Pressing Concerns: The John-Pauls, Staffers, Smirk, Elk City

Welcome to a special Monday Pressing Concerns! It appears that I haven’t bothered with an intro to these posts for a bit, so here’s some housekeeping: recent Rosy Overdrive highlights include Rosy Overdrive Label Watch, in which I choose favorite 2022 releases from a dozen of my favorite labels.

Oh, and there is now a Rosy Overdrive Discord channel: here is a link to join if you’re on Discord. It’s pretty simple at the moment–like your favorite DIY venue, we’ve gotta get a few more people in the door before things really get going. And I have created a Mastodon account for Rosy Overdrive: find it at if you’re on there. I may have never linked my Instagram in any of these posts, either, so: I’m @RosyOverdrive there too.

Anyway: today, Pressing Concerns looks at new albums from The John-Pauls, Staffers, Smirk, and Elk City. This is the only post for this week–Americans, enjoy your Thanksgiving, and we’ll be back soon after. If you’re looking for more new music, you can browse previous editions of Pressing Concerns or visit the site directory. If you’d like to support Rosy Overdrive, you can share this (or another) post, or donate here.

The John-Pauls – Bon Mots

Release date: November 18th
Record label: Aagoo
Genre: 90s indie rock
Formats: Vinyl, CD, digital
Pull track: Same Dweller, Different Cave

The John-Pauls are a five-piece, three-guitar, two-vocalist group from Texas who make a particularly welcoming version of the vintage 1990s-inspired indie rock that you, as a Rosy Overdrive reader, probably like. It feels wrong to call Bon Mots, the band’s second album, “stripped down”, given that it’s made with three guitar players and a keyboardist (Mikila John-Paul, also one of the band’s two lead singers). Nevertheless, the record has a straightforward, no-frills sound that can be very rewarding when one has the songs and energy to back it up—and with Bon Mots, The John-Pauls absolutely do. As I never miss a opportunity to compare a band to Silkworm, Bon Mots feels like the Italian Platinum era of the band, where they would dial up any of their favorite sub-genres of indie rock on any given track and nail it perfectly.

Bon Mots bounces back and forth in terms of formality, but stays steady in terms of pop hooks. Mikila gives a regal air to the easing-in of the opening title track, the timeless-sounding “Didn’t I”, and the gently shimmering “O.O.O.”; Phillip John-Paul, meanwhile, sings loose enough to match the gleeful running-around of “Same Dweller, Different Cave” and the triumphant chugging sound of “Danny Green” (which kind of sounds like Calvin Johnson fronting a bar band). The second half of Bon Mots messes with this formula a bit, but in a welcome way—Phillip and Mikila duet in the sweet, refreshing “Kindness”, and penultimate track “No Names” balloons itself up to seven minutes merely by expanding the frame of a typical John-Pauls song. The instrumental second half of “No Names” gives way to the brief “Forgetness” in a way that feels exactly right—there’s precious little on Bon Mots that feels unearned or superfluous in any way. (Aagoo link) (Bandcamp link)

Staffers – Asleep at the Wheel

Release date: October 14th
Record label: Propane Exchange
Genre: Alt-country, garage rock
Formats: Vinyl, CD, digital
Pull track: Crop Rot

Although Ryan McKeever is currently based in Washington, D.C., the fourth record from his Staffers project is one of the more Nebraska-sounding albums I’ve heard this year. The Omaha-originating singer-songwriter enlists Cornhusker State musicians including Anna McClellan (piano, drums, vocals), Megan Siebe (vocals), and The David Nance Group’s Jim Schroeder (mixing) on Asleep at the Wheel (as well as a host of other musicians that give the record a full-band sound), and the album’s weary country-rock lands somewhere between Nance’s blown-out Midwestern garage rock and Simon Joyner’s more homespun folk. Group effort or no, it’s still very much McKeever’s record, with Asleep at the Wheel’s various moods (jangle pop, alt-country, folk rock) all anchored by McKeever’s dry vocals and deceptively deep lyrics.

McKeever’s writing on Asleep at the Wheel feels personal in a less-than-refined way, seeming to track his thought process through up and downs. The sweet guitar pop of “Love You More” ping-pongs between professing and longing, giving voice to some of McKeever’s interpersonal doubts, and “The Bar Is Closed” also features McKeever making an effort to spend time with someone who, he wonders, may not be as fully committed (“How do you put up with me? Is there somewhere that you’d rather be?”). McKeever pulls himself out of these spirals—find him reaching zen while listening to “classic radio” or getting distracted by a partner while trying to read a book—only to declare “Saturday’s ruined” a few songs later. “You’ve got scars, at least you’re alive,” sings McKeever multiple times on the record (in both “Bent Out of Shape” and “Day of the Triffids”), sounding like he’s reaching a different conclusion on what it means to him each time. Asleep at the Wheel is an album for wonderers and wanderers. (Bandcamp link)

Smirk – Material

Release date: November 18th
Record label: Feel It
Genre: Garage punk, garage rock
Formats: Vinyl, digital
Pull track: Souvenir

Nick Vicario began making music as Smirk in 2020—his first two releases under the name, last year’s aptly titled EP and LP, became sleeper hits in the world of garage rock, and this year’s Material feels like a worthy continuation of what Vicario started a year ago. The record zips through ten raging but hooky tracks in 24 minutes; although Vicario gets vocal, instrumental, and even lyrical help on a few songs, Material has a “one-man-band” feel, with Vicario taking fairly minimalist structures and utilitarian percussion and infusing them with a blown-out, all-in energy. There’s a dark streak to Material—this is a West Coast, L.A. garage rock record, sure, but “Material World’s Unfair” opens the album on a pummeling post-punk, even somewhat goth note, and Smirk continues toeing the line from there.

Vicario’s vocals frequently sit a bit low in the mix throughout Material, but he’s still able to evoke paranoia and unease against the instrumentals of tracks like the torrential sprint of “Symmetry” and the careening “Living in Hell”. The record’s poppier, more “accessible” moments are also some of the most interesting ones—“Souvenir” contains 80s new wave flourishes, melodic bass hooks, and a Vicario vocal that flirts with fully embracing melody, and the mid-tempo, sauntering “Hopeless” pulls out call-and-response vocals and some nice, smooth guitar leads. “Revenge” features guest vocals from Iphigenia Foie (whose aural sneering, landing pretty far away from Vicario’s vocal style, suits the song well) and some car-alarm synths. Material signs off with “At the Pantomime”, getting some more stabbing guitars and a galloping drumbeat in one last time under the buzzer and summing Smirk up so far quite well. (Bandcamp link)

Elk City – Above the Water

Release date: October 21st
Record label: Magic Door
Genre: Folk rock, dream pop, jangle pop, psychedelic pop
Formats: Digital
Pull track: That Someone

New York and New Jersey’s Elk City have slowly but surely amassed an impressive discography, having released a half-dozen records since their debut in 2000. October’s Above the Water finds the band continuing to hone their deep, layered sound, mixing swirling, psychedelic folk rock and dream pop into their guitar-driven art pop in a way that somewhat belies their lean 1990s indie rock roots (the band features Versus guitarist Richard Baluyut on bass, Luna guitarist Sean Eden, and Above the Water was released via Magic Door, the imprint co-founded by Guided by Voices drummer Kevin March).

Lead vocalist Renée LoBue has a confidence that isn’t diminished or hidden by the rich instrumentals around her; opening track “That Someone” is a driving pop-rock tune that combines LoBue’s urgent singing with handclaps, careening organ, and a thick low-end for a hypnotic effect. The jangly folk rock of “Apology Song” is perhaps more “easy listening” in the traditional sense, blistering guitar solo aside. With only seven songs, the tracks of Above the Water really have space to stretch out—even the most “minimalist” song on the record, the mostly-acoustic “A Family”, still features violin and electric guitar flourishes. Nowhere is this more apparent than in six-minute closing track “Floating Above the Water”, which begins as an almost ambient, languid electric guitar piece before crescendoing into a crashing, post-rock finish to end the record. (Bandcamp link)

Also notable:

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