Pressing Concerns: 2nd Grade, Upchuck, Courtney and Brad, Aarktica

Welcome to Pressing Concerns! Today’s looks at four records that come out tomorrow: 2nd Grade, Upchuck, Courtney and Brad, and Aarktica. This is the second Pressing Concerns this week: if you missed Tuesday’s, which covered new albums from The Trend, Office Culture, Kolb, and Coughing Dove, you can read it here.

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

2nd Grade – Easy Listening

Release date: September 30th
Record label: Double Double Whammy
Genre: Power pop
Formats: Vinyl, digital
Pull track: Hands Down

Philadelphia’s 2nd Grade have relatively quickly established themselves as one of the top purveyors of modern guitar pop. Their second album, 2020’s Hit to Hit, broke them in the indie rock sphere, and the group kept their momentum going last year with Wish You Were Here Tour Revisited, a reissue of their debut record that featured some re-recordings showing the band’s growth from a Peter Gill solo project to a full five-piece band. The group’s lineup has shifted somewhat since their last record, but if anything, 2nd Grade is now more of a Rosy Overdrive-approved-band supergroup: Gill and guitarist Jon Samuels both play in Friendship, guitarist Catherine Dwyer is also a member of Remember Sports, and the two newcomers, bassist David Settle (The Fragiles, Psychic Flowers, Big Heet) and drummer Francis Lyons (Ylayli), have plenty going on as well.

Easy Listening may feature “only” sixteen songs, but the band make the record feel like 2nd Grade’s most diverse yet.  Gill’s vocals are still delicate and melodic, but the band aren’t afraid to crank up the amps a bit with “Cover of Rolling Stone” and “Beat of the Drum”, and the slightly-singed glam rock vibes going on in “Controlled Burn” are a new and interesting sound for the group. 2nd Grade can still churn out effortless pop rock—examples like “Strung Out on You” and “Keith and Telecaster” make up the backbone of Easy Listening, not to mention “Teenage Overpopulation”, a song whose conceit is so goofy it should have been a throwaway but Gill and co. turn it into maybe the shiniest pop song on the record (and the actual goofy throwaway, “Kramer in LA”, is an amusing and well-earned breather).

“Poet in Residence” and “Hand of the Brand” both feature a lo-fi sound, but also contain melodies popping out through the hiss of the full-band recordings, while the brief electric-guitar-and-Gill-only “Planetarium” is one of the biggest callbacks musically to the relatively barebones Wish You Were Here Tour. One of my favorite aspects of early 2nd Grade was Gill’s ability to grab onto a simple-sounding sentiment and make it something profound (“Work Til I Die”, “Wish You Were Here Tour”), and he still does that here with “Hands Down”, one of the most moving moments on the record that gets a lot of mileage out of simply repeating “I’m your biggest fan, hands down”. Gill begins “Hands Down” by singing “The back half of the B-side is where we belong,” a humble opening for a song that, like virtually all of Easy Listening, is deserving of A-side status. (Bandcamp link)

Upchuck – Sense Yourself

Release date: September 30th
Record label: Famous Class
Genre: Garage rock, garage punk, hardcore punk
Formats: Vinyl, digital
Pull track: Facecard

Upchuck is a fierce five-piece band that hails from Atlanta, and their debut full-length record, Sense Yourself, is a fully-developed look at the group’s heavy but unique take on southern garage punk. Upchuck’s musicians (guitarists Mikey and Hoff, bassist Armando, and drummer Chris) show off their talents throughout the record, jumping from hardcore punk to zippy post-punk to slow, grunge-y tracks. Songwriter and vocalist KT, meanwhile, is every bit the performer required to stand out among the noise of Sense Yourself—she can belt out a hardcore-esque bark when the songs call for it, and she frequently adopts a sing-speaking style reminiscent of classic, early punk rock to me.

One thing that sticks out on Sense Yourself is how “long” these songs are, despite the brevity typically found in this genre of music—it speaks to Upchuck’s confidence that there are as many five-minute songs here as there are ones under two minutes. Sense Yourself speeds up and slows down frequently, with moments of tension helping the subsequent punches land harder. Album opener “Upchuck” is a multi-part odyssey, lumbering its way to a final sprint. The six-minute “Wage for War” plods along with the low end up front for most of its length, but it also lets loose eventually as well.

The two most accessible songs on Sense Yourself land right in the middle—“Facecard” rides a melodic lead guitar across a fizzy pop punk instrumental, and the garage-post-punk of “Boss Up” finds Upchuck purely “flooring it” and KT in full motor-mouth mode. The few shorter songs on Sense Yourself make their marks as well: “Leech” and “In the Wire” flirt with surf and glam, respectively, but still sound like full-throttle Upchuck songs—and this is to say nothing of the noise punk of “Perdido”, sung by Chris in Spanish but coming off just as energetic and packed-full as anything else on the record. It’s all Sense Yourself, and it’s all Upchuck. (Bandcamp link)

Courtney and Brad – A Square Is a Shape of Power

Release date: September 30th
Record label: Dear Life
Genre: Experimental rock, art pop, folk rock, electronic
Formats: CD, cassette, digital
Pull track: Mayonnaise

Bradford Krieger is a prolific recording engineer (Friendship, Horse Jumper of Love, Joyer) and owner of Big Nice Studio, and Courtney Swain is best known as the singer and keyboardist for art rock group Bent Knee. Krieger has recorded Bent Knee and some of Swain’s solo albums before, but the duo of Courtney and Brad is their first creative collaboration. Their first full-length, A Square Is a Shape of Power, was recorded at the same time as their debut EP (appropriately titled Our First EP), which came out in April. All of the Courtney and Brad recordings thus far are the result of the duo improvising in the studio with no fully-formed songs prepared in advance, and A Square Is a Shape of Power feels like two people exploring wildly different genres with exciting results.

The pedal steel-heavy “Mayonnaise” is a gorgeous and shockingly-straightforward folk-country tune—it’s as peaceful as the following track, “Hand Cream”, is jarring—it jumps from minimalist pop to a loud, distorted hardcore punk finish. Swain’s vocals are all in Japanese, and the duo cite Japanese genres like J-pop and Enka as influences—the latter particularly shows in the intentionally retro-sounding “New Onion Smile”. The genre-hopping and restlessness continues throughout A Square Is a Shape of Power, as the band move from electronic/dance (the title track) to ambient (“Moongazing”) to slowcore (“The Whale and the Scorpion”). Beyond being impressive as a whole, the songs on A Square Is a Shape of Power stand on their own as well, with even the shorter tracks (like the 90-second folk rock of “I gotchu”) feeling self-contained—it’s an intriguing, continuously surprising song collection. (Bandcamp link)

Aarktica – We Will Find the Light

Release date: September 30th
Record label: Darla
Genre: Slowcore, indie folk, ambient, post-rock
Formats: Vinyl, CD, digital
Pull track: Can’t Say I’ve Missed You

Aarktica is the long-running solo project of New Jersey-originating, Los Angeles-based musician Jon DeRosa. Working in the spheres of ambient and post-rock, albums like 2000’s No Solace in Sleep garnered attention in those circles and praise from musicians like Alan Sparhawk of Low. Aarktica has been quieter this past decade—DeRosa did release the digital-only Mareación in 2019, but We Will Find the Light is his first music available physically since 2009. We Will Find the Light’s songs can be divided into two categories: long, slow-moving folk songs marked by DeRosa’s clear vocals, and instrumental ambient pieces connecting them. Together, they make a gigantic double album that feels like a rebirth.

The “traditionally structured” songs on We Will Find the Light regularly reach into the six- and seven-minute range, calling to mind the gorgeous full-bodied slowcore of groups like American Music Club, while DeRosa’s matter-of-fact speak-singing can recall Leonard Cohen—especially in string-laden tracks like the breathtaking “Goodnight”, or darker, whispered songs like “Bridge of Fire”. Other songs rely more traditionally on folk and acoustic guitar, like the rippling “Can’t Say I Missed You” and the record’s two covers, “Ohla o Sol Que Vai Nascendo” (by Portuguese singer Mariana Root) and “Sirenita Bobinsana” (by Peruvian songwriter Artur Mena). DeRosa’s performances in these songs alone would be enough to make We Will Find the Light feel profound, but the ambient bridges between them help the record feel even more like an experience. (Bandcamp link)

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