Now Hear This: New songs from Ry Cooder, Neko Case, Wajatta, Bernice, Dear Nora, Stephen Malkmus and more

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Neko Case
Neko Case | photo courtesy of the artist

Every month, noted song expert K. Ross Hoffman presents Now Hear This, a sampling of fresh specimens for your consideration.

Happy summer, is it?  I guess I got all the pop out of my system last month, cuz it’s about to get pretty indie in here.  You like indy music, right?  Good, cause I’ve got nothing major planned for this month.  After all, independence day is coming up soon.  In this June installment of Now Hear This, at the halfway point of an already-pretty-excellent year for all kindsa music, we’ll take some stock of the wide, white, anglophone (though in this case, hardly at all male) world of probably the least useful genre descriptor there is.  Then, eventually, we’ll get to some other places – Holland, Africa, outer space, Takoma Park.  We’ll meet some bands named after names, check in with some artists who’ve been around for fifty years, or seventy years, and some who went away for a while and have come back to us.  First, though, let’s hear a heavy hit from one of the least-categorizable heavy-hitters out there…

As always, you can stream all the tracks in this column via this handy-dandy Spotify playlist

Neko Case, “Bad Luck”

Oh, Neko.  I really don’t know how she gets away with it.  I’m hard-pressed to think of another songwriter whose work is so consistently (and increasingly) enigmatic, so ineffably sui generis in both compositional form and lyrical content, yet remains so consistently beloved of her particular (on the whole, not especially arty or edgy) listening demographic.  Hell-On, her seventh solo full-length, arrives a full five years after its magnificent predecessor, which is cause for celebration in itself – and it’s easily her densest, least predictable and most idiosyncratic offering yet.  Which is not to say it’s hard-listening or unapproachable, just that its mysteries (title and utterly outrageous, Machine Dazzle-worthy cover art on down) remain slow to unfold after a month-plus with the thing.  Well, she’s earned our perseverance.

Here’s an easy hook though.  Shortly into the proceedings we get what, save only the spitfire anthem-for-the-species “Man, and even including her New Pornographers output, feels like most immediate, direct hit she’s ever cut; a song that’s been burning a hole in my eardrums from the day I first heard it.  “Bad Luck” is about as close to textbook pop as Case is liable to venture, but she still somehow squeezes in a dizzying, multi-angle deconstruction of the titular concept.  The central hook – an improbable litany of invented bad omens – is juxtaposed with a recurrent refrain shrugging off the banal reality of our quotidian afflictions (death, work), while the verses offer up questions for self-reflection and the bridge pauses for a string of oh-so-Neko koans (Nekoans?) on love (“trying to pass riddles as poetry” indeed.)  On an album atypically rife with collaborators popping up in unexpected ways, “Bad Luck” makes especially effective use of Case’s longtime sidekick singers Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor to flesh out its sticky bubblegum chorus, while co-producer and multi-instrumentalist Björn Yttling (of Peter Björn and John) finally lets his Swede-pop-genius fingerprints slip.  (I mean, come on – the bongos are a dead giveaway.)  There’s no shortage of misfortune to go around these days; maybe this song – recorded the morning Case learned her house had caught fire, no less – will be just the fizzy-tart sugar-coated lucky charm we need.

Neko Case plays Festival Pier on Friday, June 22nd, with Ray LaMontagne.

Natalie Prass – “Hot For The Mountain”

Miss Prass is truly receiving the full public-radio royal treatment lately – even more so, oddly enough, than Our Neko.  She’s recently been featured on Song Exploder and as an NPR First Listen; closer to home, she played a sparkling set at last month’s NonComm, taped a World Café session, returned this past Friday for an XPN Free at Noon show, and will be back yet again in July as part of XPoNential Fest.  All with good reason: she just unleashed the long-gestating follow-up to a self-titled debut which won over plenty of musical hearts (mine included – it was a strong contender for my album of 2015, at least until Carly Rae came along). And the new one, The Future & The Past, is similarly top-shelf.  At first blush it comes off as an enjoyably frothy but perhaps overly glib (or should that be Gibb?) pop makeover, swapping lavishly orchestrated throwback chamber-soul for equally retro-indebted lite-funk and disco grooves (a la Feist’s Inside and Out.)  Which can feel a bit like mere genre cosplay – especially given the album cover’s fabulously ‘70s dork-chic drag.  But things get more complicated as the tempos slow – as on this sultry slow-burner which may be the album’s most intriguing moment, as well as the source of its title.  Prass describes it as a political “protest song,” but it’s a curiously oblique one: it feels more like a come-on than a call-to-arms, the softly group-sung “we’ll take you on” refrain notwithstanding.  “Let us raise a glass to the future and the past” is a rather roundabout way of saying “[fie on] the present.”  Aside from some marvelously slinky, sinister string lines (courtesy of resident Spacebomb maestro Trey Pollard), there’s nothing overtly urgent or threatening about either the arrangement or, especially, Prass’ delivery – and pointedly so.  It’s a brilliantly counterintuitive approach to the problem: how do you signal righteous anger and unswerving, eyes-on-the-prize solidarity when your weapons are a leisure-lounge orchestra and a notoriously girlish, wafer-thin coo?

Natalie Prass plays Wiggins Park in Camden as part of XPoNential Fest on Saturday, July 28th

Tracyanne & Danny – “Alabama”

You know who’s not ready to move beyond lavishly orchestrated throwback chamber-soul?  Tracyanne Campbell – our lady of Glaswegian sorrows; rarely-merry queen of Scots indie-pop melancholy; sepia-toned focal point of the too-long-shuttered Camera Obscura…long may she wail.  Okay, maybe I’m laying on the sad-sack black eyeliner a bit thick.  Actually, autumnal as they may seem, CamObs always felt like a summer band to me, hopelessly bursting with melodic sunshine in the face of lovelorn woe.  (For what it’s worth, their last three records were released in June, April and June, respectively.)  So the season feels just right for the succinctly-titled, Edwyn Collins-produced Tracyanne & Danny, a career re-set of sorts for Campbell – her main group has been on indefinite hiatus since bandmate Carey Lander passed in 2015 – in tandem with burnished-baritone Brit Danny Coughlan (the aptly-monikered Crybaby).  It ain’t all a head-hanger’s bawl, although this one in particular was penned in tribute to Lander, and it’ll do for anyone you might be missing “like crazy-oh.”  But whatever they’re singing about, it always feels like a sun-dappled road-trip on an early-‘60s sound stage (or perhaps a Todd Haynes – not David Lynch, if you please – recreation thereof), or otherwise a roadside juke-joint slow-dance a few scenes later.  Clinching the road-movie romance vibes, “Alabama” (which boasts the pedal steel to match) is one several numbers to invoke U.S. locales – including Salt Lake City, Sante Fe and [Merge Records homestate] North Carolina – with the kind of nostalgic mystique Yanks typically reserve for Europe or the exoticized East.  Who knew that when Campbell sang “Let’s Get Out Of ThisCountry” she was maybe dreaming about coming over to ours?

Tracyanne and Danny tool their roadster on over to Johnny Brenda’s in sunny old Philadelphia, this Sunday, June 17th.  Take your pop!

Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks – “Bike Lane”

Hot dang!  Talk about re-striped pavement…  (Ok, srry, that was terrible.)  I know Stevie Malk + co were supposed to be so ironic, or snarky or whatever, back in the day – though save for a few choice lines that was generally more of an aesthetic pose, not an actual lyrical strategy.  (If anything, Malkmus was mostly a surrealist – perhaps at times an absurdist – as he mostly remains.)  But I don’t think I’ve ever heard a Malk jam employ the kind of blunt, bitterly cynical sarcasm he unleashes on “Bike Lane,” a fast standout on the, as always, awesomely-titled new Jicks joint Sparkle Hard.  There aren’t that many words in the song, making it all the harder to miss the pointed disjuncture between the anodyne refrain wanly lauding, like the good Portlandian he is, “another beautiful bike lane,” and the verses’ stark condemnation of Freddie Gray’s murderers.  The angle – the anger – manifests musically too, in a verse setting that veers from blithe and bouncy to rangy and distended, for a moment, before launching into a demented, discordant Chuck Berry rip – “Go, Freddie, go!” – complete with siren effects.  Let’s be clear – it’s not that the song is anti-bike lane.  But the systems driving the processes of urban change can be messy, convoluted things.  This ish is dark, friend.

SM+Jicks come to play at the TLA this Saturday, June 16th.  Cool, I love the TLA!

Courtney Barnett – “Need A Little Time”

I don’t know a lot about how it is anywhere else, but Philly’s had a pretty big thing for Courtney Barnett from the beginning.  By this point, what with the Kurt Vile connection and all, it seems like she kinda likes us too.  She’s already been around a bit supporting the new Tell Me How You Really Feel which, even though I’m not usually a less-twee/more-grunge kinda guy, I’m really feeling is her best effort yet – most well-plotted and cohesive, most personal and fleshed-out.  “Need A Little Time” – the second of the album’s four pre-release singles, and the one that’s sticking with me the most thus far – may not feature her wittiest lyric ever, but it’s one of her realest.  It is at once a plug and a world-weary plea for better self-care and less co-dependence, flashing a series of ambiguous but evocative bodily images both literal and metaphorical – the feel of a freshly-shaved head, a manual extraction of your “inner most lecherous” – with a corresponding light/heavy duality to the music.

Courtney Barnett played Philly last month before her album dropped; she’s taking a little time out now but she’ll be back around again October 23rd at the Fillmore – don’t be surprised if she sells out that one too.  Also, apropos of how much the opening moments of this song keep reminding me of Kacey Musgraves’ “Die Fun”, I’d like to take this opportunity to remind/implore you to go see Kacey Musgraves at Free at Noon this Friday!!

The Beths – “Future Me Hates Me”

In case you haven’t noticed, we’re living in a golden age for scrappy, peppy, punk-poppy indie guitar-rock – and the bands just keep on coming.  It’s not always easy to say what sets one group above the pack, but there’s no question these zealous New Zealanders (say: “the Biths”) are the whole package, sporting a classic yin-yang of exuberance and angst, a readily relatable songwriter/frontlady in Elizabeth Stokes, sneaky-tight chops (they all went to school for jazz, not that you can hear it without squinting), and a seemingly bottomless kettle of gingerly harmonized hooks.  This fuzzburst title-track, a clever and super-catchy paean to the M.O. of YOLO over FOMO, isn’t even necessarily my favorite on their forthcoming debut LP (favorites are hard), but it is one of the two songs from it you can currently hear.  If that’s not enough (and it’s not), don’t miss 2016’s Warm Blood EP, recently reissued by Carpark Records, where they’re now in good company with fellow smartypants popsters like Teen and Speedy Ortiz.

The Beths/Biths are playing Ortliebs on Wednesday, June 13th.  Don’t go just to say you saw them in such a tiny spot before the album dropped and they inevitably blew up; go because it’s gonna rock.

Dear Nora – “Creature of Habit”

In my college radio days, Dear Nora was a name on the spine of one of those CDs on the “playlist” shelf from which we DJs in the “rok” department were obliged to pull regularly.  I’m positive that I played some tracks from it (it being, specifically, their 2001 debut We’ll Have a Time) on the air and I’m pretty sure I enjoyed them, but that’s about all.  Apparently the band – the solo-or-not project of Katy Davidson, who kicked it off in Portland but is now based in Twentynine Palms, CA – meant a little more than that to at least some other people, as their 2004 album Mountain Rock was reissued last year and they are now, correspondingly, back to active for the first time in a decade.  The lovely new Skulls Example really evokes that intimate, hand-crafted spirit of turn-of-the-millennium Pac-NW indie – lo-fi but clean-lined, quirky but earnest, sweet but not too cutesy – without feeling stuck in any particular time or place.  This one in particular, with its springy, palm-muted strums and improbable self-harmonized refrain – “the house is immaculate!” – is a bite-sized gem.

Dear Nora already played at Space 1026 (aw, so retro!) last Sunday…dang, you missed it!

Bernice – “St. Lucia”

Third but no way least in this little trio of bands named after names comes this uncanny Canadian outfit, whose strangely intoxicating new Puff LP: In the air without a shape – a self-professed “minimalist LP” following last year’s similarly-named “maximalist EP” – makes about as little sense as its title, and feels as free-floating and dreamily lucid as the biomorphic forms in its striking cover painting.  The album was mixed by Sandro Perri of Polmo Polpo, which makes sense since his music is one of the better reference points I can think of for Bernice’s amorphous yet alluring electronic-lounge-jazz-dreampop aura.  “St. Lucia” is one of two numbers reprised from Puff EP, only here its creaky, mechanistic art-techno bump is refashioned into a sort of slinky, shambolic samba – the better to evoke its Caribbean namesake, however elliptically.

Wajatta – “Make Some Sense”

Their name may be a slightly goofy portmaneau of the duo’s two members – veteran producer John Tejada and vocalist Reggie Watts – the latter of whom may also be a noted comedian, beatboxer and self-described “disinformationist.”  And their debut album may have just been released by a label called Comedy Dynamics (which, yes, is a comedy label.)  But Wajatta are no joke.  Casual High Technology is an earnest (but never bland) homage to vintage deep house that is by turns playful (the loopy, bleeping “Let Me Come To Your Party) and soulful (majestic, slow-simmering opener We Know More (Than We Lead On).)  Mostly, though, it strikes a generous balance between the two, as on this genial thumper, a showcase for both Watt’s layered scatting and his limber, Princely leads, which should appeal to fans of moody latter-day vocal-house acts like Storm Queen and Benoit & Sergio.

Detroit Swindle ft. Lorenz Rhode – “High Life”

While we’re in the general vicinity, check out this dreamy, funky, chill, summery slice of boogie-down house; the title track of this duo’s second album.  Not reinventing any wheels, I suppose – though it’s nice hearing an electric piano lick with this much organic granular texture and dynamic range – but I could keep on listening to it for a long, long time.  I guess the swindle is that they’re not from Detroit – they’re Dutch, thank you very much – or maybe it’s that this doesn’t really sound anything like Detroit is supposed to sound like anyway.

Hey, it looks like they’re actually on tour in the States this week – not playing Philly of course because hip Euro dance acts never play in Philly – but they’ll be at Flash in D.C. on Wednesday and Elsewhere in New York on Friday.  (In between, on Thursday, they’re actually going all the way over to Detroit.  I dunno who booked that itinerary but it sounds like a swindle to me.)

Henrik Schwarz & Metropole Orkest – “You’re A Fireball”

Oh hey, speaking of electronic music and the Netherlands (and I didn’t even plan that!), here’s a thing.  Metropole Orkest is a seventy-year-old, fifty-piece hybrid symphony orchestra and jazz big-band, based in Holland and nationally subsidized, which has in recent years collaborated with folks who have as little in common as Elvis Costello, Basement Jaxx, Laura Mvula, Robert Fripp and the metal band Within Temptation.  So, basically, they are pretty much down for whatever.  Henrik Schwarz is a German producer and prolific remixer who likes to mess around with jazz and “classical” music but whom I mostly revere for having put together a couple of the most artful, intriguing and erudite DJ mix sets I know of, especially his brilliant and deeply soulful 2006 entry in !K7’s DJ-Kicks.  Scripted Orchestra, which Schwarz composed using technological electronic-music computer processes, was premiered live with Metropole in 2016 (and just released as a studio recording on !K7’s “classical” label 7K!) and it’s among the more successful and listenable examples of this type of crossover attempt that I’ve heard.  At its best moments – like this jaunty, chugging juggernaut, which seems to shape-shift continually without ever really changing – it reminds me of Matthew Herbert’s Score (!K7, 2006) and that’s a very nice thing to be reminded of.  Wow, 2006…a long time ago.

Idris Ackamoor and the Pyramids – “An Angel Fell”

Let’s take a lil trip.  Saxophonist Ackamoor and the original incarnation of the Pyramids first coalesced in 1972 at Ohio’s Antioch College under the influence of then-professor Cecil Taylor (R.I.P.) and study-abroad travels through Africa and Europe (among other things, presumably.)  They disbanded after three cult-beloved albums, but reformed well over three decades later, scoring a breakthrough with the 2016 Strut release We Be All Africans.  An Angel Fell is the resounding follow-up, informed by many heavy events of the last several years but steeped as much in the drive for unity as in anger; offering up fiery Afrobeat-jazz grooves aplenty but also surprises like the smooth, Eastern European-inflected “Papyrus” and this spacey, Sun Ra-channeling title epic.  A sing-song chant, building like a spiritual invocation, tells of an angel falling from the sky – whether toward damnation or salvation is unclear – and we are simultaneously flown increasingly further out into the uncharted, godless cosmos, until finally drifting back the same way, with no more resolution than before.

Ry Cooder – “You Must Unload”

Well, here’s your redemption.  The Prodigal Son, as its title suggests, marks a significant homecoming.  The incomparable Ryland Cooder has rarely been silent for long over the past three decades: he’s produced countless film soundtracks; become a one-man global ambassador via collaborations with V. M. Bhatt, Ali Farka Touré, Manuel Galbán, the Chieftains and, of course, Buena Vista Social Club, and cut a fascinating trio of historical concept records and a pair of blistering political broadsides, most recently 2012’s pointedly topical Election Special.  But not since 1987’s rock’n’roll-oriented Get Rhythm has he revisited the format of his peerless 1970s LPs, which consisted almost exclusively of reworkings – if not full-on reinventions – of older (often much older) material, drawing on the blues, folk, ragtime, R&B, Tex-mex, Hawaiian music and beyond.  This new album shines its spotlight on gospel – one of very few remaining roots genres he’d not previously built an album around, although he’s long been conversant with it (musically, if not religiously.)  In fact, this may be as close as he’s since come to his very earliest recordings: just like on his self-titled 1970 debut, he works his musicology-in-action magic on tunes by Blind Willie Johnson and Blind Alfred Reed, the Virginian who recorded a very different version of this piously stark rebuke back in 1927.  The song’s contemporary resonance – decrying “money-loving Christians [who] refuse to pay your share” – is hard to mistake (indeed, Reed’s original was recently featured on a prominent anti-Trump playlist.)  But Ry’s rendition takes an unexpected tack, eschewing any audible trace of righteous condemnation.  Instead, he delivers it in a tender, dream-like reverie, gradually gathering steam into a slow, desultory marching groove that splits the distance between New Orleans and Appalachia – buoyed by Aubrey Haynie’s sumptuous fiddle-playing and the comfortingly familiar harmonies of long-time Cooder compatriots Arnold McCuller, Bobby King, and Terry Evans (who passed in January.)  It’s up there with Cooder’s most stunningly pretty creations.  (Plus, it’s already become a personal dishwasher-clearing anthem.)

Ry Cooder graces the Mann Center with fellow living legend Emmylou Harris – between the two of them they’ve played on so many iconic albums it’s not even funny – on Tuesday July 3rd.  You’re welcome, America.

BONUS – GUITAR SUMMIT!

Sarah Louise – “Bowman’s Root”

Marisa Anderson – “Cloud Corner”

Robbie Basho – “The Thousand Incarnations of the Rose”

One of the musical highlights of my spring was getting to experience some of April’s Thousand Incarnations of the Rose festival – a first-and-possibly-only-ever convocation of around two dozen practitioners of the style known as American Primitive Guitar – while visiting friends for a weekend in Takoma Park, MD.  (I caught excellent and strikingly different sets from Oklahoma’s Dylan Golden Aycock, California’s Chuck Johnson and New York’s Alexander Turnquist.)  The festival took place in Takoma Park because that was the hometown of the genre’s originator and best-known exponent John Fahey, who died in 2001.  It’s also the namesake of Fahey’s record label, which additionally issued works by Leo Kottke, Robbie Basho, and several others – Peter Walker, Harry Taussig, Max Ochs – who performed at the festival.  

Concurrently with the festival came the release of an eponymous compilation, subtitled American Primitive Guitar and Banjo (1963-1974) and assembled by contemporary AmPrim heavyweight Glenn Jones (who, incidentally, just announced a new album of his own.)  It’s a magnificent listen; a phenomenal and unprecedented seventeen-track survey of the genre’s first decade, including the epic, dazzlingly exploratory Basho cut for which both album and festival were named.  (I suspect the name choice was also a small tip of the hat to Philly’s own beloved, too-soon-lost Jack Rose.)  

In Jones’ fascinating liner essay for the compilation, alongside a detailed disquisition on the origins and definition of American Primitive as a term and its parameters as a style – most fundamentally, he determines, its players are (primarily) self-taught, emphasize expression over virtuosity, and compose their own music – he notes that despite Fahey’s primary influences having been two women guitarists, Etta Baker and Elizabeth Cotten, his compatriots and followers have been overwhelmingly male.  That tide is starting to turn, however: the festival did feature a handful of female performers, perhaps most notably Portland Oregon’s Marisa Anderson and Asheville, North Carolina’s Sarah Louise, both of whom have excellent new albums on Thrill Jockey Records (one of several current de-facto successors to Takoma, having put out records by Jones and Rose among others.)

Although Louise has released several purely instrumental 12-string albums, the new Deeper Woods – of a piece with last year’s debut by her duo House and Land – strays considerably from the American Primitive playbook, incorporating numerous other instruments, prominently featuring her haunting soprano and generally inculcating itself into folk (a term at which Fahey evidently bristled), albeit of an eldritch, unsettling variety.  Her pensive fingerpicking, however, remains very much in evidence, perhaps most notably on the opening “Bowman’s Root.”  As for Anderson, the title cut of her new opus Cloud Corner (out this Friday) is a gorgeous slice of archetypal AmPrim, a fluid, rippling composition that is at once misty and crystal-clear, gossamer and stately, melodic and hypnotic; Anderson’s mastery evident as much in her soft, precise timbral control as her obvious dexterity.

Marisa Anderson plays PhilaMOCA on Thursday, July 5th.

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