Every month, noted song expert K. Ross Hoffman presents Now Hear This, a sampling of fresh specimens for your consideration.
Much as I may pride myself on keeping my ears as wide open and omnivorous as possible, I’m often struck, as the time of reckoning draws nigh, that so much of the music that really affects me from any given year tends to fall into a few relatively narrow categories. Looking back on the 2017 releases that I’ve spent the most time with and returned to most consistently, most of them can be sorted into two general buckets: emotionally resonant electronic pop made by (relatively young) women – Lorde, MUNA, Sylvan Esso, Kelly Lee Owens – or wordy, wide-ranging critical statements made by opinionated and perhaps over-analytical old (or at least aging) men: Randy Newman, Jens Lekman, LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields.
Is there a throughline there? I tend to think of it in terms of personality: if there’s one thing most likely to pique my interest in a new artist, or keep me engaged with a familiar one, it’s in their music’s ability to serve as a tool for human expression, straightforward or otherwise; a means of telegraphing a vivid and recognizable individual identity – whether that individual be a quote-unquote “real person,” a constructed persona or, as it surely is in the vast majority of cases, some ambiguous, unparseable intertwining of the two. Perhaps that quality is more readily apparent in the second group of aforementioned artists. It’s not that those verbose songmen are single-mindedly preoccupied with age and mortality – though it’s clearly on their minds (see: Newman’s heartwrenching “Lost Without You”; Murphy’s “tonite”; Lekman’s bouncy but pensive “Wedding in Finistère”; the entire conceit of Merritt’s 50 Song Memoir) but it certainly informs their outlook, helping to distill a clarity of perspective (and tendency toward warts-and-all honesty) translating into albums that function as poignant, if sometimes roundabout self-portraits.
But dance-pop, too, can be powerful vehicle for individual expression. Of course, it can also provide ecstatically anonymous, universal generalities, and gloriously so: think of Kylie Minogue, Rihanna, Diana Ross, most Britney and, I’d contend, Carly Rae Jepsen. But it’s also such a blank slate – an open-ended musical template with none of the tacit pressure toward “authentic expression” that comes with, say, folksinging or rapping – and it has a powerful intrinsic capacity to amplify and augment any emotions and/or personal idiosyncrasies fed into it, setting an artist up as a larger-than-life cartoon character, or a relatably “down to earth” intimate-of-millions, or even both: consider, variably, Prince, Adele, Ke$ha, arguably Beyoncé, probably Robyn and, absolutely, Taylor Swift (and no, I haven’t even begun dissecting Reputation yet…ask me next month.)
This October brought us a phenomenal bounty of personality, musically speaking. St. Vincent’s MASSEDUCTION, the best and most impressive album I’ve heard all year – I’m probably a few listens away from conclusively declaring it my favorite – is the most fascinating mediation of (and meditation on) the gaps between the personal and the persona-fied yet from an artist whose work has always toggled compellingly between the two. (And it came out on my birthday to boot!) Elsewhere, SOPHIE – previously an almost faceless, practically post-human manipulator of pop’s shiniest, hardest surfaces in the name of addictively transcendent artifice (and, occasionally, a target of feminine appropriation accusations) – returned with an astonishingly intimate and vulnerable new song and video, accompanied by the news that she has come out as trans (or, at least, is now using she/her pronouns.) All of which adds some pretty fascinating dimensions to the already rich questions of persona and personality bubbling up in her music.
And then there was all this stuff…
As always, you can stream it all here via this handy-dandy Spotify playlist (which also contains all the music featured in previous months, plus a few bonus selections):
1. Fever Ray – “To The Moon and Back”
Probably the biggest (and certainly the Halloweeniest) October surprise came with the unexpected return of Fever Ray, a.k.a. Karin Dreijer Andersson of The Knife, who both tricked and treated us with sudden release of Plunge; an album as brilliantly intense and uncompromising as, well, basically everything else she’s done. This hyper-hooky lead single, in particular – instantly one of the year’s best bangers – is a welcome callback to the deliriously bright electropop of the Knife’s early years; with its chiptune-chipper, vaguely Orientalist synthline and simple, singsong melody, it reminds me most of “Kino,” a standout from their majorly underrated 2001 debut. Lyrically too, it recalls the playful but pointed slippages of gender and sexuality that Andersson explored on 2004’s Deep Cuts (and not infrequently ever since), climaxing with a taboo-tweaking provocation (NSFW, though censored to hilarious effect in the otherwise identical “Air Horn Edit”) that might be menacing or titillating depending on the listener, and on what you want to make of the song’s narrator. Oh, and the video’s pretty perfect too.
2. Kelela – “Take Me Apart”
There’s a similarly mutable, wryly transgressive erotic politics – manifested in a very different sonic form – woven through Take Me Apart, the long-awaited full-length Warp debut from this vaunted, rather enigmatic avant-R&B auteur. Kelela, whose work seems to exist in a wormhole-like continuum between the bump’n’grind ’90s and some impossibly elegant, modish future, has spent much of the past five years collaborating with an array of forward-thinking artists in the electronic world (most notably producers associated with the Night Slugs and Fade to Mind labels) and beyond (Solange, Danny Brown), many of whom repay the favor here. The title track alone boasts production from Night Slugs mainstay Jam City, Ariel Rechtshaid, Arca and Kwes, among others, and co-writing assists from past collaborators BOOTS and Mocky. Despite all those cooks, it’s a typically understated, subtle, sinuous affair – all purred come-ons and sub-aquatic smears, building to a skittering, fluttering, evanescent chorus. That is, until the whole thing flips, two-thirds of the way in; following its own titular directive by modulating, oddly, into a brief a cappella breakdown, with Kelela’s endless vocal layers suggesting an En Vogue-ish girl group being swallowed up in an amorphous digital vortex.
Kelela plays Coda this Wednesday, November 15th.
3. Kllo – “By Your Side”
This Australian cousin duo share many of Kelela’s musical reference points, though with seemingly fewer conceptual ambitions and decidedly fewer vowels. Their eminently lovely debut LP, Backwater, reminds me of R&B-tinged soft-poppers like London Grammar and Wet (whose similarly plush, sad-eyed long-player Don’t Youwas one of my favorite albums to put on in 2016), if they were besotted with the rhythms of turn-of-the-millennium UK garage and 2-step – by way, perhaps, of acts like Disclosure and Jamie xx. Kllo tinker, over the course of the album, with the balance between song and dance, between their clubbier and more tenderly soulful impulses; moving from thumping, floor-ready jams to an entirely beatless ballad and back again. But this synthy standout gives itself fully over to the dancefloor, with Chloe Kaul, the duo’s vocal half, swapping out song structure for a single, lingering, spectral mantra – making good on the name of their label, Ghostly Intl. – that’s rinsed, filtered and refracted through Simon Lam’s funhouse of skipping grooves and interleaving, light-flecked arpeggiations.
4. Shigeto – “Don’t Trip ft. Silas Green”
The new album from Zachary Shigeto Saginaw, Kllo’s fellow Ghostly signee, also plays in the intersections between R&B, house and various other ghosts of electronica past – as well as hefty doses of jazz and hip-hop – but in a much looser, woolier, wider-ranging fashion. Contrary to his surname, the producer actually hails Detroit, where he recently returned after some years in Brooklyn. The New Monday – a striking departure from his typically more reflective, ambient-leaning work – plays like a love-letter to his reclaimed hometown, celebrating both its vibrant present-day musical community (several of whose members grace its grooves) and its manifold musical heritage (invoking the spirit of local iconoclasts like Moodymann and Omar-S in his wanton cross-indexing of deep house, techno, acid, footwork and other post-industrial products of urban Midwest.) This typically bumping cut features both Ann Arbor MC Silas Green and the jazz drummer Mark Giuliana (with whom he’s recently crossed tracks as part of Dave Douglas’ quartet High Risk); it morphs from dryly mechanized, blunted footwork to pummelling D’n’B to lush, jazzy zone-out, without tripping once.
5. Special Request – “Make It Real”
Meanwhile, across the pond, October also brought new work from this similarly nostalgia-addled project of the Leeds-based producer Paul Woolford. (Truly, contemporary electronica is the most blatantly sentimental of genres, constantly reflecting on and revisiting its past in a way that, for instance, hip-hop hasn’t done in ages.) Soul Music, Woolford’s 2013 tour-de-force debut LP as Special Request, was a monolithic, almost maniacally single-minded deep dive into the rudiments of early-‘90s jungle and breakbeat ‘ardcore. (It was also a revivalist touchstone, stoking rich and hazy impressions of bygone warehouse raves that now live on, second, third and fourth-hand, in the imaginations of far more people than ever could have attended them in the first place – thanks largely to Woolford’s efforts.) Four years later, he’s back with an even more exhaustive opus – a(nother) twenty-three track, 100+ minute 2CD/4LP monster called Belief System – and a somewhat broadened stylistic remit (even if you disregard the album’s last half-hour of ambient sound design, which really ought to be considered as a separate entity altogether.) Though it’s not all continuously mixed together, the album has the feel and flow of a well-paced, satisfyingly diverse DJ set, with BPMs ramping up to a fever pitch in its final third. This de-facto centerpiece, nestled snugly between the manic Aphexian acid of “Scrambled in LS1” and the Prodigy-styled big beat raver “Brainstorm,” is quintessential Special Request – the album’s most overt callback to the project’s foundational breakbeat science, complete with juicy rewinds and adorably quaint DJ chatter – but it’s also innovative, in its own backwards-facing way, introducing a taste of the kind of hands-in-the-air diva-vocal cheese that tends to get edited out of Woolford’s revisionist template but was most likely a mainstay of the actual dance parties in question.
6. Daniele Luppi and Parquet Courts – “Memphis Blues Again”
Let’s shift gears for a sec. Parquet Courts are one of our best working rock bands, and also one of the hardest-working: they churned out five albums and two EPs between 2012 and 2016, and they tour enough that I feel like I saw them nearly all of those years. The last eighteen months have been uncharacteristically quiet on the release front, but that just changed, in a very enjoyable way, with MILANO – an album that’s technically billed, first, to Daniele Luppi, an Italian soundtrack composer (and Danger Mouse collaborator) who produced, co-wrote and conceived it as a conceptual piece inspired by the glitzy, hedonistic fashion world of 1980s Milan. Functionally, though, it’s very much a Parquet Courts record – their first to appear on a major label, for whatever that’s worth – in virtually every respect save for its (striking) art design (also by Luppi), with the unexpectedly compatible bonus of Karen O. (Yeah Yeah Yeahs) doing her best Debbie Harry impression on fully half of the songs. This little romp is practically (and delightfully) PCs by numbers: grinding a dimestore blues-punk riff for all it’s worth as a backdrop for a snarky art-damaged lyrical screed, in this case a scathing, cleverly rhymed takedown of mid-century modernism (“LeCorbusier’s a shame/yeah he’s mostly to blame”) with a non-sequitur Dylan-tweaking chorus.
7. A. Savage – “Wild, Wild, Wild Horses”
Meanwhile, just two weeks prior, Andrew Savage – one of Parquet Courts’ two principal songwriters/frontmen – stepped out alone with a remarkably good solo record (his first), Thawing Dawn. Exploring rootsy folk and country influences rarely felt in his main band’s work, it opens up a new and very rewarding side of Savage’s musical personality while retaining his recognizable voice. Maybe the most striking departure is this quiet stunner, whose titular image plays into the album’s loose Western-frontier throughline (nodding to his Texan roots) – and also serves, of course, as a very different kind of classic rock homage, tendered gently: “did they drag me off or did I gladly run?” Over a hushed, minimal arrangement built around soft organ drones, he extends an uncommonly affecting expression of love; bewildered and unsettling (he likens the feeling to “feeding someone else your heart from a distance”) but ultimately unambiguous, even if he needs to slip into Portuguese for the payoff: “Take these words and know they’re true: eu te amo tanto, and I’m not sure quite what to do.” To gloss the title of the last Parquet Courts album, it’s perhaps his most human performance yet.
A. Savage plays PhilaMOCA on Thursday, November 30th
8. Alvarius B. – “The Reason”
Along with Dylan and Mark E. Smith, the long-running experimental psych/folk freakazoids Sun City Girls – most likely as filtered through Pavement (Steven Malkmus name-dropped 1990’s Torch of Mystics on his great 2014 Jicks jam “Lariat”) – stand as plausible precursors to Parquet Courts’ obliquely arty, punk-poetic lyricism. You can hear that strain of smirking, cerebral surrealism all over With A Beaker on the Burner and an Otter in the Oven, the outrageous new brain-dump from Alan Bishop (one of two remaining Girls, along with his brother, Sir Richard), a.k.a. Alvarius B. While the set’s title (a quote from the thrashing, angrily absurdist highlight “GPS”) sounds like a logical elaboration of his late-‘90s free-associative goofball scraggle “Cooking With Satan”, its contents – thirty-five songs spread across two CDs or three sold-separately vinyl volumes – represent probably his most accessible, even (almost) comprehensible body of work to date; a sprawling but consistently listenable survey of tuneful folk, blues and rock styles recorded in Egypt with a strong cast of collaborators. Where to begin? Try the jaunty pop-country nugget “Me & Me“, the hilariously acerbic, Dylanesque social commentary of “Zion The Rocket Ship” or, if you’ve got the time, this eight-minute bait-and-switch that closes out volume one. Make it past the first ninety seconds of palate-clearing noise improv (the most aurally challenging moment on the entire record) and you’ll be treated to an uncharacteristically pretty, patient ballad, a pleasantly anomalous setting for Bishop’s twisted, curmudgeonly musings.
9. Circuit Des Yeux – “Black Fly”
Haley Fohr doesn’t shy away from grand and potentially off-putting gestures: Reaching For Indigo, the Chicagoan’s fascinating, hard-to-define fifth album as Circuit Des Yeux, finds her unleashing her majestically unearthly voice in settings as ponderous and varied as squalling noise-rock cavalcades, foreboding minor-cluster brass drones, and abstract, swirling, modular minimalism. But her music can also be tremendously warm and engrossing, as on this expansive highlight, which builds up gradually as if to invite us along for what soon becomes a dizzying ride. It starts with relatively spare acoustic strums, Fohr singing in as restrained a register as she can muster (she just doesn’t really do understated), it gains pace and richness with a fuller cohort of strings, mandolin, and drums under a soaring refrain – calling to mind lush 1970s jazz-folk by the likes of Terry Callier and Van Morrison – before swelling to epic, operatic proportions, with Fohr towering over “all the little people in their little lives” as synths and sound effects crash in for the dense, ominous and (naturally) buzzing finale.
Circuit Des Yeux plays Johnny Brenda’s this Thursday, November 16th
10. King Krule – “Czech One”
This English genre-musher is all about persona – he’s had quite a few in his young years, releasing work as Archy Marshall (his given name) and Zoo Kid as well as this more regal sobriket – but his magnificently sprawling new long-player, The Ooz, is at least as concerned with world-building as characterization per se. Or, to put it more precisely, the album’s vividly evoked mise-en-scene – a weird, woozy, oozy, thickly atmospheric demimonde of urban disaffection, decay and disgust – emerges as its central and most compelling character. Somewhere in the middle of Marshall’s feverish nocturnal ramble, his unruly goulash of seedy beatnik jazz, hopped-up rockabilly, bleary-eyed trip-hop and bluesy post-punk, comes this moment of respite. I imagine his narrator stumbling, as in a cinematic noir, into a late-night diner – the shades of Nighthawks (Ed Hopper or Tom Waits, take your pick) are palpable – seeking temporary refuge from album’s harrowing maelstrom, and alighting on this sweetly hesitant, fumbling flirtation, as cocktail piano trickles in from the next room and a sickly-sweet yet comforting Rhodes figure cycles like a music box on loop. (Perhaps there’s a wistful echo of the Streets’ “Could Well Be In.”) Or was it all a dream sequence?
King Krule played Union Transfer last month – check out Lissa Alicia’s review of the show here.
11. Adam Ostrar – “Warlock”
Have we had enough with the weirdos? This likeably low-key, apparently well-adjusted songwriter has been kicking around for quite some time – I first encountered (and wrote about) him over fifteen years ago, as the driving force behind the nifty Chicago-based indie outfit Manishevetz, and he’s had several other bands over the years – but the just-released Brawls in the Briars is his first solo project to see wide release. In fact, it’s the first record ever credited Adam Ostrar: he’s always used his original surname, Busch, until changing it recently so as to avoid confusion with a different Adam Busch. How mild-mannered and non-confrontational! That may just be a coincidence, but the record does have a certain sense of freshness about it; like a hopeful new beginning. It’s nothing revolutionary – just some sweetly tuneful indie folk with a few jazzy flourishes here and there – but Ostrar/Busch has a fine way with melody, and several numbers here – including this one, which gives the record its title – are more than liable to lodge in the old cranium.
12. Bedouine – “One Of These Days”
Listen, there are a lot of singer-songwriters out there. Despite some received notions to the contrary, it’s awfully hard to separate yourself from the crowd with a sheaf of songs and an acoustic guitar. And Azniv Korkejian does it, essentially, in about the most difficult way possible: not with an abundance of personality or an especially compelling lyrical angle, but by making music that’s really, really exceptionally pretty. Initially, she stands out for her rather eye-catching chosen moniker – a choice which might potentially raise some flags among the cultural-appropriation conscious (see: f.k.a. Eskimeaux), although as a Syrian-born ethnic Armenian raised in Saudi Arabia (who’s since lived in Boston, Houston and L.A.) you might say she’s had a nomadic enough life experience to get a bit of a pass there. Secondly, there’s her association with Spacebomb – the Richmond, VA record-making collective behind serious winners by Howard Ivans, producer/ringleader Matthew E. White (with and without Flo Morrissey) and, most relevantly, folk-soul songbird Natalie Prass – who’ve developed into a pretty damn reliable indicator of quality, and who contributed their trademark lavish (but not overly intrusive) orchestrations to Bedouine’s immaculately-formed eponymous debut. Ultimately, though, you just need to a few moments to catch on to the uncommon warmth and wisdom of her voice – which recalls Prass’s measured sweetness and Laura Marling’s preternatural calm – and her songs, which unfurl with an unhurried, effortless melodic precision. “One Of These Days” – which happens shares its title and its gentle country lope with White’s debut single – is both a standout and pretty much par for the course; a little beam of sunshine in a year that needs all it can get.
Bedouine plays Johnny Brenda’s on Sunday, November 19th
13. Friendship – “If You See My Beloved”
I’ll leave you with an established Key favorite. Local folkies Friendship just released their new album, Shock out of Season, and it’s so so good and lovely, it’s obviously going to bring them international fame and fortune almost instantaneously and they’ll probably blow up and forget about little old Philly, but we’ll always have this to remember them by, because where else but Philly would you go to have the experience lovingly depicted in the album’s opening moments: “We walked to the dam behind the art museum / you said you made a connection with Auguste Rodin”? (Bonus fact: that’s a Rodin adorning the cover of that new Special Request album detailed above.) “If You See My Beloved” is a good indicator of the group’s sound, which is instantly relatable but somehow doesn’t quite sound like anybody else out there. In a pinch I’d sum it up as “Bill Callahan with a beatbox,” though Dan Wriggins plain-spoken, observational lyricism – tender, a little wobbly – reminds me just as much of Ira Kaplan’s sotto voce intimations, Herman Dune’s earnestly-intoned mundanities, Mark Kozelek’s diaristic meanderings. And, of course, everything goes better with a little Fender Rhodes and pedal steel. Have a good Thanksgiving.
Friendship play a record release show on November 17th, at Everybody Hits, with Power Animal, Tall Friend (no relation) and Free Cake for Every Creature.
- Categorized Under: