Every month, noted song expert K. Ross Hoffman presents Now Hear This, a sampling of fresh specimens for your consideration.
Happy 2018! The year’s off to a great start, musically speaking, with much to look forward to on the horizon (including some heavy-hitters poised to return – The Breeders, David Byrne, Superchunk and Jack White among them) and a surprising number of strong releases already out in the world, a mere two weeks into the year. Plus the local concert calendar is already heating up, possibly more than any January I can remember. Let’s take a look at some of what’s ahead, concert-wise, by simultaneously taking one final glance back to 2017 at some cuts by artists who had notable breakthrough years, a few great late fall/early winter releases, and a smattering of others that you (or I) might have overlooked along the way. All but one have upcoming Philly tour dates – many of them happening this month and several further on down the line.
A handful of these (the first four, to be precise) were/are also featured in my super-massive 2017 mega-mash-up dance-party mix, which you can check out here. (It was initially posted on New Year’s Eve, and now further tweaked, edited and streamlined for your listening pleasure… also, it now has a tracklist. 95 songs!)
As always, you can stream all the tracks in this column via this handy-dandy Spotify playlist:
(You can also hear all the tracks I featured in 2017 here🙂
1. BROCKHAMPTON – “Boogie”
Few acts had a bigger year in 2017 than Brockhampton, the boundary-eschewing L.A.-based hip-hop collective (or, as they prefer to be described, “boy band”) with the weirdly WASP-y name. They released their debut album in June and followed it up with two more full-length installments by December – thus completing the aptly named Saturation trilogy – and along the way blew about as far up as you can imagine for such an unorthodox, entirely autonomous operation. (The group’s fourteen-or-so members, who coalesced via a Kanye West internet forum and first formed in San Marcos, TX, now live together in a shared house/studio in North Hollywood, where they handle everything from production to web design to management.) This lead-off track from Saturation III – which also serves as arguably the energetic peak of my 2017 mix – is their most unstoppable, undeniable banger to date, and a great place to dive in. Over a sax-slathered, sirens-blazing beat that could not be more hype if it tried, the posse’s six MCs drop a dizzying succession of verses, many of them repeated twice for added impact): from ringleader Kevin Abstract, veering from stage-setting (“best boyband since One Direction” he says – a frequent point of reference for the group) to confession – to Merlyn Wood’s perverse charm to Joba (aka Russell Boring)’s gleefully unhinged menace.
Brockhampton bring their “Love Your Parents” tour to the TLA on the last two nights of January; Tuesday and Wednesday the 30th and 31st.
2. Big K.R.I.T. – “Keep the devil Off”
This Mississippi MC, producer and stalwart Dirty South traditionalist had a big comeback in 2017 with his heavy-hitting third major-label album 4eva Is A Mighty Long Time, a vital return to the spirit (and titling convention) of his early independent releases – we featured it on our list of 2017 albums not to overlook. One of the best hip-hop records in a particularly stacked year, it’s also the rare double album in any genre that fully justifies its expanse, with a clear division in approach between its two halves that makes the project effectively a compilation of two distinct but complementary albums, each with its own moods and goals. Part one is the party record, a thick slab of slapping, trunk-rattling throwback jams in deep thrall to millennial golden era of Southern hip-hop, among them the T.I.-assisted banger “Big Bank” (which bumps up against Algiers and Mac DeMarco on my 2017 mix), the impishly clever “1999” (less a Prince homage than a loving tribute to Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up”) and others enlisting icons like Bun B, Cee Lo Green and Mannie Fresh. Part two, whose swirling near-instrumental opener is titled “Justin Scott” (as in, K.R.I.T.’s christian name), is where things get both personal and exploratory, with a string of touchingly candid confessionals and a vaguely Andre-esque array of stylistic excursions into jazz, soul and – as in this case – full-throated Pentecostal gospel. “Keep the devil Off” (capitalization intentional) truly feels like it could be equally effective in a church or a club, with an addictive half-time groove that gets even more revelatory after K.R.I.T. finishes rapping, as the track shifts into an extended, kaleidoscopic patchwork of horn punches, soul claps and exhortations from the choir, mingled with pealing electric guitar and spiraling organ swells.
Big K.R.I.T.’s triumphal “Heavy is the Crown” tour comes to Union Transfer on Monday, March 19th.
3. Miguel ft. Kali Uchis – “Caramelo Duro”
War & Leisure probably dropped a little too late in 2017 – December 1st – to make much impact on year-end lists, and it’s taken some understandable flak for failing to consummate the flirtations with topicality teased in the lead-up to its release (which is too bad: a true circa-now Miguel protest album could have been an incredible thing). But that does the album a disservice: it may be a consciously lighter affair than 2015’s hot and heavy Wildheart, but it’s still packed with solid jams from one of our greatest working R&B auteurs – so many that I ended up including two of them on my mix. But while “Skywalker”’s charms are ample and irrefutable (“splish!”), this late-album cut deserves a little more shine. Indeed, I could see it doing well as a single in this post-“Despacito” landscape. There may not be much to the fluidly bilingual lyrics – a loosely free-associative but fairly pro forma litany of candy/sex metaphors which (of course) sound better in Spanish – but it’s all about that groove and, especially, that intoxicatingly sweet harmonized chorus line: “regálame un poco de azúcar.” (By the way, the Colombian-American singer Kali Uchis, whose contributions here are unfortunately discreet, is definitely one to watch this year – she’s been racking up some killer collaborations, and her debut album is due in the Spring; she’ll also be in Philly this Sunday, opening for Lana Del Rey.)
Miguel plays the Fillmore on Tuesday, March 20th. He is among the greatest performers currently working; consider this a strong endorsement.
4. Baths – “Yeoman”
Back in November, the tenderly cerebral electro-pop producer Will Wiesenfeld graced us with Romaplasm, his first Baths album in four years, and a gorgeously warm, sanguine counterpoint to 2013’s darkly depressive Obsidian. This utterly delightful opener – a bit of a curveball on my mix, where it keeps curious company with the comparably charming young rappers Kodie Shane and Aminé – might just be catchiest thing he’s ever created (although it faces stiff competition from his deliriously pretty 2017 theme song for the “dad dating simulator” game Dream Daddy.) Lyrically, “Yeoman” is a sort of sci-fi romance – or, perhaps more precisely, a steamy steampunk sex-fantasy – imagining up a giddy encounter aboard a fantastical, lavishly appointed airship, waltzing and wayfaring its way across the cosmos. And the music follows suit – a swooning, starry-eyed, time-bending synthesis of baroque grandeur (those French horns!) and whimsical, scintillating digi-pop.
This year, April showers bring us Baths: perhaps he’s not the most thematically appropriate act to play the Foundry on 4/20 – which is a Friday – but that is when Baths will be there.
5. Karl Blau – “Slow Children”
This Anacortes, Washington singer-songwriter released a terrific album in 2016; a set of richly expansive but reasonably faithful covers of classic country tunes by the likes of Waylon Jennings, Tom T. Hall and Townes Van Zandt, entitled Introducing Karl Blau. But it wasn’t his first album – far from it. (According to one probably conservative count, it was his twenty-first.) And although it was a fair cry from Blau’s typical, offbeat indie fare, it was not, apparently, intended to signal a wholesale reinvention as a Nashville crooner. Out Her Space, which arrived in November, does share some of its predecessor’s lushness and invention, but it’s a very different beast: a playfully jazzy, groovy, abstract and, indeed, rather spaced-out batch of Blau originals, a number of which mix political commentary with pun-happy wordplay (see the standout “Poor The War Away”; see also the album’s title, which doubles as a pro-woman exhortation.) It’s probably the most sui generis output yet to emerge from the collectivist musical magic factory that is Richmond, VA’s Spacebomb Studios (Matthew E. White, Natalie Prass), putting an idiosyncratic twist on that gang’s signature orch-soul vibes. This gently percolating opener sets an indicative tone, somewhere between afropop and third-stream jazz. The verses issue a loose, beat-poetic plea for chilling the heck out, while the chorus offers an eminently reasonable PSA: “go slow, for the cats come out at night/and they’ll never understand about cars.” A fine point; take it easy out there.
Karl Blau comes to the World Cafe Live tomorrow, Wednesday, January 17th, with an opening set by our beloved Birdie Busch, one of Philly’s finest songwriters.
6. Benjamin Clementine – “By The Ports Of Europe”
It’s hard to know what to make of this chap; a deeply inscrutable English art-pop auteur/eccentric with an astounding, uncanny voice, in the grand tradition running from Robert Wyatt to…I dunno, Laura Mvula? Truthfully, he belongs to no tradition but the one he’s feverishly building for himself, as a self-taught, self-described expressionist, making music that is all at once proggy, operatic, romantic, goofy, cerebral and theatrical… I’ll tell you one thing though: he’s definitely not boring. I Tell A Fly, the follow-up to Clementine’s astonishingly successful, Mercury Prize-winning 2015 debut, is an intricately constructed concept album involving insects, migration and contemporary geopolitics, which would probably still seem pretty outlandish even if I could adequately pin it all down. (One tagline summarizes it as “A story of two wandering flies finding fleet,” if that’s any help.) But no deciphering is necessary to enjoy, for example, this pleasantly hallucinatory bagatelle, which seems to be commenting on the European migrant crisis, yet mostly involves listing a bunch of animals and jauntily repeating the title phrase in an improbably chirrupy, oompa-loompa-ish chant that can be hard to extract from your noggin. Curiouser and curiouser…
Benjamin Clementine plays the TLA on Monday, January 29th
7. King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard – “Crumbling Castle”
These Australian mad sorcerers put even Brockhampton to shame last year, following up one of 2016’s best rock records (Nonagon Infinity) by releasing no fewer than FIVE full-length albums in 2017, thereby fulfilling a proclamation they issued at the end of the previous year. As it turns out, they’re all pretty damn fantastic. And, unlike the output of certain other compulsively prolific types I could mention (Bob Pollard, I’m looking at you), each one of the five has its own distinct, coherent and well-developed identity. Although I have yet to properly digest Gumboot Soup – album #5, which was released on New Year’s Eve – my favorite of the bunch is probably Polygondwanaland, which arrived in November as a free release: not merely free to download, but freely available to produce, customize and distribute in physical form, thus inspiring a frenzy of crowd-sourced entrepreneurialism that has resulted in – to date – upwards of 70 distinct editions worldwide (and just look at this craziness!.)
This is the record’s towering centerpiece: a shapeshifting, nearly eleven-minute tour de force that, as suggested by the portmanteau of the album’s title, embodies both geometrical precision and primordial, protean potency. It contains multitudes. The “crumbling castle” of the lyrics (which also seems to be the song’s narrator) dovetails neatly with the D&D fantasy tropes insinuated by the song’s ‘70s-steeped psych-prog vibes, but it also doubles as an obvious and redolent metaphor for environmental devastation. And the music is at once dauntingly technical – dense with slippery odd-meter polyrhythms and snaking, vaguely Middle Eastern-styled riffs – and also hugely badass and fun; both fully aware of and fully committed to its own ridiculous excess.
King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard just announced a Union Transfer on June 18th; who knows how many more albums they’ll have released by then.
8. Destroyer – “Cover From The Sun”
I’ve always had a bit of a love/hate thing with Destroyer. Not that it’s hard to recognize Dan Bejar’s manic brilliance and/or utter singularity (which may or may not amount to the same thing), but I’ve generally been unsure how to position myself with respect to his intimidatingly voluminous, often acidic wit. In a strange way, I think I sometimes enjoy his work more than I fully permit myself to appreciate it. Or something like that. Anyhow: maybe I’m just ready to give in and play along, but ken, Bejar’s twelfth Destroyer LP, charmed me more than perhaps any before – and not just because he named it after me. (And released it right after my birthday too…aw shucks, Dan.) It doesn’t hurt that it features a couple of honest-to-gosh pop songs: the gorgeously (Peter) Hooky “Tinseltown Swimming In Blood” is the closest thing to a Destroyer-style ‘80s-throwback dance jam, while this quick little nugget is a gleaming Britpoppy bop, a breezy cascade of internal rhymes (“you are a/blond Che Guevara”) and scattershot references (from the Smiths to Shakespeare to ‘90s teen slasher flicks.) In 2017, for the first time ever, Bejar sat out an album by the New Pornographers – the frothy superband for whom he’s long played the cynical foil – both for scheduling reasons and because he was allegedly writing only “weird, quiet songs” at the time. But it’s not at all hard to imagine the New Pornos plucking this one at some point (as they once did with Destroyer’s “Hey Snow White”) and refashioning it in their own power-pop likeness; it’s already most of the way there.
Destroyer takes cover at Underground Arts next Friday, January 26th; jazzy Seattle artsters Mega Bog open the show.
9. Palehound – “Carnations”
There was no shortage of smart, scruffy, ’90s-indebted, female-fronted indie rock in 2017 – it’s well represented in our Top 15 Albums list, not to mention in our coverage generally. Well, here’s a little more: this Boston-based band, led by songwriter Ellen Kempner, is up there with any of them as far as I’m concerned. And last year saw them sharing stages with, among others, Big Thief, Jay Som and Mitski, so they’re clearly running in the right circles. They’ve got a new 7” due out at the end of the month which, based on the currently-streaming b-side, should be well worth your time. But I’m still jamming some of the highlights from last summer’s sophomore set A Place I’ll Always Go, like this no-frills instant winner, which does a fine job of laying out the quintessential Palehound elements: a big, sturdy, looped guitar riff, a whispery-tough vocal from Kempner, and an all-too-relatable emotional quagmire, expressed in non-binary terms: “they’re still in love with their ex/and i’m not feeling my best/this is a bad situation.”
Palehound play Johnny Brendas on February 8th.
10. This Is The Kit – “Solid Grease”
This is the project of Paris-based Brit Kate Stables, whose 2017 debut for Rough Trade, Moonshine Freeze, livened up its typically acoustic singer-songwriter template with healthy injections of African-inspired polyrhythms and jazz instrumentation, which helped make it one of the year’s more ear-catching indie-folk releases. And she saved one of her best melodies – and one of her finest vocal performances; a curious combination of high-flying, trilling melisma and Marlingesque speak-singing – for this finale, a subdued but still bright rumination on the conflicting, multi-valent, unknowable ways that people are. This is the Kit were most recently in town last month to open for The National (whose Aaron Dessner produced their previous record and plays on a bunch of this one) at the Kimmel Center, but they’ll be back to play again in just a few months, in a more suitably intimate context.
More specifically, This is the Kit will return to Johnny Brenda’s on Saturday, May 26th.
11. Phoebe Bridgers (with Conor Oberst) – “Would You Rather”
I’m not quite sure why it took so long for this apparently red-hot, up-and-coming L.A. folkie to get onto my radar. (Evidently, it’s because I don’t listen to quite enough WXPN.) But I’m psyched that she’s there now, because her 2017 breakout debut, Stranger in the Alps (the title turns out to be a goofy, in-jokey Big Lebowski reference) boasts as warm and inviting a sound-world as any singer-songwriter record in recent memory. It feels somehow richer and fuller than the relatively sparse, conventional indie-folk instrumentation and understated arrangements should allow for. I’d call it “dream folk”, if that was a thing. (Is that a thing? Why isn’t that a thing?) Also, the songs are great. Bridgers has a haunting way with melody, and an compellingly casual way with devastating lyrical detail, both of which qualities are evident in this late-album standout, a duet with Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst – one of her several notable celeb fans, and a clear antecedent for her candidly confessional approach. You might expect the sudden arrival of a new voice to be a little jarring, coming so late in such a solitary, sonically consistent album (it’s the final Bridgers original on the record, followed only by the magnificent Mark Kozelek cover “You Missed My Heart,”) but Oberst slides in quite naturally. Which makes a certain sense upon realizing that the song is about her brother. The duet is not between lovers but siblings; something that should also be more of a thing – a multi-layered exchange evoking some of strange, conspiratorial darkness of childhood, as the kid-friendly likes of tin-can telephones and the titular game of macabre hypotheticals shade into arson allegations and suicide pacts (which, come to think of it, feel oddly of a piece with child-like conceptions of death.)
Phoebe Bridgers plays World Cafe Live on February 21st
12. Little Mazarn – “The Grey Funnel Line”
One of my final, favorite discoveries of 2017 was Austin folk artist Lindsey Verrill, who – not unlike our own Katie Crutchfield (i.e. Waxahatchee) takes her stage name from an obscure southern waterway – in this case, a creek on the outskirts of Hot Springs, Arkansas. In mid-December, as the gears of the record industry ground down for their annual seasonal lull, she snuck out her softly transcendent self-titled debut, a spare, haunting five-song set that lasts a mere half an hour yet feels divorced from time entirely. In among several hushed and lovely banjo-led originals are two covers of old folk tunes, including this powerfully stark reading of an English nautical ballad. It features an impressively dark, potent, elemental drone, and no wonder: in addition to Verrill’s bowed banjo and her compatriot Jeff Johnston’s musical saw, the liner notes credit no fewer than twelve individuals with playing cello and bass.
Little Mazarn has no scheduled Philadelphia dates in 2018 or any other year. But hopefully that will change.
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