Every month, noted song expert K. Ross Hoffman presents Now Hear This, a sampling of fresh specimens for your consideration.
Happy Spring! Are we allowed to be happy it’s Spring? While it feels like we’re still a long way from Summer jam season proper – Calvin Harris notwithstanding – the contenders are already starting to get in line. So far I’m liking Lorde, Lana, and Charli XCX’s bubbly one-off with Mura Masa, or maybe something from hnew oer super-fizzy PC Music-abetted mixtape – I’ll admit that I have yet to fully contend with last month’s highest-profile, er, “playlist” (shut up, Drake!) though I hear there may be some keepers there too.
Meanwhile, over on the indie side of the fence, we’ve already got a solid backlog of Spring-ready melodies to sift through as we round the bend on the first quarter of 2017. With worthy new efforts from Spoon, The Magnetic Fields, The Shins and (soon) New Pornographers (see below) joining Jens Lekman and, sure, the Flaming Lips, it’s been a busy couple of months for indie-pop lovers of a certain vintage, with plenty of opportunities for nostalgic reminiscence. (You’ll have to forgive me a few slight indulgences along our way.)
Now, as you may recall, it was right around this time last year that we saw a glut of big-deal surprise-released albums: Lemonade entered (and summarily reconfigured) our lives last April, and by the end May we also had wholly or largely unanticipated new releases from Radiohead, Chance the Rapper, James Blake and more, many of which wound up high on lots of year-end lists. Who knows whether, or to what extent, this year will follow suit, although the general consensus is that we’ve been put on notice to expect something titanic this Friday from Kendrick Lamar. Who, come to think of it, also got the 2016 surprise party started by dropping untitled unmastered last March. And speaking of K-Dot; well, if you’ve spent any time near the music internet in the last three days, you probably don’t need me to tell you this, but…just in case…you really need to watch “HUMBLE.” Please and thank you.
Ok, on to the jamz! If I suggested last month that South by Southwest heralded the kick-off of concert touring season following the slower winter months, well, things are really heating up for April: the first half of my selections below are dedicated to previewing a few of the many noteworthy artists passing through town over the next month. The remainder is a round-up of highlights from some favorite and/or generally overlooked March releases – there were a lot to pare down from, particularly since it was a five-Friday month. Here ya go:
1. Bing & Ruth – “Form Takes”
I closed last month’s column with an ambient zone-out, so let’s ease into this one the same way. This curiously named NYC instrumental outfit (who played the First Unitarian Church last night) are awash in contradictions. They’re an ensemble of considerable size – initially eleven, now down to a more manageable five – whose music is decidedly minimalistic, spacious and unpopulated. They generate ethereal, otherworldly soundscapes using largely familiar, squarely tangible means: piano, clarinet and bass, plus a bit of analog tape manipulation. This striking piece from their new 4AD LP, No Home of the Mind, feels particularly paradoxical, with the wrist-breaking dynamism of pianist David Moore’s rippling tone clusters racing furiously against the tide of the group’s typically smeared, suffusive calm – a futile, seemingly endless struggle that only serves to deepen the sense of stillness. The effect is deeply soothing yet at the same time rather agitative, especially if you’re a piano player.
[Bonus! For a similar – and yet entirely different – barrage of dense, torrential, quasi-ambient piano shimmers, check out this excerpt from DRAFT, a work by the Cagey conceptual artist $3.33 (a.k.a Celia Hollander) which is released on cassette this week by LA’s LEAVING Records.]
2. Six Organs of Admittance – “St. Eustace”
Ben Chasny has been using this somewhat cumbersome moniker for his variably out-there guitaristic folk meanderings for quite a while now – nearly twenty years – and somehow it has taken me this long to grok that the “organs” in question most probably refer to guitar strings. Probably, right? (They used to make ‘em with guts, you know.) Anyhoo, February’s Burning The Threshold, far from the scorched-earth testament its title might suggest, is one of the most engaging things he’s done in ages. And even though it’s one of the album’s relatively few instrumentals, this sprightly, rollicking multi-part dance tune – with a vital drumming assist by the ever-indispensable Chris Corsano – is perhaps its most accessible moment. Heck, it’s practically bubblegum pop.
3. Chaz Bundick meets the Mattson 2 – “JBS”
Unburdening himself of his hideously ungainly best-known alias – Toro Y Moi – and teaming up with the psychedelic California brotherhood of Jared (guitar) and Jonathan (drums) Mattson, veteran vibemonger Chazwick Bundick turned in one of the most appealing, inviting records of his career with last week’s aptly titled Star Stuff – as in, these jams are cosmic, maan; not so much that this stuff’s gonna make them into stars. Though, who knows, maybe the charts are ripe for a lysergic jazz-rock resurgence. The reverb-laden, retro look is more a shift of mode than mood for Bundick – wavey or not, this stuff is pretty deliciously chill. Unlike most of the album, this modest standout does feature vocals – but only eventually, and then fleetingly; Bundick’s genially dazed ruminations burbling up unexpectedly and then, after less than a minute, disappearing back into the crisply sun-dappled ether.
Hey, the song is called JBS…and they’re playing at JB’s. Far out! Catch Bundick, Mattson and Mattson in action at Johnny Brenda’s on Saturday, April 15th.
4. Arto Lindsay – “Grain by Grain”
Arto Lindsay is sort of a secret icon. A fascinating and many-faceted figure in the commingled art and rock worlds of the past forty-odd years, he was a key player in the 1970s No Wave movement and the various downtown New York scenes that followed it, later releasing a phenomenal string of solo albums (between 1996 and 2004) that were heavily influenced by the music of Brazil, where he spent much of his childhood. “Grain by Grain” is our first taste of Cuidado Madame, Lindsay’s first record in thirteen years – out later this month – and it does an admirable job of invoking many of Lindsay’s myriad musical personalities all at once: juddering abrasive noisenik, mellifluous Bossa-bound sensualist, fragrantly poetic surrealist. (Similarly, the lyric “I love my hand/writing your name/on your belly/’til you forget your name” makes for an exquisite lyrical encapsulation of his ineffable spooky/sexy/strange persona.) One of these decades somebody’s gonna get this guy the recognition he deserves and raise him up as the avant-pop godfather for a new generation of cool kids… maybe that starts here; might as well get on board.
Arto Lindsay plays Boot & Saddle on Sunday April 30th, with neat-o rebooted DC art-poppers Beauty Pill.
5. Lydia Ainsworth – “What Is It?”
Just as decades contain multitudes, so, naturally, must their revivals. So, as a ’90s comeback is well under way in various musical sectors, it makes perfect sense that we’d end up somewhere like this, with a hiply appointed young artist like Toronto’s Ainsworth – someone equally at home flexing her classically-trained composition chops and exploring edgy electronic textures – producing precisely the kind of moody-yet-polished alterna-pop that, with its densely packed “eclectic” sonic detailing (banjo? sure, why not!) and those once-ubiquitous trip-hoppy drum loops, could’ve slotted right into late-decade “Modern Rock” playlists and Lilith Fair line-ups alongside the likes of Paula Cole, Tori Amos and Sheryl Crow. None of which is in any way a bad thing! Did that sound like a bad thing? This song kicks butt! (Incidentally, Ainsworth’s new album – last week’s quite excellent Darling of the Afterglow – also features a freakin’ Chris Isaak cover. Just saying.)
Lydia Ainsworth plays Johnny Brenda’s on Thursday, April 20th, with an opening set by local party-starter DJ Haram.
6. The New Pornographers – “We’ve Been Here Before”
Like any good New Pornographers album – i.e. any of them – Whiteout Conditions, which drops on Friday, boasts an abundance of gleaming, turbo-charged power-pop lightning-bolts: breathless pre-release fodder like the title track and criminally catchy insta-smash “High Ticket Attractions” are in no way misleading. But like all truly great New Porno joints – which, again, is pretty much all of them – it also sneaks in a few softer, subtler pleasures along the way. Thickly harmonized whole-group chorales have been a not-so-secret weapon for the band ever since those luscious Mass Romantic earworm codas, but, well, they’ve never quite been here before. A showcase for Kathryn Calder (whose softly dreamy solo records it somewhat resembles) with assists from her uncle Carl and the rest of the gang, this one is practically a cappella, by NPs standards anyway: it feels like the band might kick into rocking gear at any moment, but that never happens, and we’re left instead with an abstract, beatless, burbling synthscape. Lyrically, the song is characteristically opaque (or at least translucent) enough to admit several interpretations, but it’s hard not to hear it as a poignantly fumbling attempt at political realism: a swirl of discouragement (“we couldn’t find a way out / when we were here the first time”) and resolution (“there were rules once back when / there should be rules again”); desperation and hope.
The New Pornographers return to Union Transfer on Thursday April 27th; local hero Waxahatchee supports.
7. The Shins – “Mildenhall”
Every half-decade, seems to be the pattern, James Mercer hauls his best-loved outfit back into action, compelling me to confront my by now fully diminished expectations that whatever happens under the latter-day Shins banner might in any way live up to the band that, gee whiz, changed my life way back when I was in college. (Or at least, you know, wormed their way deep inside my budding indie-pop heart.) The audaciously titled Heartworms does nothing to buck the trend, which is to say that it’s probably a good deal better than I’m ever likely to admit. “Mildenhall” may not be the album’s most immediately compelling moment (it’s primarily the opener/lead single “Name for You” that keeps me pressing play). But it is striking for its blatant and astonishingly effective pillaging of past glories; recycling the hokey, countryfied lope of “Gone for Good” – without a hook to match – while reprising the lyrical strategy behind much of the band’s best work: sketching scenes from Mercer’s childhood. In this case, what we get is basically the songwriter’s pimply teenaged rock’n’roll origin story (“I started messing with my dad’s guitar…”), centered around his own personal Garden State-esque “change your life” moment, wherein a British classmate hands him a Jesus and Mary Chain cassette. (JAMC, as it happens, also put out a new album last month.) The fact that it’s delivered in such utterly plainspoken language, peppered with historical and autobiographical detail – which the Mercer of my adolescence would never have resisted flouncing up with so much flowery nonsense – makes it all that much more sentimental, in all of the ways.
The Shins are not presently scheduled to play in Philly, though they are playing the Firefly Festival in Delaware in June. Honestly, though? The Shins are just not a very good live band.
8. Nana Grizol – “Photos From When We Were Young”
And while we’re in childhood reminiscence mode… well, it doesn’t get much more tenderhearted than this. We don’t hear much nowadays from Elephant 6, that once-mighty bastion of lovably ramshackle indie-pop, but their flame is not quite extinguished, and the New Orleans-based songwrangler Theo Hilton (also of the band Defiance, Ohio) bears the torch proudly. Ursa Minor, this group’s first album in seven years, carries on the collective’s DIY spirit and unmistakable sonic fingerprints (the band includes members of Elf Power and the Music Tapes) while swapping out its more fanciful tendencies for a punkish immediacy (in both sound and ethos) and frequently topical, political lyrics. Here, though, he’s just flipping through some old, bittersweet memories, atop a simple, sing-song strum – until the song’s initially specific second-person subject elides with a more open-ended, generalized “you,” and one man’s nostalgia becomes a gently proffered mirror for small-town queer kids anywhere. It’s deceptively potent stuff.
9. Nadia Reid – “Ain’t Got You”
This spare, bluesy ballad – the final track on this New Zealander’s exquisite second album, Preservation – is such a simple, elemental, perfectly-formed song that I had a hard time believing it wasn’t a cover. But it’s not, unless you count her borrowing of the title phrase (which does comprise a significant percentage of the lyrics) and very broad general premise from the Jimmy Reed blues standard. The gut-punch, though, isn’t so much the words – though those are heartbreaking enough – but how Reid delivers them: neither impassioned nor fully numb, but with a measured, clear-eyed calm that feels stoic and world-weary beyond her twenty-five years.
10. Soulwax – “Is It Always Binary?”
Okay, who’s ready to dance? Last month marked the tenth anniversary of LCD Soundsystem’s epoch-making Sound of Silver, one of those albums that’s anchored to some very specific memories for me surrounding the time of its release (stepping into Making Time to hear the opening cadence of “Get Innocuous” and feeling a tangible buzz ripple through the room; missing the band’s Myspace-sponsored free TLA show because my mom was in town…) yet at the same time completely transcends its historical moment. As we continue to wait for promised new material from James Murphy and crew (and as I lament getting shut out in the online ticket scramble for LCD’s string of Brooklyn gigs this past weekend), there’s some surprisingly satisfying consolation to be found in the unexpected return of these less often remembered lynchpins of those heady discopunk/electro-house/nu-rave days: the Belgian brothers who (all but literally – well, as far as I know) sold their guitars and bought turntables to kickstart the mash-up craze under their 2 Many DJs guise, before teaming up with LCD’s Nancy Whang on the classic “NY Excuse” and otherwise generally remixing everyone under the sun. From Deewee, their just-released long-player – the first since 2005’s pretty fantastic Nite Versions – features no fewer than three drummers, Sepultura’s Igor Calavera among them. All three get a nice chance to flex on this typically quirky, minimalistic jammer, whose offbeat breakdowns and nimble, percolating synth lines hearken to the robo-funk of Daft Punk’s Human After All. Jam on it!
11. Ibibio Sound Machine – “Trance Dance”
Looking back now, considering all the excavation of 1980s post-punk/disco crossover that was going on around the mid-aughts – and the concurrent boom in global dance sounds spearheaded by M.I.A., Diplo, et al. – it’s surprising that nobody was really trying back then for the kind of cross-cultural fusion achieved by this more recent London-based collective. It might have something to do with it being damn hard to actually pull off. An eight-strong, internationally-rooted outfit fronted by the Nigerian singer Ebo Williams, their music offers a mix of live and programmed sounds, and of Afrobeat, highlife, funk, disco, electro etc. etc., which plays like a contemporary update on the leftfield world-pop that emerged from Nassau’s Compass Point Studios in the ‘80s (Talking Heads, Lizzy Mercier Descloux) – or possibly, as their name suggests, a West African twist on Gloria Estefan. While some dance-oriented acts end their albums with some sort of cool-down, these guys chose to close out their sophomore set Uyai (just released on Merge, of all people), with probably its most bonkers moment: a frenzied jump-up monstergroove peppered with 8-bit bleeps and lasers, nattering guitars and zipping Fela-style unison horn lines. Well, I guess that’s one kind of trance.
12. Kelly Lee Owens – “8”
I’ll give you a breather though. Sort of. The magnificent self-titled debut from this London producer/songwriter weaves together luminous, dreamy, electronic pop songs, full-on tech-house bangers reminiscent of her collaborator (and former co-worker) Daniel Avery, and several stunning tracks which bridge the difference between those approaches. But nothing else on the album quite prepares you for the coup de grâce of its final track, a monstrous dub-style epic that slithers and throbs for nearly ten spellbinding minutes, blending seductive warmth and creeping dread in a manner that recalls nothing so much as Mezzanine-era Massive Attack. Sit down; be humbled.
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