Every month, noted song expert K. Ross Hoffman presents Now Hear This, a sampling of fresh specimens for your consideration.
It’s prime time. As summer winds to a close, we’ve arrived emphatically at the part of the year where seemingly every week brings a fresh trove of high-profile new releases. The last few weeks have seen records from what feels like a who’s-who of top-tier “prestige” indie rock acts: The National, Grizzly Bear, Iron and Wine, LCD Soundsystem and, of course, Philly’s entry in the conversation, The War on Drugs. And there’s more right around the corner from Beck, St. Vincent, Destroyer, Wolf Parade and, of course, Philly’s entry in the next phase of the conversation, Kurt Vile (in collaboration with Courtney Barnett.) As always, it’ll be interesting to see which of these albums manage to live up to the anticipation, and how many wind up largely forgotten in a few months time.
But it’s a great time of year for all sorts of music; not just the big names and known entities. There’s so much stuff coming out it’s hard to even keep track of it all, and the influx of well-established acts means higher-than-usual potential for worthy smaller records to slip through the cracks. But I’ll do my best to help – read on for a smattering of relatively under-the-radar releases from the past month or so. No deliberate themes or through-lines this time, but there are a few trends that stick out. Notably, we are now sufficiently far enough removed from last November’s election – and the many varieties of devastating fallout that ensued – that an increasing number of new releases are referencing or responding to the national (and global) political situation at least on some level – and there are several examples below. Also, for no particular reason except that it just happened that way, all of these songs were made by women – well, with one or two exceptions right at the end, but at least those are sung in falsetto. Enjoy!
Stream them all via this handy-dandy Spotify playlist (which also contains all the music featured in previous months, plus a few bonus cuts):
1. Alvvays – “Plimsoll Punks”
Sometimes you just need a band that can deliver the goods. Antisocialites, the awesomely titled second LP from this Torontonian foursome – out last Friday – is a master class in no-frills, melody-centric indie-pop that’s neither fussy nor formulaic. Here’s exhibit A: that elusive species of pop paragon where the verse melody is every bit as catchy as the chorus melody, and the bridge melody is if anything even more so. (Not to mention the guitar lines that fill the spaces in between.) Musically, it’s a bit of a chameleon, continually tweaking the balance between jangly sweetness and punky brawn as it veers from pristine “Dear Prudence” shimmer to scuffed-up surf-rock crunch. There’s even space for a brief, well-timed, gorgeously fluid guitar solo, followed by a strange, floaty ambient-synth fake-out ending – not a move that’s in any standard indie-pop playbook I’ve ever encountered, but one that – like everything else they do – works like a charm.
Alvvays play Union Transfer on Friday, October 6th, accompanied by their fine Haligonian counterparts, Nap Eyes.
2. Partner – “Everybody Knows”
The pitch on Partner is damn near perfect: a pair of queer, flannel-clad Canadian slacker dorks who are obsessed with the ‘90s that they filled their album not just with anthemically grungy, Weezer-esque riffage and goofball lyrics about weed and daytime TV but also a half-dozen hip-hop-style skits. When the concept lives up to its full musical and comedic potential – as it does for large portions of the just-released In Search of Lost Time (the title feels less like a reference to Proust than to the abiding ways of the stoner lifestyle) the payoff is pretty darn perfect too. Witness this chugging, chuckle-a-minute saga of pot-induced paranoia, which does an exemplary job of setting the stage for the album; not least with its emphatic (and highly historically accurate) interjection that – just in case you weren’t clear – “it’s the nineteen-nineties!”
3. L’Rain – “Stay, Go (Go, Stay)”
The New York/Philly electronic label Astro Nautico specializes in wonky, decidedly left-of-center dance music, but their newest release, the eponymous debut of a project from Brooklyn artist Taja Cheek – out this Friday – doesn’t really fit that description. Nor does it slot neatly into any particular readymade genre box. L’Rain – so named in tribute to Cheek’s recently departed mother, Lorraine (although the meteorological allusion feels equally fitting) – is a woozy, dreamlike song and sound collage that swirls together spiritual jazz, tape-loop manipulations and plush Beach Boys harmonies into a continuous soft-focus ear-and-soul-massage. It reminds me of the choral psych-soul adventurers Rotary Connection and of the Apples in Stereo’s free-form, tunefully lysergic suite Her Wallpaper Reverie. R&B is definitely in the mix too – as signaled by Cheek’s brief, a cappella rendition of the Bobby Caldwell-sampling hook from Common’s deathless “The Light” – but it’s just one element among many, most of which turn up somewhere along the way in this billowing, expansive centerpiece track. It has the feel of an exultant, uplifting finale, but in fact just the beginning.
4. Lucky Soul – “Locked Out”
This London outfit debuted a decade ago as straight-up, blue-eyed ‘60s girl-group revivalists. Sort of like the then-ascendant Pipettes, only without the cutesy polka-dot schtick, and with a stronger emphasis on songcraft and, well, soul – thanks to the top-notch tunes of Andrew Laidlaw and the dulcet tones of Ali Howard, whose deceptively delicate pipes could sell a peppy stomper like “Lips Are Unhappy” just as well as a weeper like the towering, tear-stained instant classic “Baby I’m Broke”. Ten years and just one album later (they took a seven-year baby-making break following their 2010 sophomore set), they returned last month with a third LP, Hard Lines, that finds their musical wayback machine notched forward a decade or so, toward the dazzle of the disco era. This strutting, crisply funky highlight – which, like much of the album, expresses a sense of distress that’s not hard to hear as socio-political in nature – shows them to be equally at home (and just as elegant) grooving on Nile Rogers as they once were borrowing from Berry Gordy and Phil Spector.
5. Tiny Magnetic Pets – Shadow Street
Another in an endless line of probably thousands of female-fronted synth-pop bands, this Dublin trio makes their mark by doing things in slightly odd, unexpected ways. Such as slotting an eleven-minute slow burner as track two on their album (Deluxe/Debris, released last month on the aptly-named Happy Robots label), or enlisting no less than an original member of Kraftwerk to contribute to a few tracks, or just generally taking their cues from the more experimental, analog electronic sounds of the ‘70s as much as the more expected, done-to-death dance-pop stylings of the ‘80s.
Paula Gilmer’s soft-spoken, clear-eyed vocals are reminiscent of latter-day indie-electro icons like Black Box Recorder’s Sarah Nixey and St. Etienne’s Sarah Cracknell, both of whom are clear reference points for the group’s stylish, cerebral (and manifestly British) approach. That’s particularly true of this noirish, trip-hoppy standout, probably the album’s darkest, most elegiac moment. Whereas the band sometimes presents a cheery, rather retro-futuristic sense of optimism about technology and human progress, the outlook here is decidedly more bleak. “How far we have come…” Gilmer deadpans: “Welcome to the humdrum.”
6. Frankie Rose – “Love in Rockets”
Frankie Rose has a sound. It’s not the most groundbreaking thing in the world – particularly on paper: there’s no shortage of lightly electronic, ‘80s-indebted dream-pop out there, and it’s hard to pinpoint what makes hers so distinctively warm and glowy. But it is; nobody else really does it quite her way. But after minting this rather ineffable signature aesthetic on 2012’s luminous Interstellar and consolidating it the following year’s Herein Wild, Rose fell silent – and, apparently, upon some tough personal times – for several years; an absence that made her return, with last month’s characteristically lovely Cage Tropical, feel all the sweeter and more precious. That poignant, fragrant sense of homecoming is all over the album’s opener, in particular – a prototypically languorous, starry-eyed confection of gleaming synths and layered, edgeless coos, lushly lamenting “a wheel of wasting my life” – and, even more specifically, its opening moments: a reverb-soaked four-note salvo which is every bit as instantly transportive and richly redolent as those iconic opening notes of Kid A – but a good deal more comforting.
7. Torres – “Three Futures”
Mackenzie Scott’s first two albums as Torres introduced the Southern-bred, Brooklyn-based troubadour as a powerfully evocative new voice, capable of raw-nerved potency and unflinching intimacy as both a singer and songwriter. Her third, due out at the end of this month, transposes those qualities onto a weirder, artier, jaggedly electronic sonic landscape – a considerable departure from the stark, guitar-based settings of her earlier work – with complex and fascinating results. The title track – recently released alongside a suitably surreal and sensual (and slightly campy) video – offers a foretaste of the album’s more subdued side: a slinky, seductive, vaguely metallic groove, with lyrics that, despite being pointedly specific in their detail (“you got me loaded on bergamot perfume / downstairs in the TV room”) remain alluringly opaque.
Torres plays Boot and Saddle on Friday, September 28th
8. EMA – “Blood and Chalk”
The similarly gritty and uncompromising songwriter Erika M. Anderson, who hails from South Dakota, offers an astonishing, devastating – and timely – portrait of (and missive to) contemporary Middle America with the frequently harrowing Exile in the Outer Ring. This highlight is actually one of the album’s softer, more tender moments – an impressionistic confessional sung from the perspective of a young girl, in a sing-song cadence that glances toward Neil Young’s immortal “Heart of Gold.” But that doesn’t stop Anderson’s characteristically harsh, buzzing drone textures from creeping in during the song’s latter half, nor does it forestall the squalling, oddly triumphant-sounding noise-guitar solo that erupts at its midpoint.
EMA plays PhilaMOCA on Saturday, November 11th, with The Blow and Olivia Neutron-John
9. Everything Everything – “Can’t Do”
Britpop is not really a thing anymore, but this Mancunian foursome proudly carry forward many of the more flamboyant, outlandish excesses of that tradition. Musically speaking, that is. Think of them as a jumpier, less suave Wild Beasts or a nerdier, more mature The 1975 – or, to put it more broadly, as an unholy amalgam of Radiohead and Queen, with just a tab of XTC. In case you didn’t get it from their name, they are unrepentant maximalists: they don’t do subtle (though they occasionally do some astonishingly pretty ballads), but they’ll do just about anything else.
A Fever Dream, their fourth full-length, is actually less over-the-top than its predecessor, 2015’s brilliant/manic Get To Heaven. And it’s even more topical; sharpening and streamlining (if that’s the word) the band’s trademark tics into an almost unbearably tightly-wound articulation of politically-fueled anxiety. This typically tense, insistent lead single is one of their more straightforwardly poppy creations to date. It’s also a fine showcase for many of their preferred devices – complex but insidiously funky rhythms; blindingly deft, preening little guitar figures; searing falsetto harmonies – and for singer Jonathan Higgs’ ability to make an entirely ridiculous lyric like “I’m loving the bass / I’m loving the drums” sound… well, still entirely ridiculous, but in a delightfully cocksure, swaggering cocksure fashion.
10. Dent May ft. Frankie Cosmos – “Across The Multiverse”
Ready for a palate-cleanser? When this L.A.-via-Mississippi indie-pop crooner first started attracting attention a while back, it was largely centered around the not-particularly-novel novelty of “his Magnificent Ukulele.” A blatant and rather unpromising gimmick – and one that led me to more or less write him off ever since, apparently missing out on some low-key sunny fun in the interim. But, having thus gotten his foot in the door, he has since discarded it and moved on.
The music on his new record is a far cry from plinky, ho-hum uke ditties. (Nor is it the sort of thing you’d expect to hear at a West Philly basement show – although that’s exactly what happened this past Saturday, when May charmed the punky house venue Sound Hole with a set as buoyant as a block-party bouncy-castle.) In some spots, it conjures up Mayer Hawthorne in full-on ELO-worship mode – never more so than on the lusciously multi-tracked opener “Hello Cruel World.” The title cut, meanwhile, is a goofy, goodnatured disco romp traversing several dimensions of sci-fi lovey-doving and recalling twinkly throwbacks from Pizzicato Five’s Shibuya twee to Daft Punk’s cyborg-funk, studded with potted strings and pocket horns, synth squiggles aplenty, and even a spot of banjo. (No uke though.) And who better to accompany him on his googly-eyed boogie voyage than fellow wistfully wacky starfarer Frankie Cosmos, who slides right on aboard.
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