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Now Hear This: New songs by Kacey Musgraves, Alexis Taylor, Gwenno, Baloji, Young Fathers, Mount Eerie and more.

Young Fathers
Young Fathers | photo by Julia Noni | courtesy of the artist

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

Last month I was seeing double; this month I’m going solo.

I spent a probably unreasonable amount of time in the last couple weeks compiling a list of my personal top 25 albums of the past 25 years – a time period which happens to correspond, more or less, with my lifespan as an active, conscious listener to contemporary music – and then discussing/dissecting said list in detail via Facebook comments, which turned out to be a surprisingly emotional process.  (The whole undertaking was inspired by a prompt commemorating the 25th anniversary of Philly-based staple Magnet Magazine, wherein the list will eventually be published.)

One thing that struck me along the way was how astonishingly many acts from this time-frame – even the earliest years of it – remain (or have again become) relatively musically active.  Now, maybe it’s just a factor of my age, but I don’t really remember the musical landscape of the ‘90s, for instance, being quite so well populated by artists who’d been around since the ’70s.  Of the twenty-five artists who made my list, all but four are either still at it or at it again: two have died (Elliott Smith and Aaliyah; three if you count Stereolab’s Mary Hansen), but only two – Rachel Stevens and Aberfeldy – have, to my knowledge, simply stopped making music.   Continue reading →

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Lorde’s artful, unconventional pop captivates at the Wells Fargo Center

Lorde | photo by Natalie Piserchio for WXPN | nataliepiserchio.com

Lorde may be merely “a little sensitive person, alive in this world,” as she described herself on stage Monday night – but she’s got no trouble captivating an awfully big roomful of people.  Notwithstanding the appropriately huge, high-energy parts of her show at the Wells Fargo Center – like a surging, triumphal, set-closing “Green Light”: lights flashing, synths blaring, crowd shouting along with every word, confetti cannons filling the air with tissue-paper stars as a glass cage filled with dancers drifted up to the ceiling… –  the moment that felt the biggest, and resonated the loudest, was also the simplest and smallest. Continue reading →

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Less War, More Leisure: Miguel holds court at The Fillmore Philadelphia

Miguel | photo by Lissa Alicia for WXPN

I first saw Miguel Jontel Pimentel at South by Southwest, what feels like a very long six years ago. Back then, he was a promising but relatively conventional second-string R&B hitmaker – though already (unbeknownst to us at the time) in the midst of a metamorphosis that would lead him to the dazzling creative breakthrough of his second album, Kaleidoscope Dream. But even at that early stage, his nascent star power was blinding, and blindingly obvious. Some time later, mostly by happenstance, I caught the livestream of his set at Pitchfork Festival during the summer long hot of 2016 – just about a week after the deaths in Baton Rouge, St. Paul and Dallas – and witnessed the singer, dressed in angelic white, seizing an emotionally fraught historic moment and channeling it into an empowering, healing and utterly captivating performance.

Last night’s show at the Fillmore offered neither the thrill of discovery and sense of limitless possibility of that 2012 showcase set, nor the urgent topicality, coherence and moral force of the Pitchfork performance. But it didn’t need them. Even as nothing wilder than a seasoned working entertainer, punching in for another showbiz night, Miguel is among the best in the business. Throughout a generous twenty-plus-song set that drew from each of his four albums – including almost the entirety of his most recent, last year’s War and Leisure – he held the enthusiastic crowd in the palm of his hand all night long. Continue reading →

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Now Hear This: New songs by Natalia Lafourcade and Caroline Rose, Car Seat Headrest and Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog, Ezra Furman and Johanna Warren…and more

Caroline Rose
Caroline Rose | photo by Matt Hogan | courtesy of the artist

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

Another month, another haphazard assemblage of sounds, culled from near and far, old and new, this and that, recent recordings and forthcoming performances (another solid line-up of the latter!) Somehow, unpredictably, through-lines tend to emerge, and I try to take them for what they’re worth without overstating the point. For whatever reason, in compiling this second monthly batch of new 2018 tunes – jazz, ambient, country, folk, pop and rock, and very little of it on quite square – I kept encountering forms and notions of duality: binaries, opposites, mirrors, twins. Below you’ll find pairings as superficial and arbitrary as similar-sounding artist names, as specific and deliberate as conceptually conjoined album projects, as intriguing if incidental as strikingly parallel career arcs. Well, we’ve gotta find something to talk about. First, though, let’s have some fun. Continue reading →

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Now Hear This: New music by Belle & Sebastian, Django Django, Tune-Yards, Soccer Mommy, Nils Frahm, Shopping and more

Belle and Sebastian | 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.

We’ve had a pretty good last month or so here in Philadelphia, on a couple of fronts.  Musically though, at least in terms of the broadest, pop-cultural arena, things have felt just a tad uninspiring lately.  The best-selling album of the year thus far, by a wide margin, is the Greatest Showman soundtrack; an artistic triumph I have no doubt.  Camila Cabelo’s full-length bow, despite a couple of serviceable bangers, basically failed to make good on the promise of “Havana,” the year’s first new Hot 100 chart-topper and one of the best we’ve had in a while.  The most notable musical performance, the halftime show of that one football game, was a perfectly enjoyable and well-executed medley of five-to-fifteen-year-old hits with no real relevance to anything in particular – I’m not sure whether it’s more dispiriting that Justin “Man of the Woods” Timberlake chose not to even attempt promoting his just-released new album by actually performing something from it, or that this was, on balance, probably the right decision.  I mean, no offense JT…

Then there were the Grammys, which despite well-deserved (if largely meaningless) acknowledgments for the likes of LCD Soundsystem, The National, Aimee Mann and our very own War on Drugs, overwhelmingly reaffirmed its own insignificance, diversity issues and fogeydom (I mean, no offense Bruno); adding insult to irrelevance by denying a performance slot to (sole female) album-of-the-year nominee Lorde.  That hot pile of nothingness was capped off by the truly vile, toxic comments of Recording Academy president Neil Portnow, who, in response to questions about the underrepresentation of women among winners and nominees, called for “women who have the creativity in their hearts and souls…to step up, because I think they would be welcome.”

Of course, it goes without saying that, beyond the psychotically warped bubble that is mainstream culture and the self-congratulatory machinations of the “music industry,” music itself continues on and, as always, the past month offered plenty of tunes worth digging into.  You’ll find a smattering below, from indie-pop earworms to exuberant dance jams, including a handful of artists experimenting in various, intriguing ways, with strains of world music.  And – I swear I didn’t plan this – it just so happens that all but one of the selections below were made, either by solely or in part, by female artists.  Step on up! Continue reading →

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Lana Del Rey offers a gloriously moody counterpoint to South Philly revelry at Wells Fargo Center Sunday

Lana Del Rey | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

A few minutes after the Eagles clinched their NFC championship victory on Sunday night, Lana Del Rey took the stage at the Wells Fargo Center, just across the sports complex. Someone had tipped her off. “Philadelphia…I hear your team won tonight,” she beamed to jubilant crowd – “so it should be a good night.” And so it was – although, to be sure, the gloriously moody, brooding strains she had in store for us were a far cry from the gleeful mayhem presumably erupting in the parking lots just outside the stadium. Aside from her penchant for Americana and for grand, dramatic pageantry, there probably aren’t all that many similarities between a Lana Del Rey concert and a football game. At least her backup dancers’ velvet minidresses were approximately the right shade of green.

As a committed fan who was blown away by Lana’s debut back in 2012 and has been eagerly anticipating an opportunity to see her live ever since, I still had some major doubts about this concert, particularly related to it being an arena show. For one thing, it’s always been strangely difficult to get a clear sense of her actual popularity. Could she even come close to filling the Wells Fargo? Turns out she did much better than I’d feared: the lower stands, as far as I could see, were relatively well populated all the way around the arena – at least, they didn’t feel embarrassingly empty (as was pretty much the case when I saw Arcade Fire there a few months back.) The GA floor section, however, was at best a quarter filled, which put a slight, odd damper on the energy of the evening. (Not that there’s necessarily a better indoor venue for her to play in town – she would have handily sold out the Fillmore and left many fans wanting – but perhaps the pricing tiers could have been adjusted to help avoid a big empty space in the middle of the room.) Continue reading →

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Now Hear This: New music by Miguel, Baths, Karl Blau, Phoebe Bridgers, Little Mazarn, King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard and more

Phoebe Bridgers | Photo by Frank Ockenfels | via Dead Oceans

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

Happy 2018! The year’s off to a great start, musically speaking, with much to look forward to on the horizon (including some heavy-hitters poised to return – The Breeders, David Byrne, Superchunk and Jack White among them) and a surprising number of strong releases already out in the world, a mere two weeks into the year. Plus the local concert calendar is already heating up, possibly more than any January I can remember. Let’s take a look at some of what’s ahead, concert-wise, by simultaneously taking one final glance back to 2017 at some cuts by artists who had notable breakthrough years, a few great late fall/early winter releases, and a smattering of others that you (or I) might have overlooked along the way. All but one have upcoming Philly tour dates – many of them happening this month and several further on down the line. Continue reading →

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The Key’s Year-End Mania: K. Ross Hoffman’s megamix dance party for NYE 2017

Lil Uzi Vert | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

Year-End Mania is the Key’s annual survey of the things below the surface that made 2017 incredible. In this installment, Key contributor K. Ross Hoffman presents a megamix of 2017 highlights for all your New Year’s dance party needs.

Welcome to my year end mania. My most cherished, and certainly most insane annual personal ritual, every December since 2006 (the year of Girl Talk, not so coincidentally) is to construct a monster mash-up DJ mega-mix of music from the year that was. The idea is for it to serve as a dance party for New Year’s Eve. This year, I’m sharing my mix – finally completed, with just hours to spare – with you.

I think this is my longest New Year’s mix ever. It also ended up being the dirtiest mix I’ve ever made – I’m not sure what that says about this year. As Fever Ray observed perceptively in a track that I didn’t end up including, this country made it hard to fuck in 2017 – still, it was a year in which even Taylor Swift was #readyforit. Continue reading →

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Now Hear This – Ambient Edition: New music by Bitchin Bajas, Marcus Fischer, Gyða Valtysdottir, Tom Rogerson with Brian Eno, Gas, The Caretaker, and more

Gyða Valtýsdottir | via gyda.bandcamp.com

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

Last year, in my final installment of Now Hear This over at PhillyVoice, I inaugurated what I’ll now establish as an annual tradition: a column dedicated to the wide, unobtrusive world of ambient music. Ambient is always around us, but the winter is an especially good time for it. No other genre better evokes (or soundtracks) the placid, frosty stillness and/or the glowing, contented, indoorsy warmth that represent the season’s great duality.

Accordingly, there’s been a bumper crop of worthy ambient-leaning releases in the past month or so. Just to name a few, in addition to those I’ll feature below: an intriguing, formally innovative modular drone experiment by the always worthwhile Eluvium; a pair of reissues from indie favorites The Album Leaf; a gorgeous new set of swirling, marimba-heavy instrumental chamber-pop from Thor and Friends; an enjoyable record of ambient-adjacent electronic burblings from Coupler, a.k.a. Lambchop’s Ryan Norris, and a massively acclaimed left-turn into stark ambient purism by the habitually eclectic producer Bibio – whose work I typically enjoy, but which in this instance leaves me persistently, inscrutably cold. Continue reading →

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Now Hear This: New songs by Kelela, Parquet Courts, Fever Ray, Alvarius B., Special Request, Circuit Des Yeux and more

Fever Ray | via facebook.com/FeverRay

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

Much as I may pride myself on keeping my ears as wide open and omnivorous as possible, I’m often struck, as the time of reckoning draws nigh, that so much of the music that really affects me from any given year tends to fall into a few relatively narrow categories.  Looking back on the 2017 releases that I’ve spent the most time with and returned to most consistently, most of them can be sorted into two general buckets: emotionally resonant electronic pop made by (relatively young) women – Lorde, MUNA, Sylvan Esso, Kelly Lee Owens – or wordy, wide-ranging critical statements made by opinionated and perhaps over-analytical old (or at least aging) men: Randy Newman, Jens Lekman, LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields.

Is there a throughline there?  I tend to think of it in terms of personality: if there’s one thing most likely to pique my interest in a new artist, or keep me engaged with a familiar one, it’s in their music’s ability to serve as a tool for human expression, straightforward or otherwise; a means of telegraphing a vivid and recognizable individual identity – whether that individual be a quote-unquote “real person,” a constructed persona or, as it surely is in the vast majority of cases, some ambiguous, unparseable intertwining of the two.  Perhaps that quality is more readily apparent in the second group of aforementioned artists.  It’s not that those verbose songmen are single-mindedly preoccupied with age and mortality – though it’s clearly on their minds (see: Newman’s heartwrenching “Lost Without You”; Murphy’s “tonite”; Lekman’s bouncy but pensive “Wedding in Finistère”; the entire conceit of Merritt’s 50 Song Memoir) but it certainly informs their outlook, helping to distill a clarity of perspective (and tendency toward warts-and-all honesty) translating into albums that function as poignant, if sometimes roundabout self-portraits.   Continue reading →