Now Hear This: New songs by Haim, SZA, Kesha, Daphni, Aminé, Julia Michaels and more.

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SZA | photo by Cameron Pollack for WXPN
SZA | photo by Cameron Pollack for WXPN

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

Ciao!! Now Hear This is coming to you this month one week later than regularly programmed, due to your faithful correspondent’s international travel schedule: I recently spent ten days in Sicily, where I got to experience firsthand the pleasures of a record-setting heatwave fondly dubbed “Lucifer.” Trips abroad always afford an interesting lens on pop music – you never know quite what you’ll get when you flip on a radio. The Italian pop I encountered seemed generally jaunty and decidedly dorky, featuring a surprising amount of accordion. The DJs were effusive and highly entertaining, speaking faster than I could probably follow even if I did know any Italian. I heard “Young Folks” and noname (the latter playing in a shop.) I heard one DJ leapfrog from The Beatles to Run-DMC to Empire of the Sun; rambling excitedly over the introduction to each song. The only current American pop number I heard in multiple places while in Italy was Calvin Harris’ “Feels” (ft. Pharrell, Katy Perry and Big Sean), a supposedly “summery” song that I guess I support more in theory than in practice.

Back ‘round these parts, we’ve been in a relatively leisurely, moderate mode, release-schedule-wise: the calm before the back-to-school storm of crowded early-Autumn release weeks, each studded with several marquee titles from “prestige” indie-sphere acts. Which isn’t to say there’s been nothing worth hearing. If pop has a season, summer is it, and this one has not disappointed, even without any true major-league blockbusters to speak of (those tend to come out around the end of the year anyhow.) Most of the column below is devoted to big-P Pop and adjacent sectors, broadly defined. Which, more than writing about most other sorts of music, tends to mean a lot of thinking about the people involved, and what their music says about them. With September fast on the horizon, there’ll be plenty of time for (ostensibly) higher-brow fare in the weeks to come. As for now, I haven’t even gotten around to hearing – for instance – the Arcade Fire, Grizzly Bear or Broken Social Scene albums. I was busy thinking ‘bout “Boys.”

Stream all the tunes in one go via this handy-dandy Spotify playlist (which also contains all the music featured in previous months, plus a few bonus selections):


1. Lana Del Rey – “Get Free”

 

Lana Del Rey’s oeuvre is so thoroughly, satisfyingly steeped in performance and myth-making that we’re unaccustomed to even imagining her songs as possibly personal, autobiographical reflections of the actual Lizzy Grant. But that doesn’t mean she’s not in there, somewhere. And just as her 2012 début offered a fascinating glimpse of the person behind the persona in its final track, “This is What Makes Us Girls,” – a heartbreaking, vividly memoiristic portrait of Grant’s teenage years in Lake Placid – the final moments of her latest opus – which revisits her first album’s cinematically lush, beat-infused soundscape, and finds her newly, sometimes awkwardly acknowledging the world outside her tearstained Hollywood fantasy – flirt with pulling back the curtain entirely.

Lust For Life opens, magnificently, with “Love,” which may be the most paradigmatically Lana Del Rey song in her entire catalog – it’s certainly among the very best. It closes, an extravagant sixteen tracks later, with this uncharacteristically rose-tinted “modern manifesto,” which outright declares itself to be a “reveal of [her] heart.” Like so much of her work, it conveys much of its intent via interpolations and references. Most notably, there’s the verses’ harmonic resemblance to Radiohead’s “Creep,” which feels too conspicuous not to be intentional – although, they’re just chords… – and carries a certain ironic, thematic resonance. Then there’s the chorus’s script-flipping of both Neil Young’s “Hey Hey My My” and, tellingly, Lana’s own “Ride.” While it might all sound dreamy, the lyric presents an unambiguously clear-eyed rejection of illusion (“no more chasin’ rainbows”) as well as the toxic influence of an unspecified “someone” who might, as well, be her long-faithful muse, melancholy – and a newfound commitment to self-determination and, well, happiness.

2. Kesha – “Boogie Feet”

 

And on the topic of liberation… The biggest pop-world story in recent weeks has been Kesha Sebert’s full and triumphant return to action, following years of professional limbo precipitated by her legal battles with her former producer and alleged abuser Dr. Luke (to whom, distressingly, she remains contractually bound.) Vividly making up for lost time, Rainbow – the erstwhile pop trendsetter and deceptively savvy songwriter’s first full-length in five years – accomplishes a great many things across its 14 tracks, even if a cohesive album experience is not necessarily one of those things.

But however legitimately inspirational her righteously compassionate calling-card power ballad (“Praying”); however nasty-funky her Dap Kings-abetted femmepowerment anthem (“Woman”); however nimbly-navigated her nods to her Nashville roots, the album’s broad stylistic panorama would ring a tad hollow were Kesha to feign amnesia regarding the brilliantly gonzo, goofball swagger that made her such a notorious, compelling figure in the first place. After so much striving and struggling to get free (artistically and spiritually, if not quite legally), isn’t she at least gonna party like the rock star she’s always been?

Thankfully, “Boogie Feet” affirms that that Ke-dollar-sign-ha is still with us, too – the rap-happy, good-natured loose-cannon who just wants to dance. likea. mutha. fucka. Which she does, in this case, with some suitably shlock-rockin’ riff assistance from Eagles of Death Metal and a perfectly ridiculous central conceit (“Are you scared of these boogie-feet?”) so awful/awesome it’s hard to believe nobody’s used it before.

Kesha plays the Fillmore on October 7th

3. Julia Michaels – “Pink”

 

Both Lana and Ke$ha, from their first arrival on the scene, always presented refreshingly distinct, idiosyncratic musical personalities and aesthetics that enabled each to immediately stand out from – and eventually, substantially influence – a pop landscape that tends to be predominated by comparably anonymous, interchangeable starlets. Over the past five years, Julia Michaels has written or co-written songs for plenty of folks like that: Demi Lovato, Rita Ora, Hailee Steinfeld, etc. etc. She also has writing credits on Justin Bieber’s “Sorry,” as well as the bulk of Selena Gomez and Gwen Stefani’s latest albums and, notably, Gomez’s recent, unusually charismatic “Bad Liar.” Now, like Sia, Charli XCX and, indeed, Kesha before her, she’s starting to toggle between writing for others and establishing herself as a singer in her own right

Nervous System, her debut EP, certainly displays plenty of personality, even if her aesthetic doesn’t seem entirely fully formed. The artist Michaels most reminds me of, surprisingly, is Liz Phair. Not “sellout” Liz Phair, necessarily – although Phair’s once-notorious pop makeover didn’t airbrush away as many of her quirks as people like to think. Perhaps more of a mix between the gritty spunk of Guyville and the bonkers, try-anything 2010 one-off Funstyle. The link being Michaels’ similar sense of playfulness, and rawness, and looseness. And raunchiness. The cheeky-naughty “Pink” is a clear case in point, although it still manages project a sort of nursery-rhyme sweetness. With its very silly whispered hook, those uncanny glottal “ahs” and the spartan, clomping production, it’s goofy, sloppy and, above all, fun. Though I’m not sure she quite understands what “innuendo” means. (Also, not sure how I feel about this business of pluralizing it, but whatevers.)

4. SZA ft. Kendrick Lamar – “Doves in the Wind”

And speaking of pink…er, flowers…that is to say: vaginas – the summer’s biggest R&B success story has plenty of thoughts on the topic as well; here, she invites the summer’s biggest rap success story (yet again) to deliver a guest lecture. Actually, it’s a recurrent subject throughout SZA’s fearlessly candid, invitingly casual debut full-length, CTRL – look no further than the eyebrow-raising no-innuendos-level hook of standout single “Drew Barrymore” (“is it warm enough for ya inside me?”) But this here’s the upper-level seminar.

If this was on Kendrick’s album it would just be entitled “PUSSY.” Instead, it takes its oddly coy title from the most flowery of the track’s numerous vagina metaphors, of which the most delightful is probably K-Dot’s gleefully sung “heavyweight champ” bit, while the most corny-yet-endearing is SZA’s “you deserve the whole box of chocolates.” Which, naturally, sets up an opportunity for her to indulge her ‘90s movie fixation with an extended, off-the-cuff-seeming riff on Forrest Gump. (The track also includes a MadTV reference, for highly unclear reasons.) And, uh…that’s all I’ve got to say about that.

SZA plays the Fillmore Philly this coming Sunday, August 27th.

5. Lil Yachty ft. Stefflon Don – “Better”

Hip-hop, of course, has never lacked for big personalities, and that’s even more true in the bizzaro post-Lil B/Soulja Boy/Kanye West funhouse-mirror rap universe of the 2010s, wherein a ditzy, insouciant weirdo like Lil Yachty – as much an Instagram presence as a musician, whose aesthetic allegiance to hip-hop is decidedly tenuous in the first place – can become a conversation-dominating force. Actually, it’s a little hard to tell whether the irreverent 19-year-old warbler’s absurdly scattershot, overstuffed studio debut, Teenage Emotions, reflects a coherent personality or merely a frantic, rudderless search for one. (Are the sporadic bouts of boilerplate misogyny that pepper his generally unconvincing sex raps just in there because he thinks that what he’s supposed to do? What inspires him to momentarily conform to perceived conventions that he’ll most likely turn around and flout two minutes later anyway? Why should we even try to look for consistency?)

Far be it from me to suggest what a certifiable eccentric like Lil Boat should be doing; as he freely admits in one of the album’s best hooks, his “priorities are fucked” – and we’re all the better for it. But wherever his unfathomable muse leads him, I certainly won’t complain if it continues resulting in deliciously weightless pop trifles like this one, a genuinely sweet pop-reggae ditty that, taken on its own terms, is probably the most straightforward thing on the album. It’s not entirely clear, from moment to moment, whether Yachty is advocating for striving harder or for just kicking back and enjoying life (again with the consistency thing…), but either way it’s hard to argue with beautifully-formed nothingisms like “don’t settle for less / because you’ll miss out on more.” And if nothing else, those lilting strums and steel pans do sure sound more than a lil yachty.

6. Aminé ft. Girlpool – “Hero”

Or take this rapper, hailing from Portland Oregon, of all places, who is probably my favorite rap discovery so far this year alongside Chicago’s similarly upbeat, offbeat, polymathic Nnamdi Ogbonnoya. (Both, incidentally, are first-generation American offspring of African immigrants: Aminé’s folks are Ethiopian and Eritrean; Nnamdi’s are Nigerian.) Aminé’s hugely likable debut, Good For You, boasts a suitably quirky, freewheeling guest list. It finds him trading nimble rap verses with Migos’ Offset (on the irresistible chip-hop pop bauble “Wedding Crashers”) and Kehlani, and swapping sing-songs with Nelly (on “Yellow,” a paean to his signature color: “like purple be to Prince”), Leon Bridges and Charlie Wilson. Happily enough, none of these folks overshadows Aminé in the slightest – he just makes them all seem like his pals.

The least expected team-up of all is one with the L.A. indie duo Girlpool. Opening with some shots on the issue of people mispronouncing his name (a running concern on the album…it it really that hard?) before proceeding on to the familiar scenario of an unhealthy-yet-irresistably-enticing relationship, complete with pro forma drug metaphors and “hero/in” wordplay – it’s not the most lyrically distinctive thing on the album, but it is one of the most tuneful. Snooze and you might miss it, but Chloe Tucker and Harmony Tividad’s familiarly rusty harmonizing is unmistakable once you catch it (on the line “when I’m with you”), and adds an additional unexpectedly sweet, poignant note to the song.

(he’s at 00:30, by the way.)

7. Kirin J Callinan ft. Alex Cameron, Molly Lewis and Jimmy Barnes – “Big Enough”

 

One way to get away with copious amounts of personality in your pop music is to not be an “actual” pop musician in the slightest anyway. This thoroughly befuddling Australian might be a slippery, high-concept art-pop provocateur (or maybe he’s just a total oddball – very possibly both) but, as evidenced here, he still appreciates the power of a heartfelt, dusty, synth-washed cowboy ballad – and of throbbing, burbling Hi-NRG rave stabs. So why not harness the joint emotional potency of both to impart the stirring, timeless story of two old cowpokes finding common ground together despite their differences?

Why not indeed. There’s no innuendos – it’s exactly what you think. Way better than Irony or Post-Irony, we are now firmly Post-having-to-choose. After all, what could possibly be ironic about wanting all the countries of the world – and the three Abrahamic religions – to just, y’know, get along?

Kirin J Callinan is, lamentably, skipping Philly on his upcoming North American tour – you could see him in New York next Tuesday if you’re up for a trip (a metaphorical trip, I mean) – although fellow Aussie conceptualist Alex Cameron, his duet partner here, will be at Johnny Brenda’s on October 3rd.

8. Haim – “Right Now”

Unlike its predecessor (which on the whole it greatly resembles), Haim’s long-awaited sophomore album is strangely hard to get all that excited about. It is, however, highly satisfying, easy to enjoy and compulsively replayable, with songs that grow richer with repeated spins. To express that another way, perhaps: what the Haim sisters offer is not so much an abundance of on-record personality – despite nailing a certain timeless, unattainable rockstar cool in their image, which plays intriguingly against their faintly Partridge Family-esque origins – so much as tremendous amounts of craft. Abetted by longtime accomplice Ariel Rechtshaid, they clearly pay meticulous attention to every aspect of their music, from the songwriting to the instrumental and vocal performances to the layered, crystalline production.

The intriguing thing about “Right Now,” the slinky, slow-building penultimate track on Something To Tell You, is how it hints at a deconstruction of that heavily crafted approach. It’s strikingly minimal as a song – leaning heavily on the simple, naggingly insistent hook of the title phrase, which feels less like a true chorus than the preamble to a chorus that never comes. And the production follows suit: there’s little enough going on that you can easily hear how there’s actually a fair amount going on, nearly all of it held in tight restraint except in two moments of release – a brief, strangled guitar incursion early on; an anthemic rising drum climax to close – which then quickly subside again. It’s a surprising, potent approach; wringing considerable atmosphere and emotion, Spoon-like, out of all that sparseness.

9. Mura Masa ft. Damon Albarn – “Blu“

The modern phenomenon of the feature-stuffed, producer-as-artist full-length reached something of an apex this summer, commercially speaking, with the dominance of such efforts by folks like DJ Khaled (perhaps better described as “producer”-as-“artist”) and Calvin Harris. These albums can be highly dubious propositions, smacking of *cross-platform synergy* and other decidedly nonmusical considerations; even at their best they present the tricky challenge of developing a coherent aesthetic identity in a sea of disparate voices.

The self-titled debut by this Channel Island newcomer (born Alexander Crossan) – who boasts quite the enviable rolodex for a 21-year-old – navigates the form about as deftly as anything this side of Disclosure’s Settle. Bridging marquee guests from the worlds of hip-hop (A$AP Rocky, desiigner), R&B (NAO), electro-pop (Christine and the Queens) and indie (Jamie Lidell), Crossan maintains a consistent, breezy future-bounce/trop-house vibe that walks a narrow tightrope between recognizably distinct and snugly on-trend.

It’s apt that the record closes with a feature from Damon Albarn, whose work with Gorillaz makes him, arguably, one of the primary architects of this approach to album-making. (Gorillaz’ Demon Days was apparently the first record Crossan ever purchased.) What initially seems like little more than a slight slice of standard-issue Albarn melancholy (always something to be cherished, whatever form it takes), gradually reveals its subtle, shimmering fragility – evidence that Crossan can handle softness and delicacy as well as slapping, twinkling grooves – and one of the lovelier uses of autotune in recent memory.

10. Daphni – “Tin”

Another, rarer, decidedly more esoteric and rather paradoxical species of album-beast is the DJ-mix-as-artist-album. Actually, these may only exist within the confines of fabric/Fabriclive, the long-running monthly mix series, which just a handful out of nearly 200 contributors have taken as an opportunity to unleash putative “DJ mixes” consisting of entirely new, original work. While such stunts are typically the province of inscrutable types like the Chilean enigma Ricardo Villalobos and Detroit’s iconoclastic Omar-S, the decidedly more down-to-earth Canadian Dan Snaith elected to follow in their footsteps for his installment last month.

The Caribou main-man’s Fabriclive 93, issued under his more dancefloor-oriented alias, boasts a whopping twenty-three Daphni tracks, most of them brand new – plus four original edits of works by other artists. Whether or not you consider it a proper album, it’s certainly his most substantial output since Caribou’s magisterial Our Love back in 2014 (and Daphni’s 2012 debut before that.) Either way, it’s a lot of new Snaith to digest, but this little gem, smack dab in the middle of the tracklist, is an immediate highlight. Also released as in full-length form as a stand-alone 12” track, “Tin” pairs a pumping 4×4 workout with shimmering (tinny, perhaps?) synths suggesting a double-time tweak of Our Love’s Jessy Lanza-kissed “Second Chance”, only this time adorned with an airy, edgeless Mariah Carey sample. Tip!

11. Juanes – “Angel”

Truthfully, my favorite pop full-length of the summer (which technically came out in May) is probably the latest from this Colombian mega-star, who first really connected with me when he contributed the best track on Beck’s odd Song Reader compilation record a few years back. The awesomely titled Mis Planes Son Amarte (“My plans are to love you”) covers a lot of ground – electrocumbia, reggaeton, rock ballads, etc – even an English-language jam if that’s your thing. But “Angel” (“Angel”) is the big thrilling, gleaming, strutting, falsetto-laden disco-pop single to rule them all. Not that it needs it, in the slightest, but it’s fun to fantasize about who you would cast in a hypothetical Anglo remake – Bruno Mars? Carly Rae? maybe a duet? – and just how quickly it would crush the chart.

12. Sheer Mag – ‘Expect The Bayonet”

To shift gears completely, and to bring it on home again… The boys and girl of Philly’s shreddingest retro-rock unit are (almost) back in town. Apart from utterly ripping a World Cafe Live Free at Noon show on the day of its release, Sheer Mag haven’t played their hometown since the arrival of their proper debut, Need To Feel Your Love – and they haven’t played a proper gig here since May, when they memorably invited D.A. candidate Larry Krasner onstage to join them for a rendition of The Clash’s “Clampdown” on the eve of the primary elections. But they’ll be here this Saturday before setting off on another major string of tour dates.

The album is a total blast – a diverse, gloriously scuzzy collection of ’70s-steeped hard rock, boogie-funk, power-pop and punk. Perhaps the most striking – certainly the most timely – among its several anthemic moments is this pointed excoriation of institutionalized oppression and disenfranchisement. It could be a call to arms, or just a call to sanity: laying out the facts on the ground – “violent minds hatch violent plans / …when the dog whistle is ringing / it’s the currency that they deal in” – and calibrating expectations accordingly. Truth to power, honed for maximum impact and packaged in a tight, Strokes-y power-pop riff. Which is obviously just the thing to get the message across. What, you think Mitch McConnell is immune to this stuff?

Sheer Mag play Union Transfer on Saturday, August 26th

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