Every month, noted song expert K. Ross Hoffman presents Now Hear This, a sampling of fresh specimens for your consideration.
We are having a shoegaze moment. I’m not entirely sure that the fuzzy, buzzy swirls of early-‘90s Britain speak to our times in any particular way, beyond their basic, perennial resonance with the heavy haze of a hot summer. But there seems to be as much life in the now-venerable style – along with its cuddlier, more scrutable cousin, dream-pop – as at any point in the last quarter-century.
Most prominently, there’s Slowdive – the O.G. ‘gazers whose bandname most vividly evokes the genre’s aqueous aural aesthetic (Lush get points off for being so drearily literal) – who returned in May with their first album in 22 years, to much deserved ballyhoo. (They’ll bring the heavenly shimmer of that eponymous comeback to Philly in November.) Hot on their heels, fellow first-wavers Ride just released Weather Diaries – their first long-player since 1996 – last month, and will be in town later in July. [Both bands, incidentally, are following in the shoeprints of the similarly long-absent returnees Jesus & Mary Chain (earlier this year), Lush (last year), Swervedriver (2015) and, of course, genre godheads My Bloody Valentine (2013).]
There’s also a new generation dream team waiting to welcome their forebears, among them Philly’s own Japanese Breakfast – who indeed recently toured with Slowdive – and A Sunny Day in Glasgow (rather quiet lately, though the spin-off Showtime Goma dropped a nifty debut in June). Meanwhile, modern dream-pop standard-bearers Beach House put out a typically pleasant B-sides and rarities comp, which is possibly less boring than their actual albums, if you’re into that kind of thing.
Read on for a few more instances of this alleged phenomenon, although nothing here can touch my favorite-ever shoegaze song, Dude N Nem’s “Watch My Feet”. And then we’ll move on to some other stuff including Americana, Brittanica, and emo-pop-tronica.
Stream all the tunes in one go via this handy-dandy Spotify list (also contains all the music featured in previous months, plus a few bonus selections):
1. Ride – “Charm Assault”
More than most of their peers, these Oxonians often toed (or perhaps blurred) the line between shoegaze and plain old rock’n’roll. They first prefigured and then essentially bandwagoned the Britpop boom of the mid-‘90s; often pairing aggressive guitar squalls and flailing drumbursts with clean lead lines and ‘60s-indebted psych-pop vocal harmonies. “Charm Assault,” as a phrase, captures that sonic dichotomy quite nicely. As a song – an early single and hooky, political-minded standout from Weather Diaries – it does much the same thing, its chiming, almost surfy verses alternating with an addictively spiky, snarly, start-stop chorus.
Ride play the TLA on Saturday, June 22nd
2. Japanese Breakfast – “Road Head”
This is quite the stacked release week for Philly indie rock heavy-hitters. This coming Friday brings excellent new platters from local heroes Waxahatchee (who’ll grace Free at Noon that day and headline Union Transfer that night) and Sheer Mag. Those albums are very much worth your time, but the best of the batch, for my money, is Soft Sounds From Another Planet, Michelle Zauner’s lush, wide-ranging follow-up to last year’s breakout debut, Psychopomp. To be honest, Soft Sounds is probably a touch less shoegazey than its predecessor – but it retains plenty of dreamy shimmer, as is amply evident on this star-kissed, gently bouncy highlight.
3. Jefre Cantu-Ledesma – “A Song Of Summer”
This San Franciscan experimental noise/drone auteur isn’t really the first guy you’d expect to see getting in on the resurgent-shoegaze action, but he does so quite earnestly, and gorgeously, on his new On The Echoing Green LP, surely the warmest and most inviting work in his prodigious catalog. “A Song of Summer,” the album’s magnificent centerpiece, covers a lot of subtly-shifting ground across its fuzz-drenched, eleven-minute expanse, from gauzy noise-pop swaddling the nearly inaudible vocals of Argentina’s Sobrenadar to smeared, beatless digital static. It even threatens to dissipate entirely at one point. But it keeps circling back to the same simple, elemental guitar figure in a tone redolent of the Durutti Column’s Vini Reilly – to whom, indeed, the track seems to pay deliberate homage, from its title on down.
4. Cigarettes After Sex – “Young and Dumb”
Another unlikely summer jam, which has been in my head for a week now. The self-titled debut from this darkly stylish El Paso-via-Brooklyn outfit may be the most achingly pretty thing I’ve heard all year: an endlessly reverbed reservoir of glacial, glistening sadcore, with just a hint of jangle. This typically moody, minimal closing cut makes for ideal blissfully-bummed-out summer fare, potentially perfect for the scenario proposed in its chorus: “drive your car to the beach / with this song on repeat.”
Frontman Greg Gonzalez’ understated, androgynous croon certainly doesn’t hurt matters either, although his lyrics – baldly, shockingly sexual for music this tender and refined – might be something of a sticking point. The Lucksmiths this ain’t. Personally, I find something oddly refreshing, almost endearing, about Gonzalez’ blunt, unabashedly lecherous lyrical persona: a wistfully romantic (if rather sub-literary) Humbert to the millennial, post-modern Lolita so often playacted by early Lana Del Rey – an artist with whom these Cigarettes share a certain sunstroked, languorous melange of glamor and glumness. Get yr summertime sadness right here.
Cigarettes After Sex play Union Transfer on Wednesday, October 4th. How about keeping this on repeat for the next three months?
5. Khalid ft. Rae Sremmurd and Lil Yachty – “Young, Dumb and Broke (Remix)”
And while we’re on the topic of young dumbness… up-and-comer Khalid Robinson, who as it happens is also from El Paso (and who was just tapped to team with Future for Calvin Harris’ G-funk daydream “Rollin’”) – seems to take abundant pride in his. He titled his debut album American Teen, and its bounty of lite R&B/electro-pop jams includes the likes of “8Teen” – sample lyric: “let’s do all the stupid shit that young kids do.” (Never mind that Robinson’s teendom is due to expire in a mere six months – hope he enjoys it while it lasts!) And then there’s this, a sort of realist counterpoint to Snoop/Wiz/Bruno’s oughtta-be-classic “Young, Wild and Free”, in the form of a drowsy sing-sung bauble riding a suitably no-frills beat cooked up with Lorde collaborator Joel Little. “What’s fun about commitment?,” indeed. While the album version flows just fine on its own, this remix beefs up its bona fides by enlisting perhaps the youngest and dumbest of them all (though definitely not the brokest): Yachty and Rae Sremmurd. Sway and Slim Jxmmi have the “dumb” angle on lockdown here, while Lil Boat, self-proclaimed King of the Teens, is lit as he can get rhyming Lyft with lift, and laying some truth on us re: the reason this remix exists: “Now I’m super rich / and everything I do is so promotional.”
Khalid plays the Fillmore on Friday, August 11th
6. Justin Townes Earle – “15-25”
Mr. Earle’s got a few thoughts on the subject as well. The singer-songwriter (and scion of Steve), now 35, looks back on the decade of his young manhood – “lots of trouble and some good times” – before wryly concluding: “I could be doing twenty-five to life.” As long as you don’t bother listening to the words, though, it kinda sounds like his wayward youth was a blast and a half. Following the fine but somewhat listless Single Mothers/Absent Fathers duology, Justin’s definitely got his swagger back: the immensely enjoyable Kids In The Street finds him ripping out loose, groovy riffs on classic U.S. roots templates from the car-lovin’ 12-bar blues boogie (“Champagne Corolla”) to the tear-stained gentrification lament (the exquisitely etched title tune) and, as evidenced here, adding swampy New Orleans-style gumbo funk to his playbook.
7. Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit – “White Man’s World”
Jason Isbell, J.T.E.’s Southern brother in song and sobriety, renders the political about as personal as it gets – and vice versa – on this understated tour-de-force. It’s one of many slices of peerless, fearless songcraft making up The Nashville Sound, the greatest fruit yet of Isbell’s brilliant post-rehab tear. (It’s also, somewhat oddly, the source of the album’s title.) Speaking of sobering: the song touches on everything from institutional sexism, casual racism and the legacy of slavery and colonialism to discrimination in the music industry and the complexities of modern parenthood, deftly bound together by a fabulously simple formal structure and a basic, sturdy minor-key riff. Yet it somehow manages not to come off as all that heavy – just a perceptive, humble, brave, and marvelously economical examination of white/male/American privilege that doubles as a thoughtful, empathetic call to action – and compassion: “There’s no such thing as someone else’s war.” It’s impressive stuff – further proof, if you needed it, that Isbell is one of our absolute finest songwriters, and a pretty damn decent human being to boot.
8. Algiers – “The Underside of Power”
These guys, meanwhile, prefer to make the political straight-up physical. Arguably among the most vital bands out there, in more ways than one, they specialize in an innovative, fully radicalized gospel/industrial/punk-rock hybrid and a galvanizing truth-to-power impulse that you can more readily feel than literally apprehend in Franklin James Fisher’s furiously impassioned (if not always fully intelligible) blues shouts. While their mighty, flame-throwing second album (produced by Portishead’s Adrien Utley) has its share of compelling abstraction and blunt-force aggression, the title track offers maybe the most incendiary thing of all: a revolution you can dance to. After a briefly muted, electro-postpunk introduction, “Underside” swells into a roiling, riveting Northern Soul stomper, propelled by its anti-fascist, stomp-or-be-stomped credo as much as its crisp Benny Benjamin backbeat.
Algiers rip Johnny Brenda’s on Sunday, July 23rd
9. Offa Rex – “The Queen of Hearts”
My fondness for The Decemberists tends to wax and wane, cyclically and with nearly as much melodrama as their periodic, occasionally tolerable multi-part epics. But I’m all in on this passion project, wherein the plucky Portlandians band together with English folk singer Olivia Chaney to live out Colin Meloy’s dream of becoming The Albion Band. The group takes its name from the 8th century Anglo-Saxon King Offa of Mercia, and while the material they essay isn’t quite that old, it plunders gamely and heartily from the repertory of the British folk revival; in this case – for the title track of their debut album, which is out this week – a 17th century ballad previously performed by both Joan Baez and Steeleye Span’s Martin Carthy. Offa’s rendition transforms the song into stately, baroque folk-rock, embellished with tidily psych-tinged guitar, Chaney’s delicious harpsichord work and, especially, the soaring, wordless flights of her airy soprano, a fully worthy heir to Shirley Collins or Sandy Denny in their prime.
Offa Rex, who perform at Wiggins Park, Camden on Friday, July 27th, are my personal pick of this year’s XPoNential Music Festival – which, as you may have heard, is happening later this month.
10. Saint Etienne – “Whyteleafe”
And here’s a bit more harpsichord, heralding another bit of affectionate Anglophilia, this one from those venerable rhapsodists of all things quaint and cosmopolitan, Saint Etienne. The group’s ninth full-length, not for the first time, takes as its conceptual milieu the London suburbs – the Home Counties of its title, and the bountiful wellspring of their smartly buttoned-down, hip-to-be-square ethos. But although the song’s protagonist is shuttling between humdrum Surrey villages (Whyteleafe, Caterham), he’s dreaming of somewhere, almost anywhere, else: “the Paris of the ‘60s / the Berlin of the ‘70s / the Stockholm of the ‘90s.” Apparently it’s about an alternate-reality version of David Bowie (The Man Who Fell Into A Routine? The Man Who Sold Life Insurance? The Thin White Dutiful Husband?), but nothing about the track’s blithely buoyant, rather chintzy pop suggests that connection musically, just Sarah Cracknell’s winking “station to station” reference.
11. Nite Jewel – “I Don’t Know”
When Ramona Gonzalez debuted Nite Jewel way back in 2008, as an early, particularly nonchalant passenger on the chillwave train, the project’s R&B influences were evident, but they felt largely theoretical, or at best shrouded in layers of woozy lo-fi murk. It was music that entertained vague notions about the existence of the club, not something you’d ever imagine actually belonging there. What a difference a decade makes! Nine years and a mere three albums later, following a sudden, considerable uptick in her productivity, Real High handily bests last year’s getting-there Liquid Cool as her crispiest, most polished work to date and also – as it happens – easily her best. The neatest trick is how Gonzalez maintains the same laid-back vibe she’s always had, but – thanks to much-sharpened songwriting and production chops – it now conveys a sense of effortless, modish luxury rather than bedheaded indolence.
Nite Jewel plays Johnny Brenda’s on Friday, July 28th.
12. Lorde – “Supercut”
Pop songs that center around newfangled technological concepts tend heavily toward gimmicky novelty material – and, of course, they rarely age well. (“Digital Getdown” is forever, though…) But while there’s a slight twinge of that the first time you hear Lorde introduce the titular neologism (coined in 2008!) of this breathless Melodrama highlight, it turns out to be a brilliantly effective metaphor; an instance of technology furnishing new ways to understand human nature – or at least insight into how we live (and love) now. Supercuts (the uber-meme-able video genre, not the hair salon franchise) are the obsessive-compulsive, ADD-addled contemporary cousin of the traditional cinematic montage – a distinction that underscores the extremity of the narrator’s mindstate here: this is no wistful nostalgic reverie, it’s a neurotic, tormented memory-binge.
Whereas Carly Rae Jepsen, in this season’s other film editing-inspired dance-pop blissbomb lives inside the movie of her budding romance, itching to skip ahead to the good bits, Lorde is trapped in a private screening room after the credits have rolled, endlessly rethreading the highlight reel. But what’s most significant about her internal film projection (or, rather, her inner YouTube stream) – the source of the song’s deeper pathos – is what it elides; the tragically less-than-magical scenes that get edited out.
Musically, it sounds most like supercut of Robyn’s Body Talk – those rippling, rushing synth pulses, that big, dumb robo-backbeat, the dead simple-seeming but deceptively durable songcraft – albeit with (producer/Bleacher) Jack Antonoff’s fingerprints all over the filmstock. (Er, touchscreen?) It’s precisely the kind of full-tilt emo dance-pop that we wouldn’t have thought to anticipate from Lorde prior to the similarly thrilling “Green Light” (with which this song shares its central piano motif) – and that Melodrama rarely delivers otherwise. But here it is, wild and fluorescent, for three magic minutes.
And then it ends. Not with a blackout but a slow, soft-focus dissolve.
(Dare I say it…?)
It is, indeed, a goddamn super cut.
(Any way you splice it.)
(Okay, I’m done now.)
Lorde plays the Wells Fargo Center on Monday, April 2nd, 2018. Tell your calendar robots.
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