Every month, noted song expert K. Ross Hoffman presents Now Hear This, a sampling of fresh specimens for your consideration.
We are officially in the dull. drums. of the dog. days. of the slow end of summer. Musically speaking. Not that there’s nothing going on, of course. I mean, this month alone I have already seen fantastic shows by several of my longtime favorites – a triumphant return to Johnny Brenda’s from the perennially entertaining Jeffrey Lewis, and a basement show by the great guitarist Glenn Jones – both of them previewing material from super-promising new albums still forthcoming (later this month in Jones’ case; no official word yet from Lewis.) And yeah oh yeah, I got to see Radiohead for the first time in way too long and fall completely and utterly back in love with them, which seems like it was more or less the consensus regarding their just-wrapped US tour. That said, the column below, as it turned out, only manages to highlight a couple of shows this fall. (Several of these artists, I’m sorry to report, already played Philly in the last month or two, well before their respective album releases – some of them in opening slots, which gives me hope that they might return to headline before too long.)
The upside of a month with a relatively slow release schedule (at least for big-name new releases) is that it inspires me to dig a little further than I might otherwise. Because, let’s face it, we live in an age when it’s all but impossible to get away from worthwhile if not downright vital new music on a virtually weekly basis. Or anyway, it feels that way if you spend an ungodly percentage of your waking hours (and plenty of the ones you should be sleeping too) poking around on the internet as if furiously trying to prevent it from passing you by. (My lord, when will it stop?) Anyhow…here are some knockouts, knick-knacks and novelties from the last month or so. Enjoy, and I’ll See You In September!
As always, you can stream all the tracks in this column via this handy-dandy Spotify playlist:
1. Robbie Fulks & Linda Gail Lewis – “Wild Wild Wild”
“I’m the sister of a hell-raiser”: those are the first words Linda Gail Lewis sings – penned for her by Robbie Fulks – to kick off their spankin’ new collaborative long-player, Wild! Wild! Wild! It’s an incontrovertible truth – the sibling in question being one Jerry Lee – and if the rest of her boasts in that tune (“Around Too Long”) are even half as true, Linda’s own bona-fides as a hard-livin’ instigator are every bit as secure. That said, the album ain’t all rip-roaring honky-tonk and rockabilly – indeed, it runs a considerable gamut from jump-up western swing and boogie-woogie to Memphis jugband blues, organ-grinding soul-jazz and rustic folk-gospel, from tear-stained cheatin’ songs to sassy murder ballads – just about anything so long as, per the Al Anderson number they cover here, “It Came From the South.” (Okay, there’s no Atlanta trap music on here…but I wouldn’t put it past them.) Both parties acquit themselves admirably all the way around, but Lewis, clearly still a firecracker at 71 years young, sounds perhaps most at home on rollicking fare like the self-explanatory title cut, with her barrelhouse ivory-pounding and gutsy caterwauls leaving no question that she’s kin to the Killer. As for Fulks, who wrote well over half of the album, this was clearly an irresistible opportunity – with Lewis as both worthy muse and game co-conspirator – to indulge his knack for crafting traditionally-styled tunes that could pass for genuine golden oldies and yet still feel fresh, witty and relevant. But it’s also a treat, after a handful of truly excellent but largely restrained solo efforts, to hear him reclaiming some of the hell-raising rock ’n’ roll energy of his earlier work.
Linda Gail Lewis and Robbie Fulks play World Cafe Live on Wednesday, September 20th.
2. The Internet – “La Di Da”
This summer’s preeminent album-length vibe treatise comes to us from these effortlessly hip, lovably nonchalant groove heads, who are about as chilled out as their fellow collectivist SoCal webstars Brockhampton are twitchy and overstimulated. Starting out in 2011 as the low-key satellite project of Odd Future members Syd “The Kid” Bennett and Matt Martians, The Internet has evolved, improbably, into a full-fleshed five-piece, the foremost (and practically only) working exponents of the kind of head-nodding live-band R&B that, once upon a time, was most prominently associated with the legendary Philly-affiliated Soulquarian crew. The aptly-titled Hive Mind is more of a showcase for laid-back, locked-in grooves and deftly tasteful musicianship than it is for songs per se – the whole thing pretty much just flows like so much honey. But “La Di Da” is one of a few marginally more uptempo jams, a percolating funk nugget riding a chunky Steve Lacy guitar riff, and a bone thrown to those who, as the hook suggests, “just came to dance…catch a groove.” Still, it’s a sneakier affair than it may initially seem, with a subtly duplicitous groove whose one seems to slip around elusively from section to section. Then there’s that seductive fake-out of a breakdown, wherein Martians mumbles casually about taking you to the bridge, but instead promptly circles back around and fades away, dissolving into yet another slow burner.
The Internet open for Gorillaz at Wells Fargo Center on Thursday October 12th.
3. Dirty Projectors feat. Amber Mark – “I Feel Energy”
Speaking of Syd – she’s just one among of a whole passel of intriguing guest artists whom Dave Longstreth enlisted for vocal support on the new Dirty Projectors album, which marks a dazzingly bright turnaround from last year’s fascinating but at times suffocatingly hermitic self-titled (ostensibly) solo effort. In this case of this track, it’s up-and-coming NYC soulstress Amber Mark, although frankly she nearly gets lost here, in between Longstreth’s own giddy falsetto warbling and a bucketload of absurdly infectious, irrepressible elements including disco handclaps, a lithe MJ/“Soul Makossa”-style funk-pop groove and a swaggering, New Orleans-y horn section. The whole thing is basically as ebullient and ridiculously overstuffed as that probably sounds; a screwball pop/dance eruption that may not exactly reach the lofty, hallowed peaks of “I Feel Love,” but nevertheless lives up to its title several times over.
4. Steve Hauschildt feat. GABI – “Syncope”
Even before, but especially since the dissolution of the beloved Ohioan ambient psych/drone trio Emeralds, synthesist Steve Hauschildt has charted a singular and solitary course through the glacial soundfields encompassing new age and what’s somewhat anachronistically called progressive electronic music. (Is “new age,” resurgent as it is, an equally antiquarian term at this point? I dunno…) With the typically masterful, but exceptionally expressive Dissolvi, his first outing for Ghostly International, that course gets a little bit less solitary: both figuratively, with some of his warmest and most welcoming sounds to date (one obvious reference point being Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works), and literally, with the incorporation of several guest vocalists and instrumentalists. Perhaps Dissolvi’s most palpable outside influence comes from the vocal-ambient trailblazer Julianna Barwick. She only actually appears on one track – the lush, snow-glowy lead single “Saccade,” which is a mild revelation in how neatly her work can dovetail with old-school IDM/ambient techno. But you can hear the imprint of Barwick’s signature celestial susurrations elsewhere too – in the rich, uplifting choral textures of “Lyngr,” and especially on this low-key banger, a twinkling team-up with the the art-pop songstress GABI which recalls the starry sotto voce tech-house of the German producer Christian Löffler, and which provides the album’s most dreamily bumpin’ moment.
5. Bad Bad Hats – “Talk With Your Hands”
A typically fat-free, quick-hit pop-treat from this Minneapolitan trio, who won me over with their casually charming 2015 debut Psychic Reader, and happily plough pretty much the same furrow on the just-released Lightning Round. They may not have many new tricks to offer here (some dreamier atmospherics on the verses; a bit more synth gleam on the hook) but as long as they keep those crunchy, just-slightly-roughed-up guitar hits rubbing up against Kerry Alexander’s edgeless liquid coo – as happens, right on cue, in this textbook ear-candy chorus – I’m a happy guy. Like plenty of contemporary indie kids, BBH are unabashed ‘90s babies, but they look to a slightly different, more polished strain of alt-era rock than the angsty confessionals currently holding sway in hipper, loer-fi circles: not for nothing did they cover Blink-182 and Shania Twain in their salad days, nor, more recently, open some tour dates for Third Eye Blind, although I get more of a refined Hatfield/Dando power-pop vibe.
6. Bodega – “Charlie”
Endless Scroll, July’s blistering blast of a debut from these fabulously snarky, dancey Brooklyn art-punks, was produced by Parquet Courts’ Austin Brown, using the same tape deck that recorded his band’s 2012 breakout Light Up Gold (and released by the same label, What’s Your Rapture) – a talking point that would hardly be worth recapitulating if the two records did not so emphatically resemble one another, especially at first blush. That’s not a knock: Scroll, like Gold, is tremendously fun, inventive and distinctive in its own right; both albums share a bracing, restlessly irreverent energy at least as much as a sound, and Bodega are if anything even more simultaneously hilarious and scathing in their no-holds-barred takedowns of various aspects of contemporary life. (Just for instance, one memorable line from the standout “Name Escapes” – “have you heard the latest single by the so and the sos??” – delivered in “Bodega Ben” Hozie’s trademark deadpan, declamatory yawn-shout – handily skewers the relentless churn of internet-age music hype-cycles – of which, trust me, I’m every bit as weary as anyone out there.)
“Charlie,” arriving late in the track order, is an unexpected change of pace: a moment of hard-earned sweetness, and mask-off vulnerability, which imparts a sudden depth and shading to the rest of the album’s piquant cynicism. It’s an undeniably heartfelt tribute to a dear departed friend, portraying, in hardly unsentimental but still strikingly matter-of-fact terms, both the youthful enthusiasm of Hozie and Charlie’s friendship and the cold facts of the latter’s death. Musically too, it’s easily the album’s sweetest and most tuneful moment – one that makes it clear why such settings aren’t exactly Hozie’s forte, vocally speaking, yet coming off as all the more sincere and endearing because of those limitations.
7. Shy Boys – “Champion”
This Kansas City outfit’s delightful Polyvinyl debut, Bell House, opens with an eighty-second a cappella clap-a-long that could almost pass for Dion & the Belmonts-style early-‘60s doo-wop; it concludes, after a breezy, all-too-brief twenty minutes of tender shimmer and harmony-rich jangle, with this impossibly catchy, magnificently twee offering. It’s an ode to maternal/filial love which is both nostalgic and effervescent enough that it could readily serve as a theme song to the most insipid retro-‘90s sitcom imaginable, yet still make you tear up every time. They might call themselves shy, but making music this purely earnest, and sweetly pretty, in a world like ours, takes some serious guts.
Shy Boys have no upcoming Philly shows scheduled, though hopefully that will change soon. (Like Bodega, Bad Bad Hats and Dirty Projectors, they were here fairly recently, in this case opening for Cut Worms.) However, an entirely unrelated Shy Boyz – hailing from Philly by way of Plovdiv, Bulgaria (where I once passed a highly enjoyable afternoon!) are playing at Ortlieb’s on Tuesday September 4th. I’m not sure I can entirely vouch for it, but they do seem capable of putting on a pretty memorable show, even if it just involves screening their videos.
8. We Are Muffy – “Civil Service”
Nobody does twee like the Brits. I mean, I guess the Swedes and the Australians come pretty close. Americans in particular, though, rarely seem to realize that it doesn’t have to be all gooey and hyperactive all the time. It can be also be genial, quaint and folksy, for instance – qualities that can help it feel more relatable and a lot less insular. Seemingly, it’s a lot easier to be simultaneously cutesy and rootsy in a British context than an American one. It helps that a lot of English traditional culture – which is also a lot more cohesive and deeply entrenched than ours – is pretty twee to begin with. (Compare this, for example.) Like, I’m not sure anybody’s attempted a U.S. equivalent to, say, the deeply, unabashedly Anglicist solo work of Hefner’s Darren Hayman, or Stornoway’s wispy Hebridean rustication…or what that would even look like. (Something like the Vermontsy Essex Green alter-ego The Sixth Great Lake, perhaps? I suppose Tullycraft’s flirtations with surf or, come to think of it, Shy Boys’ dalliances with doo-wop might be comparable, though neither relates all that directly to the broader expressions of American folk culture. Oh hang on, the correct answer is probably “50 States”-era Sufjan Stevens – although the Americana there is more conceptual than stylistic – or possibly even the Danielson Famile. Except both of those acts are probably much too singular to provide a workable template. So, hm…)
All of which is largely a digression, because the artist currently in question, the Cornish duo We Are Muffy, are not even particularly twee. I mean, they are – they’re called freaking “We Are Muffy” ferchrissakes (which I only just realized is a portmanteau of the two members’ names, Nick Duffy and Angeline Morrison…Cornwall? More like cornball amirite?) – but not really in the conventional musical sense. They are, however, emphatically British, and nostalgically so – their debut record, The Charcoal Pool, revolves around reminiscences of the pair’s shared childhood hometown of Birmingham. So I suppose my primary point above was just to suggest, as this album very ably demonstrates, how easy and natural it can be for homespun, charmingly ramshackle indie pop to elide with authentically-flavored (and even quite dark and haunting) English folk. (Duffy, incidentally, is also part of long-running UK cult favorites The Lilac Time – fronted by his brother Stephen – who are undeniably twee-adjacent even if they’re rarely described that way on the internet, but are regularly compared to both Nick Drake and The Smiths.)
On The Charcoal Pool, Duffy and Morrison oscillate (wildly, you might even say) between these two seemingly disparate aesthetic frameworks, in often surprising ways – there’s a track called “Jacobean Reggae” which somehow lives up to its improbable title – and with surprisingly coherent results. Album opener “Civil Service” certainly leans toward the pop side of the equation – a simple, sing-songy strummer which seems to be an account of workaday office-job kleptomania, portrayed through a sweetly surreal, childlike lens – but it makes a fine and introduction to the duo and their quaint, quiet quirks. It reminds me musically of the dearly departed Scottish popsweeties Aberfeldy (a major pet band of mine) and lyrically (at least in its opening, titular lines) of Talking Heads’ “Don’t Worry About the Government” (an under-acknowledged twee antecedent) – and it features surely the tenderest utterance of the word “Toblerone” since Belle and Sebastian’s “Lord Anthony.” So, y’know, what more could you want?
9. Nathan Salsburg – “Timony’s”
Daniel Bachman – “New Moon”
Is it time for our semi-regular monthly acoustic guitar check-up? Why yes it is. Last month brought us two wildly different solo guitar outings from two of the finest young players around, which taken together help demonstrate the breadth of this thing we (always a bit sheepishly) call American Primitive. Louisville-based Wilkes-Barre native Nathan Salsburg, in addition to being a major secret weapon helping to propel gorgeous recent records by Joan Shelley and the Weather Station, put out one of my favorite albums of 2015, Ambsace, as a duo with fellow picker James Elkington. While Elkington’s solo turn last year, impressive and accomplished though it was, left me feeling a little bit cold, Salsburg’s new solo joint (his Third, per the title, although the first I’ve heard) is an absolute delight: warm and witty (instrumentally speaking), spry yet stately, and deeply, elementally comforting. Salsburg’s precise, classically-informed technique is on full dazzling display, but his playing isn’t flashy or busy merely for the sake of it; he never lets the ornamentation overshadow the expressive fluidity of his crisp, folk-tinted melodies.
All of which makes for a dramatic contrast with the stunningly experimental, spiritually-infused new opus from the Virginia’s Daniel Bachman (a one-time Philly resident), setting him up as something like the Robbie Basho to Salsburg’s Leo Kottke. Where Third is tight, even-keeled, elegantly composed and reassuring, Bachman’s The Morning Star is expansive, unpredictable, unsettling and restlessly ruminative, pushing at the edges of genre and compositional practice. Its seven cuts sprawl across 74 minutes (more than twice as many as Salsburg’s ten), sometimes abandoning the guitar entirely and frequently augmenting it with bells, drones, found sounds, field recordings and more. The album opens with the raw and harrowing – terrifying, frankly – nineteen-minute “Invocation,” and concludes with “New Moon,” its most simply presented piece. Atop a patiently established organ drone, Bachman plays searching, skeletal lap guitar blues which only gradually coalesces into breathing, circular, raga-style fingerpicking, alone in the world but for some distant crickets.
10. Paul Page and his Paradise Music (with the Island-Aires, featuring Bernie Kaai Lewis) – “Pacific Farewell Medley”
One of the strangest and most captivating reissues to cross my desktop in recent memory is the new compilation Pacific Paradise, just released by Swedish label Subliminal Sounds and attributed to Paul Page and his Paradise Music. It is, as you might imagine, essentially a collection of vintage tiki-lounge exotica music, but it’s also a good deal stranger and more elusive than that perhaps suggests. Paul Page (1910-1997), it turns out, was a thoroughly fascinating figure: a jack of many trades (journalism, oil painting, pro basketball…) and an itinerant entertainer who worked in radio, TV, film and, most notably, as a performer in Polynesian-themed restaurants all over L.A. (and eventually in Hawaii itself.) He had a lifelong and apparently quite legitimate fixation on Pacific island culture (never mind that his early years were divided between the Yukon, Alaska and small-town Indiana), and a seriously astounding talent for uttering phrases like “wicky-wacky-woo” with not just a straight face but a come-hither smolder worthy of Elvis Presley.
Page’s involvement with Hawaiian music began in the 1930s – well before the exotica craze hit in the late ‘50s – but this compilation’s whopping 31 tracks come from the six full-length albums that he self-released between 1958 and 1972, even though much of it sounds like it could be decades older. It’s a hodge-podge of many-splendored schmaltz, encompassing romantic crooner-style ballads, sleepy-eyed Hollywood stardust, light orchestral jazz, nautical travelogues, novelty numbers, rinky-dink organ-led pop, solemnly intoned island poetry, surf and jungle sound effects, “tribal” drumming and more, all intermingled to a greater or lesser degree with actual “authentic” Hawaiian music (or at least, bands featuring actual Hawaiian musicians) and liberally adorned with ukulele, steel and slack-key guitars. It’s kitschy and lush and beautiful and bonkers in equal measure, and the cumulative effect, especially listening to the full eighty minutes, is almost indescribably dreamy, hypnotic and surreal. This island-hopping medley, one of the few selections to exceed the three-minute mark, closes out the compilation (as it did Page’s defining 1963 album Let’s Have a Luau) and it’s probably the best way to sample (much of) the range of what Page had to offer. Plus, its theme of farewell seems like a fitting note on which to end. So, until we meet again next month… Aloha oe, my loves. And welcome to Paradise.
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