Every month, noted song expert K. Ross Hoffman presents Now Hear This, a sampling of fresh specimens for your consideration.
October is the coolest month – musically speaking. There are more (and, pound for pound, bigger) new releases flying around these days than any other time of year. It’s dizzying. And correspondingly, of course, there are also many many artists touring through town, now and in the coming weeks. It’s left me with little choice but to offer an, umm, especially generous baker’s dozen by way of my monthly recap below. So come feast your ears!
Among other things, last month saw a considerable number of comebacks, of varying magnitudes – returns to action, artistic reinvigorations, etc – from artists all across the spectrum. I’ve highlighted a good number of them below, along with a smaller, select handful of shining newcomer – most of whom turn out to be not entirely that new, after all.
The biggest (unintentional) theme for this month, a through-line linking all of these widely ranging selections, is the power of the voice. The playlist below features a striking array of voices – extraordinary voices and commonplace voices, singly or in multiple, highly processed or unadorned. And whether or not I call attention to to it in my write-up, each and every cut here offers something memorable in terms of its vocal dimension; a certain quality of the voice (or voices) at hand, or of the way that voice are used. Let it be a reminder for us all, to keep on using our voices.
Stream all the songs via this handy-dandy Spotify playlist (which also contains all the music featured in previous months, plus a few bonus cuts):
1. Hercules and Love Affair ft. Rouge Mary – Rejoice
September was a great time for fans and alumni of the c. 2007/08 hipster-world dance boom. (And so, by extension, is this fall’s concert season.) The biggest news, of course, is indie-dance overlords LCD Soundsystem, back from retirement/hiatus/whateverment with what just might be the album of their career to date (let alone of the year); their sold-out three-night-stand at the Fillmore in December should be one for the record books. But there were also new records from LCD’s fellow dance-punkers (and erstwhile name-rights disputees) Death From Above (at Union Transfer October 27th) and Aussie twinklers Cut Copy (at Union Transfer November 28th.)
And then there’s these guys. Hercules and Love Affair – essentially the outlet of producer Andy Butler, with a rotating cast of vocalists – more or less introduced 21st century indie kids to the sounds of classic house and electro-disco with their sterling 2008 debut, but their music has always been more complex and nuanced than their name-making peaktime anthems might suggest. (Happily so: for my money, 2011’s gorgeous and wide-ranging Blue Songs – pound-for-pound their most contemplative and melancholic outing – is also their finest hour.) And while they’ve remained consistently productive – their last album dropped in 2014 – H&LA feel newly enlived on their fourth full-length, Omnion; an album as deep, rich and vital as any they’ve cut. It’s a fittingly troubled record for our troubled times, whether personally or politically – but it also finds abundant space for celebration in the midst of that darkness. Or is that vice versa? Either way, “Rejoice,” sung by the powerhouse non-gender-conforming, French-Algerian vocalist Rouge Mary (a regular Butler associate, who takes on the Anohni role when the group tackles “Blind” live), is exhibit A: a striking fusion of stomping post-punk industrial/EBM beats with gospel-tinged exhortations and even a hint of New Orleans-style brass-band jazz. “Slave to the darkest hour / we’re longing for the light,” Mary preaches. They’re touring Europe this fall, but hopefully they make it back over to the states soon… we could sure use it.
2. Moses Sumney – “Lonely World”
I mentioned Beck’s quirky 2014 Song Reader project a couple months back in reference to Juanes; it also happened to be my first introduction to this dreamy-voiced Los Angeles art-crooner, who’s been hotly tipped for what feels like ages now. Since then, Sumney – who somewhat incredibly still doesn’t have a Wikipedia page (is that intentional?) – has toured with James Blake and Sufjan Stevens and collaborated with folks like Andrew Bird, Hundred Waters, Cinematic Orchestra and Solange – all of whom serve as apt reference points for the utterly lush, gooey soundscape of his finally-here full-length debut, Aromanticism. “Lonely World” – reworked from last year’s Lamentations EP – is one of the more arresting moments in an album that’s easy to get languorously lost in; building dramatically from spectral, fluttering ghost-folk to increasingly dense, ambient abstraction before erupting in a furious, particularly Radiohead-ish stutter-funk breakdown/climax, courtesy of Thundercat (on bass), Son Lux drummer Ian Chang and innumerable sumptuous layers of Sumney’s Yorke-ian falsetto, multi-tracked to high heaven.
Moses Sumney plays the First Unitarian Church this Thursday, October 12th, along with the equally awesome Xenia Rubinos – although for some reason not in the sanctuary like he obviously deserves. Betcha that changes by the next time he comes around.
3. Cold Specks – “New Moon”
When this Somali-Canadian performer – another one-time Sufjan Stevens opening act with a haunting, unforgettable voice – first emerged around 2012, she was working under the cryptic pseudonym Al Spx, and making music strikingly well-aligned with her chosen moniker: frosty, grainy, elementally dark, with a stark, pin-prick intensity. She dubbed it “doom-soul.” (Whereas I, at the time, proposed calling it “gothspel.” Ah well.) More recently, especially in light of current global affairs, she has opened up a good deal about her background and family heritage, including revealing her given name: Ladan Hussein. And her magnificent third album, Fool’s Paradise, finds her lowering her defenses – so to speak – musically as well; allowing in more warmth, light, and simple, humble humanity than ever before. Not that it’s all hearts and rainbows or anything – far from it – but there are moments with the ready relatability, of, say, a Tracy Chapman, and this sweetly yearning, gently synth-flecked highlight is a prime example.
Cold Specks plays Johnny Brenda’s on Saturday, November 4th.
4. Angelo de Augustine – “On My Way Home”
Whaddayaknow, this guy has opened for Sufjan Stevens too. (I didn’t set this up, I swear!) What can I say; the man’s got taste. Specifically, de Augustine played before a performance of Planetarium, Suf’s fantastical, concept-heavy collaboration with Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly and James McAlister from earlier this year, which probably hasn’t gotten nearly enough attention. Anyhow, de Augustine, who hails from Thousand Oaks, California (it’s not really that many oaks, when you think about it) is also on Sufjan’s label, Asthmatic Kitty. And Sufjan even made a stop-motion animated video for one of the songs from his new album, Swim Inside The Moon – both of which are great. (Er, all three are great, I mean.)
And yeah, he may well remind you of Sufjan in soft, twinkly acoustic mode. With his sparse fretwork, fragile wisp of a falsetto, bathtub-based lo-fi recording setup and sweet, slyly adventurous melodic sense, he’ll probably remind you even more of Elliott Smith (though, if you’re being honest, mostly just the parts with piano.) Personally, he reminds me of the late, lovely Jeff Hanson, the also late, local Peasant and, especially, of Spencer Kingman (aka Spenking – one of this decade’s most obliteratingly underrated artists, if you ask me.) Wait, who am I telling you about here? Basically, Angelo de Augustine’s stuff is just entirely beautiful, and you should listen to it. This one is particularly captivating – bright and jaunty in a still entirely subdued, tender way. The lyric seems, at first blush, like a fairly innocuous, “Homeward Bound”-style travelogue (“lit the joint / then I hit the sack”), until the final verse offhandedly mentions being detained (“hoping someday they’ll let me go”), and suddenly, subtly opens up a new and troubling dimension to the song’s repeated titular refrain.
Angelo De Augustine plays World Cafe Live Upstairs on Wednesday, October 18th, with friendly Philly friends Friendship.
5. Laura Baird – “Pretty Polly”
Singer and multi-instrumentalist Laura Baird is a longtime fixture on the local folk scene – whether playing with her sister Meg as the Baird Sisters, collaborating with the likes of Glenn Jones, Espers and Death Vessel, or in sundry other projects – but she’s only just now getting around to issuing her debut solo album. Which tells you something about the deliberate, unhurried manner in which she works. I Wish I Were A Sparrow offers a combination of traditional folk tunes and original compositions (though you’d be hard-pressed to say which are which) in stark renditions centered around Baird’s banjo and her lucid, ageless voice, with some dulcimer and fiddle (and a touch of jaw harp) for additional color. This British-derived Appalachian murder ballad (the only cut that’s currently on Spotify) has been recorded countless times over the last hundred years – I know it best from the Byrds’ rollicking late-‘60s take – but Baird’s simple, unfussy reading is as vivid and elemental as any of them.
Laura Baird is playing a free record release show at Brickbat Books on Sunday, October 22nd. Maybe she’ll bring her new kitten!
6. Susanne Sundfør – “Undercover”
Susanne Sundfør is a major star in her native Norway – her latest record, Music For People In Trouble, is her fourth consecutive #1 album – which is a state of affairs that’s nearly impossible to envision in this country (even if her music were to be properly released here.) She certainly hasn’t achieved that success by playing it safe. The new record remains relatively consistent in tone – at least compared to 2015’s kaleidoscopic, electronic (and occasionally orchestral) masterwork Ten Love Songs (the title is a dryly feinting understatement) – and yet it still veers from sparse-but-jazzy acoustic folk to discomfiting interjections of noise-drone and musique concrete and then back around to lush, luxuriant piano balladry. Clearly, she’s following no map beyond for her own rarefied, inscrutable vision.
So when she does opt to make a full-on weepy, industrial-strength sudser like this one – the kind of thing that actually could trouble our Adele-addled airwaves – there’s nothing remotely pandering about it. Sundfør lays it all on here, thick as a brick: her stateliest, most heart-tugging pianism; the masterly first-call pedal steel of Greg Leisz; a gradually growing and, ultimately, utterly grandiose multi-tracked angel-choir of herselves – not to mention a tremendous, tremulous lead vocal performance that ranks with her very finest. Not in the name of pop slickness, but rather primal, emotive catharsis – or, perhaps, just for the sake of pure beauty. After all, isn’t that what people in trouble really need?
7. The Clientele – “Everything You See Tonight Is Different From Itself”
These guys knew exactly what time of year to stage their grand comeback. Not that it’s ever a bad season to hear Alasdair MacLean’s wistful, whispery confidences, or his group’s ever-immaculate, pillowy dream-pop confectionary. But more than any other artist I can think of, their music is pretty much spiritually synonymous with autumn-time. Music For The Age of Miracles, aptly enough, doesn’t offer any substantial revisions to the band’s approach since we last heard from them on 2010’s Minotaur mini-album – or, truthfully, even since their earliest EPs. But this mildly epic, seven-minute standout, with its typically pontificatory, gently phantasmagoric title, does find them stretching out a bit, appending a disco-derived, semi-electronic rhythmic drive and lavish yet understated orchestration (sun-dappled harp arpeggios – from Philly’s own Mary Lattimore! – and fog-rich horns) to embellish their thoughtful, delicately-turned melancholia. Mmmm, can’t you just smell the leaves turning?
The Clientele play Boot & Saddle on Friday, November 3rd.
8. Eamon – “Be My Girl”
Staten Island’s Eamon Jonathan Doyle is best – well, okay, only – known for “Fuck It (I Don’t Want You Back)”, the worldwide 2004 smash that made him one of the most memorable one-hit wonders this side of Afroman. Apparently he released two full albums off the back of that fluke success – not that I’m the least bit interested in hearing them – and he even “invented” a “genre” (it’s called “Ho-Wop,” in case you were wondering.) And now – you guessed it – he’s back (whether you wanted him or not.) Here’s the thing about “Fuck It,” though: while its gimmick factor (basically, rampant crass profanity juxtaposed with heartfelt, silky-smooth crooning) undoubtedly played a big role in making it a hit, it was also – much like “Fuck [/Forget] You” a half-decade later – a hugely catchy, compellingly performed song. Maybe Eamon deserved better than the punchline notoriety of a one-note novelty act.
And just maybe, improbably, he’ll get it – albeit over a decade after the fact. His unexpected, un-asked-for, eleven-years-later third LP, Golden Rail Motel, is actually pretty great. The Cee-Lo comparison turns out to be surprisingly apt too: Eamon basically goes the retro-soul route, a la The Lady Killer, drawing liberally on throwback signifiers without going full Daptone, and without entirely abandoning more modern, hip-hop aesthetics. He’s still got the pipes to sell this stuff too, whether the track is raw and driving (“Lock Me Down” could pass, at a minimum, for Eli “Paperboy” Reed) or, as in this case, a warm, laid-back groove with a big brassy creampuff of a chorus. “Be My Girl” is as heart-meltingly sweet as “Fuck It” was pained and acerbic – and it’s every bit as endearing. Now, while he’s had plenty of time to grow up and out of his signature number’s charmingly puerile petulance and casual petty misogyny, I’m still not sure I’d be all that eager to be Eamon’s girl. But if you happen to feel differently, this song tells you all you need to know. And hey, check it out, the video was shot in Philly!
9. Cults – “Offering”
Indie music (even indie pop) doesn’t really do one-hit-wonders, at least not very often. But these guys come close to qualifying. It’s not that their other music is bad or unmemorable – indeed, both of their early albums were quite excellent, and “Oh My God” in particular is a very strong runner-up for their best tune. But “Go Outside,” their debut and breakout single, is such a perfect, crystalline encapsulation of what made their musical approach (and subject matter!) feel so dang refreshing back at the start of the decade that it can make everything else they’ve done seem just a little bit beside the point. [Hot tip: the Menahan Street Band remix is just as good if not better than the original.]
Given that situation, it’s a little hard to get too excited about the prospect of new music from the band, some four years after their quick-burning sparkler of a career seemed to have potentially run its course. But “Offering,” the title track and opener of their long-gestating third album (which dropped last week) gets things off on just the right foot. Despite the rather predictable and perhaps, initially, tiresome-seeming decision to renovate their sound by means of synthing it up, the track – especially on repeated listens – reveals that the duo’s knack for penning off-kilter but unexpectedly resonant melodies, and vocalist Madeline Follin’s thin-timbred but strangely potent knack for delivering them, remain in full, glorious effect. Cults, I accept!
Cults kick off their triumphant back-in-action tour at a sold-out Johnny Brenda’s this Saturday, October 14th.
10. Mavis Staples – “If All I Was Was Black”
Don’t call this a comeback! Mavis Staples released my surprise-favorite album of 2016 in the exultant, M. Ward-helmed Living On A High Note, and she’s already back at it again. Ten years after Ry Cooder helped spark a resurgence of interest in the now 78-year-old legend with the stellar We’ll Never Turn Back, her “comeback” (she truly never left) is only picking up steam: 2017 has found her continuing to tour tirelessly, releasing the album (and video) of an all-star tribute concert from a couple years back and, as we’ve recently learned, reuniting with her pal Jeff Tweedy to cut an album that’s even more rawly immediate, riveting and timely than its predecessor. (Not to mention the best batch of songs Tweedy’s come up with in far too long.)
The title track – one of a handful for which Staples penned the lyrics – is a bit of a softball as a first taste of the album: musically, at least, it’s pretty smooth sailing, riding an affable, mid-tempo roots-rock groove. But there’s still plenty of firepower here. When Mavis asserts, in that perennial gritty-honey alto of hers, “I’ve got love to give / I’ve got natural gifts / I’ve got perspective,” she’s speaking broadly, not personally, with a deeply-rooted, long-lived-in racial consciousness (and in the face of her imagined interlocutor’s utter, all-too-familiar obliviousness.) But she could just as well be singing about herself: there’s just about nobody who more fully embodies these attributes. And if there’s anybody capable of shifting such onerous, seemingly intractable conversations, I wouldn’t put it past her.
Mavis Staples will play the Tower Theater on Saturday and Sunday, November 11th and 12th, with her old boyfriend, this guy, Bob Dylan, who’s probably just gonna sing a bunch of old jazz songs or whatever…
11. Linda Perhacs – “I’m A Harmony”
And speaking of LPs by septuagenarians produced by members of Wilco… This isn’t a comeback album either – she put out a record three years ago – but Linda Perhacs qualifies as arguably the comeback G.O.A.T., considering that that album, The Soul of All Natural Things, arrived a full forty-four years of silence after her shimmering cult-favorite 1970 debut, Parallelograms. I’m A Harmony finds the North Californian dental hygienist again working with a intriguing cast of younger collaborators, including Nels Cline, Mark Pritchard and Devendra Banhart, and exploring a great many facets of her expansive, new agey dream-folk vision. Just for instance, “Eclipse of All Love”, the track featuring co-producer – and Wilco/Autumn Defense instrumentalist – Pat Sansone, is a sort of ‘70s-style soft-pop faerie madrigal, replete with harpischord and Spanish guitar.
Julia Holter, perhaps Perhacs’ clearest aesthetic successor, turns up on four cuts, and those – particularly this eight-minute titular odyssey – are something else entirely. It’s a wild ride: opening with the intergenerational twosome tenderly elaborating a rather trippy, self-referential mantra (“I’m singing this to you through your laptop”) before plunging into a thumping, eruptive, instrumental freak-out, reemerging with some placid, abstractly layered coos, and then shifting gears again for a hushed, ruminative direct-address coda that concludes: “you are my favorite one.” Far – as they say – out.
12. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith – “A Kid”
What else can we do with our voices? This burgeoning electronic composer/producer – another artsy West Coast hippy chick, more or less – has been making records for a while now, but she had a breakout year in 2016, emerging as a major new (figurative) voice in abstract synthesizer music (using, primarily, the fairly unusual Buchla Music Easel) thanks to her Western Vinyl debut, EARS, and another fertile generation-bridging collaboration, with Buchla pioneer Suzanne Cianni. Her just-released The Kid (which follows – but doesn’t necessarily follow suit from – a gloriously woozy Sade cover from earlier this year) finds Smith “going pop,” which is to say incorporating her (literal) voice – albeit often in heavily processed, not-very-voice-like ways – and more recognizable structures.
It actually makes her music, if anything, even more weird. Take this sort-of title track (is that meant to be a Radiohead transposition?), which works up a droll, shuffling, slightly wheezy plink-pop groove. It’s pleasantly burbling along, doing its little thing, and then Smith’s massed, robo-fied voice(s) come in and the whole mess starts getting warped and disrupted in all kinds of dramatic, cyborgian ways. Curiouser and curiouser…
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith plays PhilaMOCA on Friday, November 3rd.
13. Sparks – “Giddy Giddy”
So what is pop, anyway? And do Sparks have the best titles in pop/rock/what-have-you? There’s a strong case for that argument to be found in the tracklist of their new, 23rd album, the pleasingly-titled Hippopotamus. (Which, despite the impressively productive and successful run they’ve had this century, including 2015’s fabulous Franz Ferdinand team-up FFS, is somehow the Mael brothers’ first proper album in nearly a decade – and first on a major label since the ‘80s – making it a sort of comeback-within-a-comeback.) For example, there’s “I Wish You Were Fun,” which is the sort of song that could practically write itself, except that it didn’t, so Sparks had to come write it instead, in a delightfully cheery, music-hall sing-along fashion. It’s also something that it’s hard to imagine saying about a Sparks song – unless it was a failed Sparks song, which would be a sad, unfun thing indeed.
This one’s title, “Giddy Giddy,” isn’t a particularly noteworthy one, but it’s certainly an accurate: the song, which concerns the citizenry of an inexplicably, unequivocally giddy giddy city, is so deliriously ebullient that it skips right past obvious – and eminently applicable – rhymes like “witty” and “ditty” and leaps straight for some irrepressibly snazzy internal rhyming, while tossing out the thesaurus in favor of bubbly bundles of good old-fashioned repetition. Number one in goofball heaven!
14. dd elle – “Internal”
Hey, you can’t spelle “giddy” without “dd.” dd elle is the latest project of the formerly Philly-based Jerseyman Dan Casey (previously/elsewhere known as Yalls, Steezy Ray Vibes and Dan Casey, among others), sporting a new, self-titled full-length debut. It’s odd, playful, deeply endearing stuff – abundantly melodic, but in constantly morphing, unpredictable ways. It might be broadly pegged as IDM, though with none of the corollary chin-stroking; it also has some aesthetic resonance with the “bubblegum bass” of PC Music and pals, but with much less bass, and a much lighter touch. It reminds me most directly of the squirrelly, surrealist, almost spontaneous-feeling music made by Norwegian rapscallions like Kim Hiorthøy, Bjorn Tørske and Jørgen Træen, of Oslo’s Smalltown Supersound label (which is mostly to say that I recommend checking out those guys if you enjoy this.)
This template-setting opener is a fine place to start. The main motif here – the “hook,” of sorts – is a two or three note bleep figure, which is almost continually interrupted by, well, pretty much anything: bits of crowd noise, organs and chimes, a couple seconds of flute and harp, tropical-tinged guitars that occasionally settle (ironically?) into a laid-back, Ratatattish groove, and flitting bits of heavily manipulated vocals (“touching you…every night”) that slide all over the place like insufficient fragments of a lyrical jigsaw puzzle. But what sounds disjointed and disorienting on paper makes an appealing sort of illogical logic in practice.
15. Balmorhea – “Slow Stone”
And sometimes voices are most notable by their absence. I’ve been aware of this band’s existence, or at least their name, for a while now, but I’ve always somehow steered clear – perhaps, subconsciously, because it just sounds rather unpleasant. Nothing with the suffix “-rhea” can portend anything good, right? Well, okay: so the actual – or at least presumable – etymology of their name turns out to be kind of nifty. They’re from Austin, TX, so they’re probably named after the nearby park and/or its eponymous town, which in turn was named by combining the names of its three founders: Balcom, Morrow and Rhea.
Also, technically, that suffix is “-rrhea,” and it just refers to flowing; not an inherently bad thing. If you think about it as flowing stream of something balmy – balmorrhea – that could potentially be quite nice. And that turns out to be, indeed, a pretty good description of what they sound like. In theory, I guess, what they play is called post-rock. But until a surprise fuzzward turn in its final minute, the most rock thing about “Slow Stone” – an able representative of Clear Language, the band’s first album in five years – is its title. Or is it the video?
Balmorhea play PhilaMOCA on Wednesday, November 1st.
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