Now Hear This: New songs from Cat Power, Elvis Costello, Matthew Dear, Half Waif, Richard Swift, Spiritualized and more

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Half Waif | photo by Tonje Thilesen | courtesy of the artist
Half Waif | photo by Tonje Thilesen | courtesy of the artist

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

This past Saturday was my 36th birthday, and, as it happens, this is my 36th Now Hear This column.  (I’ve been secretly keeping track: the first fifteen installments ran weekly over at Philly Voice during the fall of 2016; the monthly columns for The Key started in February 2017).  Thirty-six feels like a significant year – more so than 35 in many ways (especially considering what’s been happening to the institution of the presidency).  It’s divisible by more numbers, even if five isn’t one of them.  As one friend pointed out, it means I’m now old enough to vote twice! And, more notably, it means that I’ve been a quote-unquote “adult” for fully half of my life; that the time since I left my parents’ house now equals the time that I lived there.

So it’s afforded a nice opportunity to reflect back on the time around my 18th year – an age perhaps less overtly mythologized in song than sixteen or seventeen, but probably even more transformative in real (contemporary) life – which in my case was also the era of Y2K.  I’d reckon that nobody felt the cultural and historical shift from the 20th to the 21st century, from the 1990s to the still-nameless-after-all-these-years 2000s, more acutely than those of us for whom it paralleled the end of high school and the start of what-comes-next; i.e. me and my fellow circa-1982 babies: the oldest, truest millennials.  Conveniently, just two days before my birthday, September Now Hear This boy-toy Troye Sivan joined up with plasticwave popgenius (and certified ‘90s bitchCharli XCX to drop a video memorializing and celebrating the pop culture of that period – specifically 1999, although the references span roughly 1997-2000 – when, as many have mentioned, its creators were still in single digits, if not diapers.  It represents exactly, and in exquisitely realized detail, the “borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered (late) ‘90s” that I have been ambivalently anticipating for quite some time now.

And now that it’s here, I’m more confused than ever.  What do this era’s distinctive, patently curious aesthetics and artifacts have to say to a younger generation that wasn’t really around for them the first time?  Since, surely, they can’t evoke the same awkward mixture of bemused, head-shaking recognition, dubious wistfulness for a time of likely-misguided innocence, and outright cringe-factor that they bring up for me.  Are these guys genuinely celebrating this stuff?  But, why?  Is it purely a novelty?  Is any of this sincere?  Is this how Gen-Xers have felt during the past two decades of veritable wall-to-wall ‘80s revivalism?  Perhaps I’m only just now old enough to have this particular, strange experience, looking back at the end of adolescence from half a lifetime away.

Even though I caught virtually all of references in the video, the 1999 that Charli and Troye are evoking here was not really my 1999.  I was too old and/or snobby for the boybands and girl-power posses – if anything, that was my three-years-younger sister’s music.  Save for a few forward-looking classics that were pretty much universally acknowledged then and remain so now – which means they feel decidedly less time-stamped and are thus absent in this glossy retrospectacle (Lauryn Hill’s Miseducation springs to mind) – I was still, at this point, highly skeptical of anything marked as mainstream.  Over the course of the ‘90s I had “progressed” from They Might Be Giants and Phish to Radiohead, Belle & Sebastian and the Roots, and I was on the verge of a full-on plunge into indie “rok” (as our college radio overlords insisted on spelling it); I wouldn’t start coming around to mainstream R&B til I started DJing in the early ‘00s, and my deep, crushing obsession with teen-pop wouldn’t kick in until post-college, around 2005 of so.  So much for kid stuff.

I’ll have more to say about nineties nostalgia a little later on, but let’s not forget to look around at all of the uhmayzing music that is happening RIGHT NOW!  September/October is pretty much the ultimate motherlode for new music – the current glut represents the bulk of what we’re likely to get before 2018 finally whimpers its way to a close – and I’m about as excited as I’ve ever been about the selections for this month (two-thirds of which are from artists playing live in the coming weeks.)  So let’s get on to it!

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

1. Christine and the Queens – “The Walker”

If you need something to tide you over before Honey, the long-awaited, saliva-inducing return of Robyn (or, as my pal used to call her, “Robyn from 1997”) finally arrives later on this month, you couldn’t do much better than the truly phenomenal second album from Parisian electronic pop auteur Héloïse Letissier – a.k.a. Christine and the Queens – a.k.a., per her latest semi-reincarnation, simply Chris.  Indeed, I’ll be impressed if Robyn can come up with an album as thoroughly infectious and intriguing as this one (not surprised, mind you – but impressed.)  As you might infer from Letissier’s growing collection of aliases and corresponding, overlapping personas, she is a gleeful, fearless explorer (and exploder) of identities, sexual and otherwise – and her penchant for boundary-blurring spills over into the formatting of her new quasi-eponymous opus.  Chris, which takes many of its stylistic cues from the pop and R&B of the early ‘90s, is actually two albums in one – or possibly one album in two? – released conjointly in French and English versions, each containing mostly (but not entirely) the same songs, translated mostly (but not entirely) between the two languages.  The brooding but anthemically funky single “Doesn’t Matter,” for instance, appears on the French version as  “Doesn’t Matter (Voleur de soleil),” with the same (English) refrain amid the French verses.  In the case of the album’s airier, more sanguine-sounding third track – for which Letissier strips the rhythm down to a simple, strutting beat, layered with fluttering production touches she created, aptly enough, using some of Air’s abandoned studio gear – the French version (“La marcheuse”) was released first.  It was also used for the gently surreal, poetic video which, like the song, speaks to the hard-won comfort and clarity that can come from a solitary walk in the midst of an emotionally turbulent world.  But thanks to Chris’ endearingly off-kilter English phrasing and slanting translations (the French invocation of blows and “violence facile” [easy violence] becomes “violent hits/violet blossoms akin”), this English rendition feels just as impressionistic and redolently strange.

Christine and the Queens play(s) Union Transfer on Friday, November 2nd.  Her last Philadelphia performance, two years ago at World Cafe Live (on her birthday!!) was hugely engaging, personable and memorable – as much a modern dance performance as much as it was a pop concert – and I am very much anticipating (and recommending) this one as well.

2. Yelle – “OMG!!!”

Un soupçon plus de pop française?  Here’s the latest bauble from the great, widely underrated electro-pop trio Yelle, fronted by the eponymous style icon née Julie Budet.  Their instant-classic 2007 debut Pop-Up set a high bar to top, but 2014’s equally brash and breezy Complètement Fou came damn close, and their smattering of singles since then – some of which have taken the small, eminently logical step of fully embracing PC Music’s ultrashiny (and come to think of it, hugely Y2K-indebted) bubblegum bass aesthetic – show every indication that they’ve still got it.  Despite the somewhat throwaway-sounding title, this might be the best of the bunch, with cutely bip-bopping verses giving way to a total glitterbomb of a chorus.  And despite the outrageous, TSFW (too-sparkly-for-work) video (watch it for the hamster), the subject matter is adorably wholesome.  (I mean, “your jacuzzi is my volcano / my vitamins contaminate you” is totally wholesome, right?)  For any non-Francophones wondering what all the fuss about?  Well… the sun came out!  OMG!!!

Yelle play The Foundry on Tuesday, November 6th.

3. Half Waif – “Every Animal”

Lavender, the latest album from longtime Key favorite Nandi Rose Plunkett, which was released back in in April, is an utterly arresting set of largely electronic art-pop, compositionally intricate yet with an immediacy and intimacy comparable to past Half Waif tourmates Mitski and Julien Baker.  This explicitly autumnal song, released last month (along with a making-of documentary video) as part of Weathervane’s Shaking Through series, is a stand-alone track, but it’s also clearly of a piece with (or at least in conversation with) the album, both thematically and musically.  Plunkett’s grandmother, who passed last September, is a major presence in Lavender’s songs, and also its indirect namesake – she used to purify and perfume her house with the titular herb – but the album was actually written and recorded prior to her death, which means this is the first new Half Waif song to be created in the aftermath of that loss.  Plunkett invokes her grandmother here, first, by way of a different botanical fragrance – the bergamot of Earl Grey tea – and, throughout much of the song, addresses her more directly than she ever does on the album, in an unmistakably raw, sometimes wailing expression of grief.  Musically too, while straddling a wide dynamic range, the song is more visceral and harder hitting than what we’ve heard before from Half Waif, with a rockier edge largely courtesy of guitarist Aidan Carlo (who also plays with Plunkett in the New Jersey indie-rock outfit Pinegrove) and, especially, the band’s new-ish drummer Robin Baytas, who brings a ferocious precision to his blending of electronic and acoustic drums.

Half Waif will open for our boy (Sandy) Alex G – who’s evidently still rocking those parentheses – at the First Unitarian Church, at a sold out show on Friday November 16th, and again at an added-by-popular-demand second show Saturday November 17th.

4. Advance Base – “Dolores & Kimberly”

After more than a decade of crafting lo-fi, low-key electronic bummer-pop as Casiotone for the Painfully Alone – one of the most descriptive and accurate band names ever – Owen Ashworth shifted gears to this less attention-grabbing moniker (taken from the title of a CftPA rarities compilation), notching up his music’s fidelity in the process.  Ashworth also runs the Chicago-based Orindal record label, the current home to fellow indie vet (and sometime collaborator) Dear Nora and to the Philly bands Hello Shark and Friendship, who share his penchant for writerly yet poignantly plain-spoken narratives intoned atop gorgeously soft, downcast musical settings.  That’s a pretty good summation of Animal Companionship, the third Advance Base album, which is full of warm, bell-like keyboard tones – it feels a lot like Christmas – and lyrical character sketches that will melt your little snowflake heart.  The touching yet slightly ambiguous “Dolores & Kimberly” depicts a couple starting from scratch in an unnamed Indiana town, its understated sweetness somewhat mottled by the revelation that that the narrator left behind a family in another state after meeting the song’s addressee (identified only as “you”) online.  (The song’s unsung title – and perhaps the lyric sheet’s clarification that the abandoned spouse is named “Jesse,” not “Jessie” – are the only hints as to the protagonists’ gender, a detail which may or may not color the song’s emotional impact.)

5. The Goon Sax – “Making Time 4 Love”

And while we’re on the topic of romance and ambiguity: There’s a great moment at the start of “Making Time 4 Love” – the song that kicks off We’re Not Talking, the second full-length from this teenage-kickin’ Brisbane trio – when Louis Forster lingers, hesitantly, on the opening line (“I…..felt happy when…”), stretching out the seconds before its unexpected conclusion (“…you said you didn’t want me”) snaps the song into jaunty, clip-clopping gear.  From there it gallivants forward, through verses which ably set out the album’s jangly, shambling shingle, toward a suddenly swoony refrain.  And then the strings swoop down: first, to adorn one fabulously unromantic encapsulation of adolescent romance (“…let’s feel nervous in your room again”) and later, abetted by a pert trumpet, to underline the song’s titular declaration (“I’m trying to make time for love”), which sounds a bit like Forster resolving to eat more fiber.  (A couple songs later, he confides: “I never knew what love meant/and I still don’t.”)  Those treacly strings are largely an anomaly on the album: there’s plenty of earnest sweetness throughout, but it’s primarily the naturally occurring sweetness of youth (the biological byproduct of all that angst-laden emotional writhing, perhaps?), and not a function of studio embellishment.  It’s not that the strings don’t suit the song – they sound great – but they feel deliberately, deliciously incongruous in this scrappy context, like a sarcastic provocation or, at best, an evocation of impossibly aspirational, unattainable Hollywood-style “laaahve.”

For what it’s worth, there’s some history here: a tradition; a lineage.  Louis happens to be the son of Robert Forster, whose band The Go-Betweens started out almost as young, at least as raw, and a good deal punkier than the Goon Sax, before mellowing and “maturing” into one of the finest, most melodically accomplished indie outfits ever (and, incidentally, no strangers to orchestration.)  Meanwhile, We’re Not Talking was produced by James Cecil and Cameron Bird of Architecture in Helsinki, who represent an intervening generation of Australian indie-popsters, and who’ve likewise charted a trajectory from twerpy chirpiness to tidied-up pop polish.  It’s a far cry from Phil Spector producing the Ramones, but I’m still guessing it was the Helsinkis’ idea to add the strings.  And while it’s obviously too early to say what the future has in store for these Goonies, it’s nice to think that they’re following in some footsteps; that maybe indie-pop, in the long view, might function more like a sustainable, self-replicating life cycle than, as a more punk-romantic vision might suggest, an endless string of revolutions and disruptions.

The Goon Sax play Johnny Brendas next Tuesday, October 23rd

6. Super American – “Casino Blonde”

Okay, awkward nostalgia time.  Although musical throwbacks to the 1990s have been ascendant in various ways for at least a few years now, they are often fairly broad and non-specific (e.g. the healthy state of earnest and/or angsty guitar-based indie rock, or vaporwave’s fixation with Web 1.0 aesthetics or – plausibly but not definitively – the chipper, chintzy digi-pop of Charli and Troye’s 1999, which doesn’t actually sound all that much like the year in question, at least not any more than XCX’s other work.)  Or else they’re hyper-specific to the point of one-note novelty (e.g. Big Sean sampling MC Hammer, Nicki Minaj sampling Sir Mix-A-Lot or, more pertinently, Big KRIT’s excellent Juvenile interpolation, also entitled 1999, which boasts a subtler but no-less spot-on retro-styled video.)  Which makes this doofy Buffalo-based duo (Western New York represent!) come across like a breath of surprisingly fresh albeit slightly noxious air.  They are clearly aiming for – and basically nail – a distinctive, once-ubiquitous strain of late-’90s radio fodder: sickly-sweet, emo-adjacent pop/rock defined by bright, clean acoustic strums, cheap-sounding beat loops and brightly whiny vocalists pining after those girls who, indubitably, wore Abercrombie & Fitch.  Super American’s debut, Tequila Sunrise, splits the difference between Matchbox 20 and Blink-182 in an endearingly homespun, wistfully retrograde fashion, suggesting that astonishingly little about the psyche of your average young suburban white dude has shifted over the past twenty years (which is probably both true and untrue.)  “Casino Blonde,” notwithstanding its winky-winky Eve 6 allusion, updates its lyrical references for this decade (selfies, Google searching, I’m not so sure about the astrology bit), but the sonics are encased in amber.  It is not a sound I particularly cared for at the time (except when the Fountains of Wayne did it), and I don’t feel particularly great about it now either – and yet, I find these guys’ commitment admirable and their execution oddly gratifying.  All they’re missing is a screenname-style numeral at the end of their bandname.

7. Elvis Costello & The Imposters – “Unwanted Number”

Want to know something about the 1990s that I am nostalgic for?  1990s Elvis Costello.  For reasons I cannot entirely unravel, there was no artist more important to me in my high school days; it was a teenaged musical love affair fueled not just by a thorough exploration of his, at that point, nigh-impeccable back catalog, but also by his still severely underrated mid-90s run – especially 1994’s Brutal Youth and 1996’s All This Useless Beauty (his final album with the Attractions) but also the fantastic (and, for me, formative) 1995 covers record Kojak Variety.  (Lurking loyally on the EC fan e-mail listserv – my first real subcultural cyber-foray – also helped all of this along.)  In retrospect, the politely acclaimed Burt Bacharach team-up Painted From Memory – released in 1998 at the height of my fandom – marked a major turning point in Costello’s catalog.  My perception of virtually everything he’s done in the twenty years since then – which I’ve dutifully followed but rarely savored – has been that the “project” took precedence over the songs themselves, be it a piano-ballad song-cycle (North) or a pair of rambling, patchwork Americana sojourns (Secret Profane & SugarcaneNational Ransom); even the “return to rock” albums (When I Was CruelMomofuku) felt suspiciously self-conscious about their status as such.  Or maybe it was just that I’d lost the patience and bandwidth necessary to take in his compulsively convoluted melodies and densely “literary” lyrics.  

In any event, Look Now – which arrived last Friday (on the eve of my birthday) after the longest gap in his recording oeuvre (five years) – feels like the first time in two decades that the man has released “just another Elvis Costello record”: a set of songs that might share a vague thematic throughline (explorations of gender and relationship dynamics) and a basic genre orientation (burnished, R&B-informed balladry and lavishly orchestrated, “sophisticated” soft-pop – not really my favorite looks for him) but don’t feel overly beholden to them, like so many accessories in a game of musical dress-up.  Which isn’t necessarily to say the album’s a return to form – it’s gonna take me a bit more time to fully discern that (if I can even be bothered.)  But there’s some promise here.  Much as its predecessor, the intriguingly weird Roots collab Wise Up Ghost, scavenged and recontextualized scraps of Costello’s earlier output (primarily from the ‘90s), this one too has links to that era.  Most obviously, this: one of a couple tunes that Elvis ghost-authored for the Carole King-inspired character in the 1996 ‘60s-music-biz flick Grace of My Heart.  (The other one was “God Give Me Strength,” the Bacharach co-write which spawned and culminated Painted From Memory; as it happens, both Bacharach and King have writing credits on Look Now, and so the circle is unbroken.)  Now, I’ve never totally bought Costello as a classicist pop songsmith – he’s a great connoisseur of the stuff, sure (which is a lot of what makes Kojak so compelling), but he can rarely get out of his own way enough to convincingly mimic or embody it.  But this song, patterned after socially (and sexually) conscious R&B girl-group singles of the ‘60s – like the Supremes’ “Love Child” and perhaps the Shirelles’ King-penned “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” – comes closer than most, even if the topic (concerning the [female] narrator’s decision to keep an illegitimate child) still takes some fairly close reading to parse.  Up until now, the song has largely lived up its title, audible only as performed by latter-day girl group For Real in the soundtrack version, or via rare live clips on YouTube.  This revisitation may not be quite on the level of Radiohead finally including “True Love Waits” on an album, but it’s still a nice surprise – and quite a visceral memory-jolt for this all-but-lapsed acolyte – to hear this overlooked gem getting its due.

Elvis Costello and the Imposters’ “Look Now And Then” tour boasts no fewer than three regional dates: the tour kicks off at The Sands in Bethlehem, PA on Friday, November 2nd before heading to Atlantic City on Saturday the 3rd (at Hard Rock Live at Etess Arena) and to The Paramount in Asbury Park, NJ on Tuesday the 6th.

8. Frontperson – “Long Night”

My crush on Kathryn Calder first started sometime around 2005 – after she began touring with her uncle Carl’s band, the New Pornographers, to fill in for Neko Case, but before she became a full-fledged member around the time of 2007’s Challengers (thereby – although it’s rarely noticed – further shoring up the band’s bona-fides as a retroactive supergroup.)  But my love for her truly blossomed and matured over the course of the three solo albums she produced between 2010 and 2015 – dreamy, gently lush affairs that showcase her perennially tender, winsome vocals and increasingly confident songwriting in a setting well removed from the New Pornos’ bounding hyperactivity or the straight-ahead indie pop/rock of her teeth-cutting trio, Immaculate Machine.  All this brings us to Frontperson, Calder’s new band, which is, strictly speaking, an equal-billing collaboration with the singer/songwriter Mark Andrew Hamilton, who’s been kicking around the Canadian indie scene for a similar length of time as the primary mover behind Calgary’s Woodpigeon.  But for all of Hamilton’s contributions to the duo’s eminently likable debut album – I’m sure he had plenty to do with its expansively layered, chamber-folky instrumental settings, and he serves as a fine vocal foil throughout – my biases are upfront here: I’m in it for Calder, and Frontrunner does not disappoint.  “Long Night,” an obvious standout, is also probably the closest to Calder’s solo material, featuring one of her signature cooing, curlicuing melody lines and plenty of airy, multi-tracked harmonies.

9. Richard Swift – “Dirty Jim”

The Hex, the final album from journeyman songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist Richard Swift – the catalyst for an astonishing amount of great indie music over the past fifteen years or so – arrived less than three months after his untimely death, at age 41, due to alcoholism-related causes.  (The album will be out in physical form in December.)  His first album as solo artist since 2009, it’s a strange and bracing affair, reflecting the wilder, woolier sides of his beloved sixties pop, soul and psychedelia that he explored over the past decade through collaborations with Foxygen, Damien Jurado, Kevin Morby, the Mynabirds and others.  It’s gorgeous stuff, but decidedly dark – not necessarily in the bleak, crushing ways you might imagine from an artist struggling with addiction (not to mention the recent loss of both his mother and his sister), but in more startling, disorienting and ultimately emotionally revealing ways.  The sprightly music-hall rag “Dirty Jim” is something of a respite from the turmoil – it’s the album’s lightest moment musically and, in its Harry Nilsson-esque bent for quaint pre-rock nostalgia, the clearest throughline to Swift’s troubadour-ish early work – but its also one of The Hex’s most straightforward expressions of torment and brokenness, with the ample sonic space and cutely rollicking piano just creating that much more room to feel the weight of a line like “every color now is black and blue.”

10. Kikagaku Moyo – “Dripping Sun”

Masana Temples, the free-wheeling fourth album from these Tokyo-rooted psych-monsters, lays out an expansive vision of psychedelia that’s less about a specific set of sounds than a recognition that a properly unencumbered, finely-calibrated open mindset (at least when coupled with sneakily ferocious instrumental chops) can help reveal the deeper underlying cohesion linking seemingly disparate styles.  Which is to say: there’s a lot happening here – from dappled pastoral folk to driving hard-rock skronk, plus funk, krautrock, indie-pop, spaced-out ambience and more – yet it all feels improbably, almost ineffably seamless.  Several key segments (though by no means all) of the album’s flavor palette can be sampled on “Dripping Sun” – Masana’s longest cut and, following the relatively brief, sitar-drenched East-meets-East drone salutation “Entrance” (the homonym works both ways), its first substantial composition.  The bulk of the track alternates between cheery and slightly cornball wah-wah jazz-funk (with echoes of both Tortoise and Khruangbin) and a slower, slinkier chill-out groove, but there’s also space for some sunny dream-pop vibes and, toward the end, a seemingly out-of-nowhere (but actually out-of-everywhere) minute of careening high-octane fuzz-rock.  It’s an impressive showing – and yet, it feels like a mere taster for what these guys might be capable of achieving in a concert setting.

Kikagaku Moyo play Underground Arts next Thursday, October 25th.

11. Oliver Coates – “Charlev”

Oliver Coates has a tremendously impressive resumé, with highlights that include earning the highest grades in history from London’s Royal Academy of Music, collaborating with a veritable who’s-who of contemporary classical and highbrow experimental musicians, contributing to hugely acclaimed film scores by Jonny Greenwood and Mica Levi, and playing an integral role in the creation of the last Radiohead album.  And yet, he is emphatically not one to rest on his laurels: Shelley’s on Zenn-La, his wonderfully mercurial new solo LP, all but sidesteps his classical pedigree in favor of an intuitive, free-flowing, outsider’s-eye exploration of ‘90s UK rave music and Warp Records IDM; the mystic music of his ‘90s UK youth.  (OMG so 90s!)  The album features a handful of collaborators, but none of them are especially famous.  And indeed, you could spend a good while with the record without necessarily realizing that Coates’ primary instrument is, in fact, the cello.  There is plenty of cello on Zenn-La (the seemingly inscrutable title links a legendary rave-era UK nightclub, Shelley’s Laserdome, with the home planet of Marvel Comics’ Silver Surfer) – but much of the time it’s signal-processed and manipulated nearly beyond recognition.  One of the few exceptions is the aptly-named “Cello Renoise” (Renoise being Coates’ programming software of choice), which is also anomalous in that, compositionally speaking, it’s basically a (beautifully executed) exercise in the boilerplate Squarepusher/Aphex Twin technique of setting rapidfire d’n’b breakbeats against plaintive strains of melancholy – with the gorgeously live cello sound adding a rarefied, uncanny frisson reminiscent of The Books.  Elsewhere, but especially on the album’s two near-nine-minute epics, Coates’ approach is far less streamlined: on “Charlev,” for instance, the overall vibe recalls the dazed, sunbleached sonics of Board of Canada, but the piece spirals in unpredictable ways, driven sometimes by a restlessly fluttering ostinato synth line, sometimes by a placid, stately melodic phrase rendered in a shifting array of quasi-symphonic textures – both elements which occasionally merge with and morph into Coates’ cello – while skittering percussion and strange spoken intonations from the artist chrysanthemum bear punctuate the proceedings.

Oliver Coates opens for his old pal Thom Yorke at North 7th (the unfortunate venue formerly known as the Electric Factory) on Friday, November 23rd.

12. Mr Twin Sister – “Tops & Bottoms”

It’s no small feat for a band to carve out a distinctive sonic signature even when working within a relatively narrow stylistic niche.  Impressively, these slyly iconoclastic Long Islanders managed to do so while hopscotching nonchalantly from lush dream-pop to cartoon disco-funk, retro cowboy and spy-movie pastiche and ambient minimalism on 2011’s In Heaven – back when they were known as simply Twin Sister.  2014’s eponymous, even more adventurous follow-up added the “Mr” to their moniker and added moody house and pulsating electro to their stylistic repertoire.  So what makes it all hang together?  No question Andrea Estelle’s malleable, mellifluous coo plays a significant role, but the band’s work is also marked by the consistent juxtaposition of a slightly detached, stylish smoothness and a rather unfashionable penchant for plush, sumptuous aural beauty.  We’ve got just a week to wait before the full reveal of Salt – their first full-length in four years – but the stellar pre-release singles promise both exploration and maturation, more eclecticism and more meticulous sound design.  “Tops & Bottoms” feels tough, playful, sexy and disconcerting all at once, laying down a slinky, laser-zapped robo-funk groove while a vocally-warped, androidgynous Estelle riffs bemusedly on the rarely-sung-about subject of clothing, examining the daily ordeal of getting dressed through lenses of consumerism, body image (“what fits a stick with a belly?”), personal taste (“do I even like any of it?”) and the annoyingly omnipresent male gaze.

Mr Twin Sister play Boot & Saddle this coming Saturday, October 20th.

13. Matthew Dear – “Echo”

Matthew Dear has been performing his strange, unsavory musical vivisections for some fifteen years now, fabricating mutant hybrids of pop music and electronica, grafting in swaths of seedy 1970s art-rock and greasy, grime-streaked industrial techno, and gradually honing a sound that, especially when laced with his distinctively deadpan, seasick vocals, is undeniably his alone.  Bunny, the Detroit producer’s sixth album under his birth name (and, for whatever it’s worth, the fourth one to start with a “B”), arrives six years after the dense, groove-heavy Beams, and finds his endearingly lugubrious mongrel concoctions straying closer than ever to straight-up song-centric pop, in myriad unpredictable ways.  On the one hand, there’s “Bad Ones,” one of two unlikely team-ups with Tegan & Sara, which is easily Dear’s poppiest track ever, boasting a gleaming, Carly Rae-worthy chorus.  And then there’s “Echo,” which feels more like a sickly, simpering parody of pop music, or maybe a formerly-innocuous folk sing-along subjected to a barrage of degrading mistranslations and perversions.  Unlike “Modafinil Blues,” the album’s ultra-long-lead first single (it dropped in June 2017) and de facto centerpiece, “Echo” actually isa blues (well, sort of…vaguely), looping a basic sixteen-bar progression and AABA lyrical structure – tethered to a leeringly slow, “Closer”-esque mechanical slither – while rendering a fragmentary portrait of haunted, dissolute youth.  We get a vivid if surreal impression of the mysteriously disappeared title character, despite not really learning much of anything about him (we hear, among other things, that he “looked the best at night” and “stomped a boy downtown”) – an unsettling sketch wryly set off by the narrator’s aw-shucks conclusion that “us kids grow up too fast.”

14. Spiritualized – “Here It Comes (The Road) Let’s Go”

Much like Bunny, Spiritualized’s And Nothing Hurt – which is, similarly, the first we’ve heard from its creator in six long years – offers a marvelously refreshed and reinvigorated return to the utterly inimitable aesthetic of a long-running, highly consistent artist, while leaning in a decidedly warmer, more song-oriented and emotionally transparent direction than ever before.  There’s been plenty of sweetness on past Spiritualized albums too – heck, the last one had the word “sweet” in its title, twice! – but it’s rarely come without a squalling, raucous wall-of-noise onslaught lurking somewhere close by, as if to preserve some bummed-out cosmic balance.  This time around, though, the squalls are limited to just two out of nine tracks, and when they do arrive (as with the brightly charging “On the Sunshine”), they sound more than ever like squalls of joy.  When J. Spaceman (a.k.a. Jason Pierce) has written love songs before, there’s always been at least an even chance that he was really just singing about drugs yet again – but the ones here really do seem like earnest expressions of love, if sometimes in a rather wishful mode.  Even the title’s borderline-hackneyed Billy Pilgrim reference seems meant to be taken at face value.  

The album’s first four tracks, in particular, are downright adorable, which is not something I’d ever thought I’d say about a Spiritualized record.  Opener “A Perfect Miracle” rewrites the space-chantey title track of 1997’s classic Ladies and Gentlemen We’re Floating in Space as a silver-screen serenade, replete with plinking ukuleles and sudsy orchestral swells (perhaps not such a stretch given how much Elvis Presley was in the original “Ladies and Gentlemen…” DNA), while “I’m Your Man” and “Let’s Dance” are considerably more humble and heartfelt than their namesake Cohen and Bowie counterparts.  The oddly punctuated “Here It Comes (The Road) Let’s Go,” meanwhile, is a road-tripper’s anthem of Muppet Movie proportions.  Except, despite the “we” in the chorus (and implicit in the title), Spaceman isn’t actually on the road with his baby here – the song is written as an invitation for her to come visit him at home, with a set of driving instructions (a page from the ol’ Jens Lekman playbook) for her to get there.  (“Watch the road, you’ll be alright”…”Better slow down for the lights”)  Which makes it a sort of armchair road-trip song.  Speaking of trips – well, yeah, we do eventually get to a bit about taking lines and getting stoned (right after an obvious lyrical Beatles homage).  But hey, at least he’s got a buddy with him this time.

Spiritualized just played the only East Coast date of their brief current tour – in Brooklyn last Thursday – BUT they are also on the lineup of Tennessee’s Big Ears Festival in March, so fingers crossed we get some proper US tour dates around that visit.

15. Cat Power – “Horizon”

Let’s wrap up with yet another veteran artist returning with her first new album in six years (come to think of it, 2012 was a pretty great year for music.)  Wanderer – such a perfectly apt, succinct title for a Chan Marshall record (and/or song) that it’s almost surprising she hasn’t used it before now – is neither poppier nor obviously sweeter than its immediate predecessors, although it is a return of sorts to Marshall’s stripped-back, economical comfort zone: both compositionally and sonically it’s probably her sparest, most vulnerable effort since 2000’s The Covers Record.  Still, there is ample warmth and serenity to be found here; a reflection, presumably, of the several major (and positive, if hardly simple) changes that have come her way in recent years: motherhood, reinvigorated health and a new, more supportive label home at Domino.  “Horizon” feels particularly contented, even blissful – not a mood one typically associates with Cat Power – with its richly atmospheric textures and open, resonant piano chords reverberating gently as Marshall addresses each member of her nuclear family in turn with messages of love, support and touching recognition.  When a mewling, autotuned harmony vocal burbles lazily into the mix about halfway through, what might seem incongruous is instead welcomed in as openly and naturally as a dear if troubled sibling.  And with the spirit of equanimity that marks a true wanderer, that lovingkindness remains unruffled even as Marshall observes the ultimate ephemerality of even these deep-rooted, familial connections: “you’re on the horizon / I’m headed the other way.”

Cat Power headlines Union Transfer on Saturday, December 15th

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