Every month, noted song expert K. Ross Hoffman presents Now Hear This, a sampling of fresh specimens for your consideration.
Alright, here we go: it’s prime time! Besides bringing with it probably the most satisfyingly distinct, decisive seasonal shift of them all – both meteorologically and culturally – September is reliably one of the biggest and busiest months for new music releases. And this year is no exception: every Friday this month is marked by a veritable embarrassment of riches, with plenty of big names and lots more worthy lesser-knowns in danger of being overshadowed. I’ll do my best to sift through the glut of goodness and report back to you next month – I’m only the scraping the surface of September’s bounty in the selections below, many of which date from later August. This month’s trawl, meanwhile, brings us a mixture of autumn-ready atmospherics and last-gasp-of-summer throwback vibes (keep ‘em handy, though; it’s bound to heat up again for at least a minute.) In approximate sequence, you’ll find: a bevy of single-named singer-songwriter beauties, some slinky mood jams of varying degrees of oddness, a trio of big, bold, brazenly gay pop bangers, and a bit of truly bizarro R&B. NB: Over half of the featured artists also have upcoming Philly concert dates!
As always, you can stream all the tracks in this column via this handy-dandy Spotify playlist:
1. Tomberlin – “Seventeen”
Among the abundantly rich well of young indie-folky lady singer-songwriters, the music of Louisville’s Sarah Beth Tomberlin is up there with the very prettiest (think Johanna Warren or Phoebe Bridgers) and also the very starkest (Julie Byrne, early Julien Baker.) Her debut record, At Weddings – a striking title for a set of songs with such a troubled, unsettled perspective on love and human connection – had a limited release last year, but was more recently reissued by Saddle Creek with several additional songs. One of these, “Seventeen,” is the album’s lushest and musically sweetest moment, with an especially ethereal vocal underscored by subtle string orchestration (from, presumably, album producer Owen Pallett) and building to a gorgeous, canon-like layering of buoyant countermelodies and pithy phrases. Lyrically, it finds Tomberlin as bleak and unsure as ever (“love is mostly war/and war what is it for?”), flitting between past and present tense while ruminating on another unfulfilled relationship, suggesting how little has really changed since that so often romanticized, so rarely romantic-to-experience titular age: “I walk in the breeze like I am seventeen” she sings, but even as her voice floats airily upward, her words sound anything but carefree.
Tomberlin plays Johnny Brenda’s on Monday, November 18th
2. Mitski – “Me and My Husband”
We here at the Key have been stumping hard for Mitski Miyawaki for a long time – long enough that we should probably just rename ourselves (or perhaps her?)…MitsKey. (Ba-dum-bum.) So it’s gratifying, as well as just damn exciting, to see how far her star continues to rise – and I’ve got a feeling it’s still got further to go. Be The Cowboy, her latest leap forward, is a fascinating, artfully crafted collection of miniatures (only two numbers stray far from the two-minute mark) which use pulsing electropop, stark piano minimalism, crashing cinematic drama, country-tinged strumming – pretty much anything except for the punchy guitar-rock of her last two records – to explore all manner of romantic desire, desperation, devotion, dependency and doubt.
One of the album’s many curveballs – and, notwithstanding the sterling “Heart of Glass” / “Lovefool” disco turn “Nobody,” probably its poppiest moment – comes with this rare major-key offering, a jaunty Beatle-ish strut that sketches a deft, deceptively multi-faceted inquiry into the experience of married-ness. (All the more notably so considering that, to my knowledge, Ms. Miyawaki has never herself been married.) The chorus circles around the narrator’s assertion that “me and my husband / we’re sticking together” (“…at least in this life time”), which depending on your frame might come across as trite or triumphant (if not a tad defiant) or cynically sarcastic. This tension is only intensified, not edged toward resolution, by the opening verse’s anxious invocation of mortality, or the anticipatory sigh that opens the track, or by platitudinous sentiments like “when he walks in I am loved” – a line during which the blustering horn section accompaniment seems to spill over from cheery gusto into mild queasiness – but the cumulative effect (at least from this relatively-young-married’s vantage point) is of a clear-eyed, realist’s take on matrimony: neither as blindly romanticized nor as jaded as it may first seem, but rather earnestly, quietly confident.
Mitski headlines Union Transfer on Friday, October 19th and on Sunday, November 18th.
3. Mirah – “Information”
While the ‘90s indie scene, and in particular the giants of that decade’s so-called “women in rock” (ick) “movement” – i.e. the Liz Phairs and Cat Powers of the world (both of whom, incidentally or not, are passing through town in the next couple weeks) – are regularly and rightly cited as key influences on contemporary artists such as the aforementioned, I’d contend that there a handful of later, lesser-acknowledged songwriters who deserve more credit as influences and intermediaries. Chief among these is Philly’s own Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn, whose early-00s work seems notable, in particular, for its understated ease in allowing toughness and sweetness, beauty and experimentalism, to comfortably coexist, while also readily (and logically) commingling the personal and the political.
“Jerusalem,” a key cut from Mirah’s 2004 classic C’mon Miracle, is one of the more affecting political songs of our times (and, sadly, still as relevant as ever). It’s an open-hearted plea against the hypocrisy of the Palestinian occupation, addressed directly to its titular subject (and, synecdochically, the Israeli people or perhaps even the Jewish people as a whole) – but one that’s fueled far more by compassion than by righteous indignation or fury. “Information,” which is similarly slotted second on Understanding, her just-released sixth solo LP, is cut from much the same cloth, but this time directed toward “America.” (Mirah, notably, does not exempt herself from accountability in either song; the pronoun “we” features in both, albeit inconsistently.) While the imagery in the chorus (“If you put up a wall and protect your side / and you stuff your faces with mean old lies…”) may invoke all-too-familiar, seemingly partisan rhetoric, it’s clear that the song’s intent is broader and more fundamental; it’s meant as a moral (and morale) boost for the spiritual challenges of living in an age of numbing information overload: “when you read the papers/find how not to lose your heart or waste your mind/‘cause we want the information to make us kind.”
Mirah performs at Johnny Brenda’s on Saturday, October 13th – my birthday!
4. Tirzah (feat. Coby Sey) – “Devotion”
This (likewise) Hebraically mononymous Londoner first emerged via a series of sonically adventurous but essentially club-oriented EPs for the dance label Greco-Roman, created in collaboration with the polymathic producer/composer Mica(chu) Levi. For her full-length debut, Devotion – again produced by and co-written with Levi – Tirzah all but sidesteps the dancefloor in favor of something stranger and harder to pin down: sparse, woozy, intimate, R&B-inflected experimental bedroom art-pop with few obvious parallels. Stylistically unfixed as it is, the album is probably best experienced as a moody, meandering whole, but the title track – a duet with the singer Coby Sey (more of a murmurer in this context) – makes for an easy entry point; a slinky half-time groove with astonishingly minimal production setting off one of Tirzah’s most full-throated hooks.
5. Dizzy – “Bleachers”
Back in 2016 I was utterly, unexpectedly charmed by the debut album from the Brooklyn-based, rather unfortunately-named trio Wet. There wasn’t anything particularly exciting about their music – indeed it was pretty much patently uncool – but it was an exceptionally easy record to put on and (more-or-less passively) enjoy, and I did so frequently. For whatever reason, the band’s similarly styled follow-up, which dropped this summer, didn’t spark me in the same way – it’s eminently fine, and that’s that. But any hint of let-down there was instantly alleviated when I discovered Dizzy. A young band from Oshawa, Ontario – in the far-flung reaches of the greater Toronto metro area – Dizzy consists of the three Spencer brothers plus their high school friend Katie Munshaw on vocals. They traverse very much the same resoundingly pedestrian stylistic remit as Wet: clean-lined, impeccably soft sophisti-pop laced with understated blue-eyed R&B and lite electronic flourishes. (Though with a slightly more of a dream-pop bent thanks to Alex Spencer’s spindly, crystalline guitar work.) And they do it superbly.
If Wet’s approach is heavily style-conscious and quasi-artsy in a distinctly Brooklynite fashion, and London Grammar’s take on a similar sound is as stereotypically English, urbane and frosty-posh as you’d expect from their bandname, there is, correspondingly, something resoundingly suburban and Canadian about these kids: genial, guileless, casually personal, comfortingly bland. Most important, though, they just write really good songs: their album, Baby Teeth, is full of them, each more shimmering and sighingly pretty than the last. Rather than the charged intimacy familiar to so many smooth, R&B-adjacent downtempo jams, their songs more often evoke the informal camaraderie of family and friends you’ve known so long they might as well be family – as with the image conjured up on “Bleachers,” of a bunch of bored suburban kids hanging around doing bored suburban kid things: “handing out punches/kissing on mouths.” (And just to bring things full circle – or perhaps to spell out the conceptual tautology: “Bleachers” happens to share its name – as Dizzy have shared concert stages – with the band fronted by Jack Antonoff, who has notably collaborated with Lorde, to whom Dizzy have frequently been compared due to the diaristic directness and high-school-aged milieu of their lyrics… You dizzy yet?)
6. Tunng – “ABOP”
Songs You Make At Night is the first Tunng album in five years, and the first since 2007’s great Good Arrows to feature the band’s original core duo of Mike Lindsay and Sam Genders. (Genders has since offered up three solo outings as Diagrams, while Lindsay’s recent output includes his team-up with Laura Marling as LUMP; the pair also reunited in 2016 for an LP under the name Throws.) And it is indeed a fine return to form, following two slightly lesser efforts, for these stalwart standard-bearers of British folktronica – but not necessarily (or not wholly) a return to habitual territory. Perhaps their most readily accessible set yet, Songs leans heavier than ever on the “tronica” side of the equation, and despite generally evoking the murky dream logic suggested by the album’s title, it feels less eldritch and creaky, more purely tuneful, with several standouts – like this tautly funky bit of swingtime sorcery – that come surprisingly close to straightforward synth-pop. Then again, little about Tunng is ever entirely straightforward. It’s unclear, for instance, what the title “ABOP” refers to: perhaps it’s a rune for “a bloom of phosphorescence,” one of many redolent images in a surreally hazy lyric which feels simultaneously anxious and enchanted – or perhaps it’s their atypically au courant acknowledgment that the song is, undeniably, a bop.
7. Ava Luna – “Set It Off”
Moon 2, the fifth album from this NYC collective, plays like the platonic ideal of an arty 21st-century indie-rock record, swirling together smooth, spacey dream-pop, herky-jerky new-wave punk-funk, and various other habitually hipster-approved things in between. The group’s five members switch off on lead vocals – or else, fairly frequently – they join their voices together, in choral harmony or cultish chanting. It’s engaging but also elusive, and off-kilter without being especially offputting. Moon 2 is sufficiently overstuffed with sounds and ideas, and light enough on obvious stand-alone hooks, that it probably shouldn’t work as well as it does, but the band manages to hold on (just tight enough) to a sense of contagious playfulness, and – crucially – they aren’t afraid to truly groove. Many if not all of these wiggly stylistic strands come together on “Set It Off,” a showcase for the impish, mellifluous singing (and occasional shrieking) of the band’s Becca Kaufman – who’s also got a performance art sideline under the alias Jennifer Vanilla – with a handful of cutesy instrumental cameos and the most blatant (and effective) Talking Heads rip-off drumbeat I’ve heard in some time.
Avan Lava play PhilaMOCA this Friday, September 21st.
8. Years & Years – “Hallelujah”
And now for some truly straight-up – although definitely not straight – synth-pop. Palo Santo, the second full-length from this UK-chart-topping trio led by singer/actor/frontman Olly Alexander – a burgeoning gay icon with a magnificently limber, Timberlakean tenor – is handily the best dance-pop album I heard this summer. It’s up there with the year’s best pop albums period – not far behind Janelle Monae, with whom the band shares a penchant for dystopian sci-fi music videos and unashamed, celebratory sexuality. Like the spectacular album opener “Sanctify,” and much of their 2015 debut, Communion, “Hallelujah” carries forward the rich tradition of superimposing religious and sexual imagery, extending a lineage which, in a pop context, stretches back well before Madonna (its obvious apotheosis) at least to Leonard Cohen. Years & Years offer up a few new verbal twists – in this case, a vision of spiritual healing on a dancefloor thrumming ecstatically “until our bodies are singing hallelujah” – and a few new pronouns (or, in the bridge here, a stray “boy.”) Meanwhile, the perfectionism of big-pop A-listers Greg Kurstin and Julia Michael (who contributed writing and production here) comes through on the delectably zig-zagging hook and impossibly crisp, MJ-worthy Latin-disco groove. Now, tell me, does your body sing more like Jeff Buckley or John Cale?
Years & Years play the Fillmore on Wednesday October 10th
9. Troye Sivan – “Seventeen”
Just one month on from Palo Santo, we got another, even more mainstream out-and-proud pop album. I think that alone qualifies as a solid notch in the plus column for 2018 – nevermind that it also happens to be equally excellent, and in some ways even more sexually unabashed. Troye Sivan Mellet, who lives in L.A. but hails from South Africa by way of Australia, is five years Alexander’s junior but already a bigger star (on these shores, at least.) He’s a much more understated vocal presence, and Bloom, his should-be star-making sophomore set, is a softer, smoother ride, but it’s all the more affecting for it. Its opening salvo, in particular, is a true stunner. Whereas Tomberlin’s “Seventeen” invokes the titular age as a sort of signifier or totem, more of an abstract concept than a fact of life, Sivan uses it to ground a very specific, personal story – of an encounter with an older man he met on Grindr, recounted simply and frankly, with judgment reserved. The chorus, with its gently expansive, skyward production flourishes, expands outward from this individual episode toward the general in a way that might carry particular resonance in a queer context, but is nevertheless about as universal as it gets: “I went out looking for love/when I was seventeen/maybe a little too young/but it was real to me.”
Troye Sivan comes to town four days before Years & Years, playing Sunday October 6th at the Tower Theater.
10. Jake Shears – “Big Bushy Mustache”
In the long process of paving the way for a world that has room for two big-ticket, middle-of-the-road pop albums from overtly gay artists in two consecutive months, some non-trivial portion of the cultural heavy lifting was undeniably done by Scissor Sisters, who have foregrounded queer themes in their work since their earliest, electro-clashy days. Even though, probably not incidentally, they never became stars in their native U.S.A. the way they were in Alexander’s U.K. or Sivan’s Australia (both countries where they scored #1 albums circa those artists’ respective teenage years). Despite a back-catalog with at least two near-masterpieces (their stellar debut and 2010’s severely underrated Night Work), the band has never really gotten the respect they deserve, in part because glam rock and disco are / were each still largely seen as a (rather homophobic) joke in this country. Even (or perhaps especially) in progressive-leaning indie music-head circles, there remains a hard-to-shake whiff of novelty about them – as though they were a millennial hipster version of the Village People, instead of, say, Queen – not so much because they’re gay but because they’re funny. Arguably, humor-phobia – as notably baited by Frank Zappa’s loaded musical question Does Humor Belong In Music? – is at least as potent a cultural force as homophobia. (It didn’t help that they emerged around the same time as decidedly more one-note pastiche artists like Junior Senior, Chromeo and The Darkness.)
All of which I mention by way of reporting that on his self-titled debut solo LP, which arrives six years into the band’s “indefinite hiatus,” Sisters frontman Jake Shears is still extremely funny, still fabulously flaming, and still creating tremendously fun music that can sit comfortably with the best of his career. If anything, he comes across as even more of a red-blooded American than ever, adding a distinctly swampy, Southern twist to a familiarly Scissorsy palette of campy glam rock (“glamp rock”??) and ‘70s boogie. (Shears has been living in New Orleans for the past few years, and the record features prominent cameos from the Preservation Hall Jazz Band among others.) Although most of Jake Shears isn’t particularly played for yuks, he’s hardly gunning to shake that novelty image either, considering material like “Sad Song Backwards” – based around that hoary old punchline about country music – or this goofy, swaggering, mantastic plea to “set your follicles free,” which comes complete with a leathered-up, Josh Homme-featuring music video.
Jake Shears plays the Foundry at the Fillmore on Thursday, November 1st.
11. Swamp Dogg – “Answer Me, My Love”
And then there are those artists who are just proudly, defiantly queer with a small “q.” Jerry Williams, Jr. has been tugging on the lunatic fringes of soul music for close to fifty years, since he debuted his alter-ego on 1970’s truly radical, Zappa-influenced Total Destruction To Your Mind. But the new Swamp Dogg full-length – his twenty-second, give or take – just might be the craziest, most confounding, most deeply experimental work of his career. A true creative collaboration with producer Ryan Olson (of Gayngs and Poliça), Love, Loss and Autotune offers copious amounts of everything the title promises – but it’s also got plenty of loopy orchestrations, post-industrial noise-bursts, continually shifting arrangements, Justin Vernon wielding his bespoke, enigmatic voice-synthesizer, the Messina, and freely commingling elements from virtually every era of R&B from the past eighty years. Besides the love songs and (profoundly felt) blues laments, it’s got hard-hitting real-talk on modern-day economic desperation, and horndog sex anthems worthy of the late great X-rated soul superhero, Blowfly. It is quite frequently poignant, hilarious and disorienting all at the same time. Suffice to say, there is nary a single predictable moment on the entire thing.
Williams eases us into all this mania gently – sort of – with a rendition of the pre-rock ballad “Answer Me, My Love,” a hit for Nat “King” Cole in 1954 (the same year that Williams, at age 12, made his first recordings) which is a clear melodic and lyrical precursor to both “Yesterday” and “To Make You Feel My Love.” Williams’ take is heartfelt and initially straight-ahead, but it only takes a few moments before the syrupy strings slide into dissonance, the horn section begins to lurch menacingly, and the vocal-processing effects start ramping up.
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