Every month, noted song expert K. Ross Hoffman presents Now Hear This, a sampling of fresh specimens for your consideration.
Another month, another haphazard assemblage of sounds, culled from near and far, old and new, this and that, recent recordings and forthcoming performances (another solid line-up of the latter!) Somehow, unpredictably, through-lines tend to emerge, and I try to take them for what they’re worth without overstating the point. For whatever reason, in compiling this second monthly batch of new 2018 tunes – jazz, ambient, country, folk, pop and rock, and very little of it on quite square – I kept encountering forms and notions of duality: binaries, opposites, mirrors, twins. Below you’ll find pairings as superficial and arbitrary as similar-sounding artist names, as specific and deliberate as conceptually conjoined album projects, as intriguing if incidental as strikingly parallel career arcs. Well, we’ve gotta find something to talk about. First, though, let’s have some fun.
As always, you can stream all the tracks in this column via this handy-dandy Spotify playlist:
1. Superorganism – “SPRORGNSM”
So, these guys are pretty much indie-pop’s answer to Brockhampton: an ample collective (in this case, eight members) with roots all over the globe (England, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, South Korea, Maine…) who initially connected via the internet but now all live together (well, all but one) in a house in London – and who’ve generated improbable levels of online hype since they first emerged in early 2017. But it’s not just the backstory: they and “the internet’s first boyband” also share a similarly insouciant, colorfully maximalist, DIY information-age aesthetic, which is all the more surprising considering that the group’s members span generations as well as continents, ranging in age from seventeen to thirty-two.
Musically, they traffic in the sort of exuberantly eclectic, sample-happy pop that was proffered by goofy post-Beck alt-radio hitmakers in the late ‘90s, and by giddy indie whimsicalists like Architecture in Helsinki and The Go Team! in the ‘00s. (Which isn’t to say that they’re a retro act per se, although there are some clear winks to these roots in the spot-on Web 1.0 pastiche of their homepage.) This stuff is deceptively tricky to pull off: manic musical crazy-quilts can all too easily wind up as messy, overbearing joykills, and the steady trickle of post-everything synthesists who’ve tried mining this vein in recent years have largely left me cold (Glass Animals, Terror Pigeon Dance Revolt and the majority of MGMT’s output are a few examples that come to mind.) But these guys beat the odds through some combo of genuine warmth, sheer earwormery and a willingness to commit to pure, unabashed silliness when the mood strikes. They also smartly temper their lunacy (just a tad) with legitimately slinky grooves and soft-psych touches that make their just-released eponymous debut feel trippier than most actual trip-hop.
Plus, it’s always a good move to have a song named after yourself (even docking a few points here for the played-out vwllssnss.) This readymade anthem offers a little taste of just about everything you could want: cheery gang vocals, candy-coated synths, fuzzy warbles, slow motion breakbeats and a warped techno-babble voiceover, all swirling around Orono Noguchi’s understated lead vocal: “When I grow up / I wanna be a superorganism.” Considering the uncommon level of cyber-abetted synergy on display here, I feel like they basically already are.
Superorganism play a super-sold-out Boot and Saddle on Wednesday, April 4th – the self-same night that indie old heads Superchunk rip it up over at Union Transfer. Discuss: is an organism the opposite of a chunk? Super!
2. In Tall Buildings – “Akinetic”
Another one from the “normally I don’t do this…” department: Akinetic, the third album from this one-man project of Chicago’s Erik Hall, is the most paradigmatic, lowest-common-denominator 21st-century sensitive-guy indie music I’ve heard this side of whatever Luke Temple’s last project was. It’s got the burnished rustication of Bon Iver and War on Drugs, the mild electronic crunch of latter-day Radiohead, some Fleet ’n’ Foxy harmonies, a Sufjanic sweetness… In a word, it is pretty. In another, it’s tasteful. If that sounds like a dismissal – well, take it as more of a barometer; even as someone who has a mixed track record with several of the aforementioned artists, though, I really like this. Hall enlisted producer Brian Deck – whose c.v. almost surprisingly includes none of the above, but does feature sonic fellow-travelers like Califone, Iron & Wine and Fruit Bats – to help seal in that warmly textural modern-indie flavor, and the results are nothing short of lovely. Perhaps ironically, the title track is actually among the more kinetic selections (not that that’s saying much); all pulsating, lightly distorted acoustic strums and burbling keys, lightly kissed by Hall’s hushed, harmonious murmurings.
In Tall Buildings will be at MilkBoy on Tuesday, April 3rd.
3. Natalia Lafourcade – “Derecho de Nacimiento”
Natalia Lafourcade’s greatest visibility in the United States, thus far, surely came via duetting with our boy Miguel on the Disney-boilerplate ballad “Remember Me” (from Coco), which she performed at the Oscars earlier this month. But she’s been a major star her native Mexico for well over a decade, following an unorthodox career trajectory that’s her led from teen girl-group dance-pop in the ‘90s to a series of increasingly ambitious indie pop and rock records (both solo and with her band La Forquetina), an EP of instrumental orchestral music and a tribute to the venerable bolero composer (and her fellow Veracruzano) Agustín Lara. Last year – in a move for which it’s a little hard to think of (or even imagine) an equivalent among U.S. artists of a similar age and stature – Lafourcade teamed up with Los Macorinos, a highly distinguished duo of guitarists several generations her senior, for a straightforwardly traditionalist set paying homage to the Great Latin-American Songbook of the early and mid twentieth century: the magnificent Musas: Un Homenaje al Folclore Latinoamericano en Manos de Los Macorinos, Vol. 1.
And, as that title implies, there was more to come: Vol. 2 arrived this February, a mere nine months later; featuring, like the first installment, renditions of myriad regional folk and popular-song classics (in this case, from Cuba and Peru as well as Mexico) interspersed with a few (virtually indistinguishable) Lafourcade originals. In a sense, the typically lovely and lilting “Derecho De Nacimiento” fits into both categories: she wrote it back in 2012 and initially performed it, with a group of like-minded musicians, in solidarity with the Mexican student protest movement Yo Soy 132. Here, it’s transformed – made new, and yet old at the same time – with a suitably timeless arrangement, swelling toward a chorus of conjoined voices (including her compatriot Ximena Sariñana), which links it to the long tradition of Latin American political folk songs – at a moment when it has no less urgency and relevance.
Natalia LaFourcade blesses the TLA on Monday, May 7th.
4. Johanna Warren – “Boundaries”
If Musas Vol. 2, as album sequels go, is clearly a close sibling (perhaps an “Irish twin,” as they say) of its predecessor, then Gemini II – the latest from this Portlandian dream-folk songwriter (and Reiki practitioner) – qualifies as a twin full stop. As you might glean from its title, this album and its 2016 counterpart were devised as a pair: both centered around ruminations on the same, now-concluded romantic relationship (with a gemini, naturally), and each of their tracks, in sequence, corresponds to a “twin” on the other album (linked by melodies, lyrics and/or production choices.)
It feels only fitting that I should share the analog of the track I featured from Gemini I. While musically reflecting fairly different aspects of Warren’s broadly consistent (and consistently gorgeous) sound palette – one’s a minimalist drone-poem, the other a more conventional, gingerly strummed acoustic waltz – both “There is a Light” and the new “Boundaries” alternate between tender words of motivation, delivered with an all-embracing, universal frame (from the former: “don’t lose your mind / don’t forget this life is for the living”) and the more direct application of such notions to her specific relationship (“here is the girl…to show you the love you’re so afraid of needing.”) The newer song’s self-analysis is notably more stark (“love does not seek to control or confine / even though that’s more than I can say of mine”), and her outward view, likewise, feels more conflicted, less complacent, toward a world filled with “all kinds of trouble” (“everyone’s scared of losing their minds / but if you open your eyes they’re easy enough to find / too bad we’re so fucking stoked to be blind.”) Her underlying conviction and humanistic faith are still there (as she asserts in the title of the album’s first song: “hopelessness has done nothing for me”), but they’re a bit more hard-fought this time: a little less enlightened, a little more wise.
Johanna Warren plays a house show at 2620 W. Master St. on Thursday, March 29th, as part of her Plant Medicine Tour, wherein she invites “local herbalists, farmers and activists [in Philly’s case, Ellister’s Elixirs and Barefoot Botanicals]…to share about their work and how their communities can get involved.”
5. Car Seat Headrest – “Bodys”
And here’s set of album twins that are unmistakably identical…or possibly even Siamese? Will Toledo chose to follow up his magnificent 2016 breakthrough, Teens of Denial, not with a new album, but an old one: a full, faithful re-construction of the cult-beloved, previously digital-only 2011 opus with the newly apt title Twin Fantasy. (Intriguingly, to emphasize the point and/or appease the die-hards, both versions were released together as a double-set, with the lo-fi original retroactively subtitled “(Mirror to Mirror)”.) Far from a sidestep or a stalling tactic, the album is a major triumph; proof positive, if any were needed, that Teens was no fluke and that, indeed, Toledo was writing about teenaged love, anxiety and intoxication with every bit as much sly wit, pithy insight and searing poignancy back when he was, y’know, an actual teenager. Among the greatest beneficiaries of the re-recording is this hyper-hooky highlight which, true to its title, is easily the most physically propulsive thing on here: it’s a standout in either iteration, but the new version positively crackles with taut, Strokes-y brio. For a dude who clearly spends a lot of time inside his head, this one’s a cathartic counterpoint: a dialogue between mind and body, in the form of a party jam about a jamming party (“everybody’s swinging their hips”) that flirts futilely with analysis (“I’m sick of meaning/I just wanna hold you”) before abandoning bodies to do what bodies will do: desire; decay; die; dance. When the chorus comes, it is – for once – not words that hit you but the big, dumb, corporeal crash of chords and cymbals. And the build-up – as promised – makes it all the more rewarding.
No local Car Seat Headrest dates are scheduled just yet…but you know he can’t hold out on us for long. C’mon Will!
6. Ezra Furman – “Suck The Blood From My Wound”
I first came across this Chicagoan around the time of his first album, over a decade ago, with his then-backing-band the Harpoons (whom he later swapped out for a different lineup dubbed the Boyfriends and now, again, the Visions) – and I largely wrote him off as just another scrappy indie-rock songwriter guy among the many. Well, either I was missing something or he’s gotten a lot more interesting over the years, because his new (seventh) album, Transangelic Exodus, is nothing if not a strikingly singular work. Actually, it’s reminiscent of Car Seat Headrest in quite a few ways: an emotionally fraught, passionately delivered, totally kick-ass rock’n’roll song cycle that’s smart, funny, wordy and unambiguously queer. It’s also a concept album – if not a full-on rock opera – set in a dystopian, not-so-subtly-allegorical alternate-reality USA wherein “illegal” angels (including the narrator’s fugitive lover) are compelled to have their wings surgically removed. It’s musical fiction, obviously – something like a road-movie riff on Angels in America as rendered by Bruce Springsteen and/or John Darnielle – but it also draws substantially on Furman’s experience and identity as a gender-nonconforming observant Jew. All of which might be nifty to read about, but it’d hardly count for peanuts without the raw urgency and blazing songcraft behind (for instance) this barnstorming opener, which establishes dramatic glam-punk as one of the album’s several musical modes. Yeah, the melody may owe more than a little to MGMT’s “Time To Pretend” (although the vibe’s closer to Dylan’s “Hurricane”) – and the title might seem more apt for vampires than angels – but with this much swagger on tap, who really gives a.
7. Ezra Feinberg – “Pentimento”
It took me a while to fully catch on to the situation, but yes, there’s another Ezra F. who also released an excellent record in February (just a week before Furman’s); another veteran of the indie-verse (he’s played in Piano Magic and was a core member of San Francisco psych-folksters Citay) whom I never took much notice of previously. But while both Ezras’ work is largely guitar-oriented, they’re otherwise about as dissimilar as you could imagine. Pentimento and Others, as it’s called, is an instrumental zone-out par excellence, threading a winding path between synthesizer-heavy ambient-drone and meticulously picked, hypnotically layered guitar interlacings – variously reminiscent of kindred spirits like Dustin Wong, Land Observations and the great Mark McGuire. It’s all a gorgeous, impressively varied whole, but this quasi-centerpiece, singled out in the title, is ably representative; a patient diptych nicely balancing technique and texture, composition and chance, wherein plinky, Reichian pointillism gradually yields to denser, more impressionistic chord-washes.
8. Caroline Rose – “Bikini”
Beyond that brace of Ezras, this year is also seeing a flurry of C-named millennial country/folk/Americana songstresses, whom I’ve been struggling to keep straight. Let’s see: there’s the Minnesota-via-Nashville belter Caitlyn Smith (who delivered a stellar Free at Noon set a couple weeks ago, and will be back around on April 14th); Vermont-via-Nashville crooner Caitlin Canty (who’s got a great album due later this month); Alabama-via-Austin hush-folker Caroline Sallee, a.k.a. Caroline Says; Arizona’s Courtney Marie Andrews (see below), not even mentioning that other Courtney… Also, as if just to make things more confusing, the too-long-inactive Nashvillian Caitlin Rose recently announced a Philly tour stop (Union Transfer, April 27th); we haven’t heard anything from her since 2013’s break-out The Stand In – which included “Menagerie,” one of this decade’s great unheralded pop masterpieces – so hopefully this is an indication of more to come.
…and then there’s this New York-based (but possibly Philly-bound?) wild-card, whose freewheeling new album Loser ditches the earnestly rootsy Americana constraints of her first two for a tough-to-categorize batch of smart, liberated pop, often delivered with a winkingly retro vibe that’s a little bit campy, a tiny bit trashy and a whole lot of fun – as exemplified by “Bikini”’s farfisa-flashing surfabilly rave-up, which proves that you can have your eye-roll feminist critique and dance to it too.
Caroline Rose turns up at Johnny Brendas on Thursday, April 5th.
9. Courtney Marie Andrews – “May Your Kindness Remain”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the coin, this big-hearted heartlander doubles down on both earnestness and roots with her similarly organ-drenched new long-player (due next week); unleashing her potent Parton/Ronstadt pipes across a set of earthy country gospel-soul, with equally stunning results. She’s been getting some shine (in public radio-land, anyway) for “Kindness of Strangers,” which is certainly a jam (notwithstanding a slight Dixie Chicks-ish twist to the chorus melody), but this thematically linked, hymnlike title track – the opener, and the first song released from the record – is a nice counterbalance, and at least as worthy of your ears. If it feels a little less than earth-shattering at first blush, that’s possibly due to it being such a gorgeously turned, classically understated bit of elemental songcraft that you might not notice you haven’t known it your entire life. Fortunately, you now have the remainder of your life to hearken to its critical, modestly intoned appeal.
Courtney Marie Andrews sidles back up to the Boot and Saddle on Saturday, March 24th, and plays the XPoNential Music Festival this summer.
10. Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog – “Muslim Jewish Resistance”
My two favorite contemporary jazz guitarists – possibly my two favorite jazz musicians of the last thirty years period – both return with strong (and very different) new records this spring. Actually, “jazz musician” is a highly reductive identifier in both cases, but especially inappropriately so concerning the mercurial Marc Ribot. Possibly still best known for his work alongside the likes of Tom Waits, John Zorn and Elvis Costello, he has also fronted several wildly divergent outfits ranging from the sadly dormant ersatz-Latin affair Los Cubanos Postizos to — most recently, and of local note – the disco/free-jazz mashing Young Philadelphians. In what’s becoming an every-five-year tradition, Ribot returns next month with a new recording from this maniacal, megawatt power-trio – the most extreme of all his bands – which pairs him with the equally fearsome and accomplished Shahzad Ismaily (bass) and Ches Smith (drums).
The group’s first two outings – Party Intellectuals (2008) and Your Turn (2013; you’ve gotta see the cover image, of a ludicrously rigged tic-tac-toe game, to grok the titular acerbity) – made no bones about their vehement and sometimes vitriolic politics. But neither really offered adequate preparation for the full-on, none-more-timely fury unleashed on YRU Still Here? (its title, reportedly, is simultaneously directed in toward themselves, outward at us, and over there at that one guy) which, while characteristically eclectic (and even playful), frequently veers from jazz-punk to punk full stop – raw, nasty punk at that. “I’ve got a right to say fuck you!” Ribot notes, early in the opening “Personal Nancy” (as in Spungen, that is) – and he exercises it proudly; verbally and otherwise, on such sledgehammer-like fare as “Fuck La Migra” and this first “single,” which, truly, brooks no comment – and necessitates no commentary. Dig it!
Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog lifts a leg at Johnny Brenda’s on Thursday, March 29th; the culmination of a so-called “U.S. Record Release Mini Tour” that predates the actual record release by a full month. Hey, fuck you!
11. Bill Frisell – “Rambler (Alternate Version)”
Did I say something about jazz? In his own way, Bill Frisell (who’s also played with Zorn and Costello, among many others) has probably done as much as Ribot to expand (or distort) the parameters of the genre over the past few decades – particularly in the direction of folk, country, Americana, rock and pop – albeit in a more consistently harmonious, approachable fashion. Somewhat surprisingly, although he’s thunderously prolific and possesses as distinctive a guitaristic voice as anyone who’s ever played the instrument, Frisell’s catalog to date contains only one truly solo album; 2000’s Ghost Town. That changes next week with the release of the succinctly titled Music IS. A typically lush, resplendent showcase for his casual mastery of timbre, texture and melodic phrasing, it also serves as an expansive survey of his work as a composer, comprising originals both newly penned and sourced from across his career, stretching back to his first albums on ECM in the early ‘80s. That includes two versions of “Rambler,” the title tune from his 1984 sophomore set as a leader: one, like much of the album, is layered and multi-tracked in a manner reminiscent of Bill Evans’ landmark Conversations With Myself – while hardly as conceptually or technologically groundbreaking now as it was in 1963, the technique is nevertheless highly redolent and effective – and additionally augmented with looping, bleeping electronics. This briefer, unadorned take, listed as a bonus track (and slightly lessening the album’s flow by coming after the nicely bookending culmination of the “proper” closer, “Made to Shine”) is, strangely, the only cut made available before the album’s release. It feels more halting and fragmentary than much of the record, resoundingly off-the-cuff especially in its very rubato first half, but he can’t help but make the thing sing, all the more as it ambles toward a charmingly down-home finale.
Bill Frisell is playing no fewer than nineteen dates in New York City this month (and another five in August), yet he couldn’t find a single night to pop down to Philadelphia? Jeez.
12. Nightcrawlers – “Modern Pre-Flight”
Let’s get ambient for a sec here – hey, it’s our wont – but, also, archival…and local! A generous new reissue from Anthology Recordings shines light on some of the little-known sounds burbling up from Philadelphia’s underground in the 1980s. (“Burbling” being very much the operative word.) Over the course of that blighted decade, this trio, based in nearby Jersey, concocted three “proper” albums and several dozen hand-dubbed tapes’ worth of trippy, evocative, formally minimalist synthesizer explorations; their homespun take on the German kosmische music that emerged in the previous decade. While they enjoyed support in their day from the likes of WXPN and the Painted Bride (then decidedly younger, scrappier incarnations of the institutions we know now), they’ve been all but forgotten in the years since, despite growing interest in many of their more exotic international counterparts. Salute, therefore, The Biophonic Boombox Recordings – available here (the title is an apt tweak on the actual recording technology they used: the built-in mic of a JVC “Biphonic” boombox): a sprawling trawl of those cassette sides that offers up fourteen cuts totaling over two and half hours of music. It’s worth experiencing, at leisure, in its expansive, immersive fullness, but several of my favorite moments come late in the proceedings, on the often lengthier “bonus tracks” (included on the CD and digital versions of the release but not vinyl); among them this relatively bright if not quite easeful meander through a field of shimmering, crystalline twinkles. Eighties Philly…who knew?
Caroline Rose, Now Hear This