Now Hear This: New songs by Thundercat, Alex Lahey, Justin Carter, Dirty Projectors, Spoon and more

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Thundercat | photo by Eddie Alcazar | courtesy of the artist
Thundercat | photo by Eddie Alcazar | courtesy of the artist

Every month, noted song expert K. Ross Hoffman presents Now Hear This, a sampling of fresh specimens for your consideration.

Mmmm…You can just feel it in the air, wafting in on the alt-Spring breeze and/or bluster: South by Southwest season is upon us.  Like a gulf coast hurricane spinning off a series of storm fronts, the mid-March musical mega-marathon stirs up tour schedules all across the country ‘round about now (and again toward the end of the month) as countless up-and-comers begin plotting their way down to Texas and/or their triumphant return therefrom.  Early Spring is a time for new life and, especially, new music: bigger, better-established artists tend to take a backseat at SXSW (and to some extent, perhaps accordingly, in March release schedules), although there are always a couple notable exceptions, including, this time around, Austin’s favorite indie-rocking sons…

1. Spoon – “Can I Sit Next To You?”

The beloved, perennially hip indie institution – over two decades strong – returns with their excellent, righteously anticipated ninth album, Hot Thoughts, on March 17th, which is not-so-coincidentally smack dab in the middle of their hometown’s annual zillion-ring new-music circus.  (They’ll be right at the heart of things too, curating and headlining three nights at Austin linchpin The Main/fka Emo’s.)  Both of the characteristically sleek, stylish tunes they’ve previewed from the record so far – the twitchy title track and this slinky, skin-tight strut – are among their most overtly danceable fare ever; this one, in particular, is about funky as they get.  It comes on so polite, all deferential seating requests and manicured minimalism, but things take a turn for the darkly psychedelic in the latter half – after those woozy synth-strings swoop in – that recalls the experimental bent of 2005’s Gimme Fiction (whose unsettling, Red Riding Hood-inspired artwork is, incidentally, a clear reference point for the song’s charmingly low-budget video.)

2. Knife in the Water – “Call It A Shame”

Less celebrated than Spoon, but nearly as long-running – their still haunting debut Plays One Sound and Others, which saw its first vinyl release last year, came out way back in 1998 – these undersung Austinites are so off the radar (or so independent-minded, or both) that they don’t seem to have any SXSW appearances planned, even though Reproduction, their first album in fourteen years (!), dropped just last week.  Regardless, the new record wastes no time in recapturing the old magic, reviving the band’s fertile intermingling of slowcore and alt-country – imagine Low with a streak of Southwestern twang.  This opener and lead single is a good starting point, instantly establishing a warm, dreamy embrace which lingers for a languorous six-and-a-half minutes of hazy harmonies and softly keening steel.  It’s all so sweet and benevolent that, despite the band’s rather gothic past, their atypically reassuring lyrical promises (“I will hold you close/you will be just fine”) are just about believable.

3. Alex Lahey – “Ivy League”

Like it or not (and she’s gone on record complaining about the comparison), this Melbourne indie-rocker – who’s stopping by World Cafe Live on her post-Southby stomp-around – will get plenty of mileage from the frankly inevitable “next Courtney Barnett” buzz that’s followed her since her emergence last summer.  But she doesn’t need it.  To be fair, the comparison’s not just about chromosomes or hometowns – the two writers also share a penchant for scruffy guitar work, sarcastic self-deprecation and conversational commentary on quotidian subject matter.  Still, it’s hard to imagine Barnett penning anything as direct and pop-punky as Lahey’s breakout track “You Don’t Think You Like People Like Me” (though she’d be all over that circumlocution) or this quasi-title track of her all-killer 5-song B-Grade University EP (recently reissued on Dead Oceans.)  So think of her, if you must, as Barnett’s peppier, more excitable younger sister – another, closer approximation might be the 2008 indie break-out sensation Ida Maria – but it won’t take much more than a single listen (even just to the song’s opening couplet, which swiftly establishes her wry millennial underdog perspective) before you won’t need to bother comparing her to anyone else anyway.

Alex Lahey plays World Cafe Live Upstairs on Thursday, March 23rd

4. Jay Som – “The Bus Song”

Everybody Works, the debut LP from San Francisco bedroom auteur Melina Duterte – out this week – runs the gamut from wispy dream-pop to lo-fi rock crunch and beyond.  It’s an impressive showing all around, but the clincher is this unassuming, casually-titled little ditty, which swells from a few muted strums (I get a low-key Frankie Cosmos vibe from the opening, though maybe that’s just a bus thing) to a rich, multi-layered pocket symphony – horns, harmonies, the whole nine – with at least three distinct melodic hooks.  “Take time to figure it out,” she shrugs to an apparently noncommittal partner – and clearly, Duterte did take her time lovingly crafting this majestic arrangement – but it shouldn’t take long at all for it to win your heart.

Jay Som plays Boot and Saddle on Friday, March 31st

5. Jacques Greene – “To Say”

This Montreal producer isn’t playing SXSW this year either, although I have a fond memory of dancing to him there about five years ago, DJing in some random basement bar on Dirty Sixth, mashing up Jackmaster and Burial with Destiny’s Child and The-Dream for a crowd of mostly unsuspecting locals.  That juxtaposition of cutting-edge UK bass and American R&B vocals – possibly best exemplified by Greene’s own 2011 Ciara-sampling future-garage classic “Another Girl” – still felt pretty fresh at the time; now that he’s finally getting around to releasing his debut full-length (out digitally this week; physically later this month), it’s so far out of step that it actually feels pretty fresh once again.  The groove here is a bit more straight-ahead – nimble, lightly syncopated house with a funky little marimba figure – but it totally delivers on those prime early-’10s feels.

6. Justin Carter – “Leaves”

Shifting gears a bit now to spotlight some of last month’s finest releases.  The Leaves Fall, the debut from Justin Carter – one half of the DJ duo behind the NYC dance party and record label Mister Saturday Night – mostly eschews the electronic strains you might anticipate in favor of heartfelt, largely acoustic and (appropriately enough) autumnal balladry, nodding to the late great Arthur Russell.  And then there’s this: the record’s eponymous centerpiece, which is every bit as elegant and soulful as the material surrounding it, but just so happens to be an absolutely killer slab of raw, banging tech-house to boot.  (If, at a mere four minutes, too short by at least half.)  Fans of deep house moodsetters like Bob Moses and Benoit & Sergio and, especially, anyone out there pining for the overdue return of Storm Queen (the Morgan Geist-helmed project that blessed us with three near-perfect classic bangers – one per year from 2010-2012 – and since then… nothing) should perk up their ears.

7. Aquaserge – “Tintin on est bien mon loulou”

Stereolab, those ineffable avant-retro-lounge-bop pioneers, have been on indefinite hiatus for nearly a decade now, but their spirit is very much still with us, via an ever-proliferating array of satellite projects – yet another of which, Laetitia Sadier’s Source Ensemble, debuts later this month.  You can also count this genre-defying French quintet, which includes one-time ‘Labber Julien Gasc.  They clearly take some major stylistic cues from the Groop – overdriven organ drones, vibraphone dream-sequences, time-signature trickery – drawing them out in simultaneously jazzier, heavier, more psychedelic and more internationally-inclined directions.  Sometimes all at once, as on this whirlwind tour-de-force, which feels like a trans-Saharan recasting Emperor Tomato Ketchup crammed into six knotty, shapeshifting minutes.

8. Novella – “Thun”

Meanwhile, I hear several other facets of Stereolab’s aesthetic in this neatly stylized London quartet: krautrock lock-grooves, ideologically-informed lyrics, deadpan but not unmelodious female group vocals, and an airily retro sonic vibe partially attributable, in this case, to the involvement of a sixties-vintage mixing desk (manned by James Hoare of the similarly inclined indie-poppers Veronica Falls.)  This calmly insistent droner is one of the simplest but also most bewitching tracks on their clean-lined sophomore outing, Change of State, albeit one whose lyrics focus more on the (meta)physical rather than political implications of the album’s title.

9. Drynx – “Windfarm”

And since we’re already avoiding politics: If you need a dose of unadulterated (and thoroughly benign) absurdity in your life – say, as an antidote to certain decidedly less innocuous forms of absurdity currently rampaging other aspects of reality – it’d be hard to find more pure, unmitigated silliness than this WTF brainchild of art-pop provocateur and Ariel Pink collaborator Jorge Elbrecht (Lansing-Dreiden, Violens.)  The just-released Horse Matrix lands somewhere between Ween and the Lonely Island in its tactics, serving up lyrically preposterous but musically solid takes on salsa, hair metal, Hi-NRG, freestyle and more.  Some notable moments include a thoroughly dopey rewrite of “Skip To My Lou,” an utterly demented parody that transforms “Red Red Wine” into copraphagic electro-cumbia, and this uber-smooth yacht-funk ode to livin’ large off of alternative energy production.  Because, you know, investment in wind power does feel like a pretty damn luxurious fantasy these days.

10. Thundercat – “A Fan’s Mail (Tron Song Suite II)”

And speaking of comedically-inclined yacht-funk: SoCal bass wiz Stephen Bruner, who rocked a sold-out Union Transfer on Saturday, went so far as to call in Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins to add an extra layer of authenticity to his lush, sprawling, deeply groovy new LP Drunk, which is weird and goofy as often as it is dead serious.  But he can nail that laidback, windswept plastic-soul mode almost as well with just his own husky falsetto, and he does so frequently – as on this bizarrely titled nugget about the joys of feline living (Tron is the name of Bruner’s cat), which features some of the most heartfelt meowing ever laid to wax.  Hm, I wonder if a Parquet Courts team-up could be in the cards for his next record.

11. Dirty Projectors (featuring D∆WN) – “Cool Your Heart”

The fascinatingly fraught new Dirty Projectors is, shall we say, not an entirely benevolent environment for women-as-subjects, as Dave Longstreth, the band’s founding and currently-only member, navigates the ugly-sounding aftermath of his breakup from former bandmate Amber Coffman.  So it’s an unexpected and refreshing twist when Dawn Richards turns up on this late-album standout – co-written with Solange, no less – to bring a woman’s voice to the proceedings (literally) for the first time.  (Well, technically the second, after opener “Keep Your Name” heavily manipulates – in several senses – a snatch of Coffman’s voice from her bygone days in the band.)  It’s refreshing all-around, really: from the relatively straightforward emotion conveyed in its radio-ready hook (“wanna be where you are/you’re the right one”) to the similarly breezy dancehall lilt and playful battery of tropical percussion, it’s a stray ray of sunshine in a record filled with so much dirt and projection.

12. Visible Cloaks ft. Motion Graphics – “Terrazzo”

Let’s close with a zoner.  February gave us a handful of strong new ambient releases – as all good Februarys should – but none so intriguing and pleasantly perplexing as Reassemblage, the RVNG Intl debut from this Portland duo, which manages to be consistently curious and unpredictable, almost otherworldly, but at the same time deeply warm and soothing; calm and contemplative, but never drily academic.  This collaboration with fellow abstractionist Motion Graphics (whose contributions are difficult to clearly distinguish) is a good representation of the record’s distinctive but broad-ranging acoustic/electronic sound palette: soft synth pads and digital glitches mingling with an array of Japanese-inflected string and wind sounds and gentle percussive elements, all interlaced with ample quantities of open space.  Om…

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