Vinyl, CD, digital
Pull track: Queens

There is a mountain of context to go along with Observatory, Kevin Whelan’s debut album as Aeon Station. To state the obvious: this is not the fourth Wrens album the indie rock world had been promised for over a decade now, give or take. Observatory deserves to be considered beyond the murky, hotly-debated, acrimonious circumstances that led to The Wrens dissolving on the doorstep of finishing that record, leading to Whelan to take what he had written and make a record of his own. But this has to be one of hardest records to divorce from context ever—reminders of Whelan’s (sigh) former band hang all over Observatory, and I don’t just mean the obvious “The House That Guilt Built” and “This Is Not What You Had Planned” references in “Everything at Once”.

For instance, what’s the bigger callback in lead single “Queens”—is it the anxious and accusatory lyrics that could very well be about the slow and painful demise of The Wrens, or is it the driving, explosive indie rock music that soundtracks said lyrics? Yet “Queens” stands tall as an incredible song, and the rest of the record is not far behind it in terms of quality, so it’s more than worthwhile to take Aeon Station as Aeon Station. It seems odd to say that Observatory is a “straightforward” record; it’s still very much in the same 2000-era maximalist indie rock vein of The Wrens’ magnum opus The Meadowlands, but (and maybe it’s just because I know it’s all Whelan this time), the album feels less like an immaculately-executed bells-and-whistles-fest and more like something from that genre’s singular, singer-songwriter-led division.

The tension in the scene-setting “Leaves” sounds more like Will Sheff leading Okkervil River in an indie rock opera than anything else, and the snowy “Everything at Once”, musically at least, delivers itself in a shiny, timeless pop rock package. And Observatory’s quiet songs, of which there are several, are even more remarkable—the sparse, whispered “Move” and the delicate “Empty Rooms”, while certainly not “demo quality”, are confident in a structure that does show a little bit of a skeleton. Another song that fits this bill is closing track “Alpine Drive”, and while it would be very music-writer-on-easy-mode of me to dissect a few eyebrow-raising-in-context lines (“Everything can be replaced except for your time / So I’m coming back to you and I’ll take back what’s mine”), the most rewarding path to my ears is appreciating the song for what it is: an understated but triumphant closing track that fits Observatory well. (Bandcamp link)

Beauty Pill – Instant Night

Release date: December 3rd
Record label: Northern Spy
Genre: Electronic, experimental indie rock
Formats: Vinyl, CD, digital
Pull track: Instant Night

Even though it’s been over half a decade since the last “proper” full-length Beauty Pill album, the last two years have seen a steady stream of new music from the Chad Clark-led band. There was the formal release of their soundtrack album Sorry You’re Here, last year’s Please Advise EP, and a Bandcamp-only companion piece to that EP earlier this year. The title track to Instant Night was a part of this stream, appearing as a standalone single last October, right before the 2020 election, and one doesn’t need confirmation from Clark to understand the timing. The percussionless “Instant Night” floats along ominously in a way befitting its title, as Erin Nelson’s clear vocals breathlessly catalog the shadow overhead: “Look around, it was day, it was day…now it’s night,” she reports, wide-eyed.

Oh, right, there are three more songs on this EP too. The other “normal” Beauty Pill song on Instant Night (if there is such a thing) is the Clark-sung synth-funk of “You Need a Better Mind”.  Clark came up with this one after messing around with a Roland TB-303, a Japanese synth that sounds like a bizarre mockery of a bass guitar. It’s a world away from “Instant Night”…or is it? In the EP’s title track, Beauty Pill assert that “scared is alright”; when “You Need a Better Mind” follows up its titular declaration with “that’s okay, I do too”, it’s not exactly comforting, but it’s trying to do something about the loneliness at the heart of the song. These two songs are accompanied on Instant Night only by a short-ish instrumental and a remixed version of “You Need a Better Mind”, but what’s here is enough. More than. (Bandcamp link)

OK Cowgirl – Not My First Rodeo

Release date: December 8th
Record label: Self-released
Genre: Dream pop indie rock
Formats: Digital
Pull track: Across the Room

Brooklyn’s Ok Cowgirl make self-described “dream rock”, which is an apt descriptor for the five songs on their debut EP, Not My First Rodeo. The four-piece band land on the “atmospheric” and “hazy” side of indie rock, reverb-y but too rooted in rock band structure to fall neatly into “dream pop”. “Shoegaze” isn’t quite it, either; singer/songwriter Leah Lavigne’s vocals are too clear in the mix for that, the bandleader’s lyrics seemingly just as important as the melodies in which they are delivered. Lavigne is a wistful pop songwriter, with her full vocals the clear star of opening two tracks “Unlost” and “Her Eyes”— though the band rave up in the last half of the former and chime in the instrumental of the latter, she won’t be overshadowed.

Even though Ok Cowgirl comes off more often than not as melancholic, there’s no hiding the infatuation at the heart of “Her Eyes”, which is about Lavigne’s “first all-consuming queer crush”. It all comes together quite successfully, but Not My First Rodeo’s best moments might be when the band deviate from their formula. “Across the Room”, the EP’s lone unqualified “rocker”, is frantic and wide-eyed, a bolt of emotion brought on by seeing a former partner “in passing” and the subsequent flooding back of an entire lifetime. The slow-building, synth-aided closing breakup song “Roadtrip (Till the End of Time)” really does seem to traverse the country over its four minutes, and though it takes a different path, it’s just as intriguing and promising as “Across the Room”. (Bandcamp link)

Shrimp Olympics – Silk Lizard

Release date: October 29th
Record label: Bumpy
Genre: Psychedelic pop, lo-fi pop
Formats: Cassette, digital
Pull track: Be My Girl (Mercury)

Minneapolis’ Shrimp Olympics is the solo project of singer-songwriter Austin Lombardo, whose affinity for lo-fi psychedelic pop music is on display throughout his latest record, October’s Silk Lizard. Home-recorded guitar pop wizards like Martin Newell and (especially) R. Stevie Moore are the easiest influences to grab onto here, but Lombardo dips his toes into everything from psychedelic country-rock to dreamy jazz-rock throughout Silk Lizard. Early highlights “Does She Still” and “Angel at Gunpoint” are the Shrimp Olympics version of Beatlesy pop rock run through Lombardo’s chosen filters, before “Athena #3” bursts in sounding like a less-metal Ty Segall single.

Songs like the fuzzy, distorted stomp of “Water Moccasin” and the rusty rock and roll of “I’d Rather Be a Woman Than a Man” are pure psychedelic southern rock, and multi-part proggy suites like “High Magick” and “Iguana in Nirvana” are just, well, pure psychedelia. It’s all a lot to take in, but Lombardo brings a lot of energy to these songs, and it’s worth diving into Silk Lizard. And even if some of the more out-there moments are off-putting at first, Lombardo can still do a no-frills pop song: “Be My Girl (Mercury)” is, both in title and structure, the record’s most Cleaners from Venus moment, the lead guitar for once settling confidently into one mode for the track’s length (in this case: “jangle”). (Bandcamp link)

Also notable:

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