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Imperial Ail: Elvis Costello takes The Tower back to the Bedroom

Elvis Costello | photo by Rachel Del Sordo for WXPN | racheldelsordophotography.com

On our way to the Tower Theater on Friday night, to witness Elvis Costello and the Imposters’ latest thunderous return, I explained the name of the band’s current tour – Imperial Bedroom and Other Chambers – and one of my companions asked: “is that a Donald and Melania reference?” It’s a fair question. And perhaps something of a missed opportunity. Costello, who once planned to title an album Emotional Fascism, and later (to give just one example) penned a lovely, Irish-tinged waltz about defiling Margaret Thatcher’s grave (long before her actual death), could easily have offered us a bounty of pointed, tuneful political cynicism. Indeed, as he quipped early in the show, his oeuvre is littered with topical-sounding titles which he might have presented as “badly satirical,” from “Waiting for the End of the World” to “American Gangster Time” to “Brilliant Mistake.” (The last of those, incidentally, opens with a line whose dismal relevance even its author probably never foresaw: “He thought he was the king of America.”)

But no. This performance had its twisted gaze aimed at the unsavory past, not the unspeakable present. Continue reading →

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Now Hear This: New songs by Amber Coffman, The Mountain Goats, Jade Jackson, Bleachers, Diagrams, Blondie and more

Amber Coffman | via facebook.com/AmberCoffman123

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

The calendar still says it’s spring, but that’s purely a technicality. It is summertime, buddypals, and with the year we’ve been having, it’s about dang time. So where are the jams? Doesn’t quite seem like Katy Perry’s coming through for us this time around – the Teenage Dream summer of 2010, it turns out, was a long seven years ago. I’m personally getting major mileage out of Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Cut To The Feeling,” a soundtrack loosie packing as potent a dose of fizz-pop headrush euphoria as anything on E*MO*TION, let alone last year’s B-Sides (Man, was 2015 only two years ago?) Keep a lookout for Lorde’s new LP this Friday (and Haim a bit down the line), but in the meantime I’ll share some other prospects with you below.

On the live show front, it’s been a busy month what with another fabulous NonCOMMvention here at WXPN, last weekend’s dueling cross-town polarities of the Roots Picnic and West Philly Porchfest, and an action-packed concert calendar across the board – my personal highlight being the first of Sylvan Esso’s two-nighter at Union Transfer, featuring the most fervently enthusiastic audience I’ve been a part of in ages (no wonder, considering the show sold out in a matter of hours.) Things are looking strangely sparse for the remainder of June, at least from my vantage point (U2 who?), which I blame on the increasing dominance of the summer music festival circuit, infiltrating nearly every level of the industry as opportunities for the sweaty intimacy of those AC-free mid-summer Unitarian basement gigs steadily dwindles. Perhaps. Still, there are a handful of bright spots, particularly on the rootsy/folky end of things, which I’ll get to a bit further on. Continue reading →

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Now Hear This: New songs by Sylvan Esso, Juana Molina, Colin Stetson, White Reaper, Shugo Tokumaru, Alice Coltrane and more

sylvan esso
Sylvan Esso | photo by Shervin Lainez | courtesy of the artist

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

Let’s see. Cruel April gave us DAMN., Coachella, the debacle-du-spectacle that was Fyre Festival (not actually much a music story, as it turned out)… oh, and Record Store Day. Which, I gotta say, is the one capitalism-based holiday I can fully get behind – not so much for the cavalcade of exclusive releases, which feels more extraneous and vaguely exploitative every year, but for the explicit excuse/occasion to go hang out in record stores, which I sadly rarely do otherwise. And also because quirky devised human-scaled social rituals like that are just great.

I missed RSD this year for the first time in a while, but I made up for it later in the week by swinging by the Numero Group “Factory Outlet Roadshow” tour stop in Kensington: a traveling pop-up shop from the peerless Chicago-based reissue label: where I stocked up on gorgeously-packaged reproductions/assemblages of 20th-century pop ephemera. (Including, to keep things semi-2017-related, the supafunky sample source of Jens Lekman’s megajam “How We Met (The Long Version)” which has also been in my head for about a week.) So far I’ve barely even scratched the surface of my Numero haul – I’ve been much too busy combing through new releases in order to winnow out the month’s absolute finest strains to share with you, dear reader – but I’m pretty amped to dig in deeper as soon as I hit publish! Continue reading →

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Now Hear This: New songs from New Pornographers, Six Organs of Admittance, Lydia Ainsworth, Soulwax and more

new pornographers
The New Pornographers | photo by Jenny Jimenez | courtesy of the artist

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

Happy Spring! Are we allowed to be happy it’s Spring? While it feels like we’re still a long way from Summer jam season proper – Calvin Harris notwithstanding – the contenders are already starting to get in line. So far I’m liking Lorde, Lana, and Charli XCX’s bubbly one-off with Mura Masa, or maybe something from hnew oer super-fizzy PC Music-abetted mixtape – I’ll admit that I have yet to fully contend with last month’s highest-profile, er, “playlist” (shut up, Drake!) though I hear there may be some keepers there too.

Meanwhile, over on the indie side of the fence, we’ve already got a solid backlog of Spring-ready melodies to sift through as we round the bend on the first quarter of 2017. With worthy new efforts from Spoon, The Magnetic Fields, The Shins and (soon) New Pornographers (see below) joining Jens Lekman and, sure, the Flaming Lips, it’s been a busy couple of months for indie-pop lovers of a certain vintage, with plenty of opportunities for nostalgic reminiscence. (You’ll have to forgive me a few slight indulgences along our way.)

Continue reading →

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The man who makes the songs, and the songs that make the man: Two nights with The Magnetic Fields at Union Transfer

The Magnetic Fields at Union Transfer, night two | photo by K. Ross Hoffman for WXPN
The Magnetic Fields at Union Transfer, night two | photo by K. Ross Hoffman for WXPN

Stephin Merritt, the ingenious and wholly singular songwriter behind The Magnetic Fields, among other enterprises, calls himself “the least autobiographical person you are likely to meet.”  And yet, he has created his autobiography, of sorts, in 50 Song Memoir: the Fields’ latest, eleventh album as well as a two-part live performance (a concert, but also something slightly other than a concert) that was staged this past Wednesday and Thursday at Union Transfer.  The premise, or gimmick, is winningly simple and perfectly Merrittian: one song for each of the first fifty years of his life – bringing us from 1966 to 2015 – split evenly between the two nights.  The resulting experience was fascinating, complicated, revelatory – for fans, at least – and strangely human. Continue reading →

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Tumors and disco balls: Jens Lekman on growing older, feeling starstruck, “emotional autobiography” and why he wants the Phillies to lose

Jens Lekman | photo by Ellika Henrikson | courtesy of the artist
Jens Lekman | photo by Ellika Henrikson | courtesy of the artist

Jens Lekman, one of our most beloved and singularly charming songwriters, returned last month with his triumphant fourth full-length, Life Will See You Now. It might be the Swede’s most immediately gratifying collection yet, juxtaposing his typically tender and perceptive wit with some of his most exuberant (and danceable) music to date. It’s his first album since 2012’s relatively more subdued and reflective breakup-album-of-sorts, I Know What Love Isn’t, although he hasn’t exactly remained silent during the interim. In 2015 he wrote, recorded and released a new “Postcard” song every week – an effort to shake off writer’s block that paid some handsome dividends – and launched “Ghostwriting,” a project wherein he wrote songs based on other people’s stories. He’s also taken on a sideline as a wedding singer, performing at the nuptials of fans worldwide as way to help keep himself afloat while fulfilling the unwittingly prophetic promise of his 2004 ballad “If You Ever Need a Stranger (to Sing at Your Wedding).”

Continue reading →

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Now Hear This: New songs by Thundercat, Alex Lahey, Justin Carter, Dirty Projectors, Spoon and more

Thundercat | photo by Eddie Alcazar | courtesy of the artist
Thundercat | photo by Eddie Alcazar | courtesy of the artist

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

Mmmm…You can just feel it in the air, wafting in on the alt-Spring breeze and/or bluster: South by Southwest season is upon us.  Like a gulf coast hurricane spinning off a series of storm fronts, the mid-March musical mega-marathon stirs up tour schedules all across the country ‘round about now (and again toward the end of the month) as countless up-and-comers begin plotting their way down to Texas and/or their triumphant return therefrom.  Early Spring is a time for new life and, especially, new music: bigger, better-established artists tend to take a backseat at SXSW (and to some extent, perhaps accordingly, in March release schedules), although there are always a couple notable exceptions, including, this time around, Austin’s favorite indie-rocking sons… Continue reading →

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Now Hear This: New songs by Jarvis Cocker and Chilly Gonzalez, Gabriel Garzón-Montano, Austra and more

Gabriel Garzón-Montano
Gabriel Garzón-Montano | Photo by Breanna Keohane for WXPN

Every month, noted song expert K. Ross Hoffman presents a sampling of fresh specimens for your consideration. Here are his picks for February, 2017.

Happy new(-ish) year!  January tends to be a slow time for new music, as release schedules (and concert calendars) gradually shift back into gear following a generally-observed hibernation around the holidays.  That felt especially true this year, with no major releases dominating the musical conversation the way, for instance, Bowie did in 2016.  (I guess we also had a few other things to pay attention to.)  But there were still a handful of gems to sift through, all well as some promising signs for what’s to come later in the Spring.  The selections below includes a pair of pre-release teasers from disgruntled old geezers, sterling examples of several different strains of soul music, a smattering of political content – sorry, you can’t escape it here either – and the first great pop banger of 2017.

Continue reading →

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The Key’s Year-End Mania: K. Ross Hoffman’s alternate reality chart-toppers of 2016

The Monkees | still from video

Year-End Mania is the Key’s annual survey of the things below the surface that made 2016 incredible. Today, Key contributor K. Ross Hoffman imagines a world where these songs ruled the charts.

Sometimes reality just utterly fails to live up to even the most modest standards of reasonableness.  2016 was one of those times.  Or, actually, many of those times.  Fortunately, we music critics have a long-standing tradition of inventing alternate realities.  Granted, it’s mostly limited to the realm of the pop charts, which all things considered represented some of 2016’s lesser transgressions.  (Hey, the Chainsmokers’ “Closer” was only the #1 song in the country for a mere quarter of the year – it could have been worse!)  But just in case you feel like dreaming up a nicer, happier parallel universe version of 2016, you might as well have a re-tooled mainstream cultural soundtrack to go along with it.  Here are a few of the massively successful, inescapable smash hits of 2016… in my dreams. Continue reading →

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From Philadelphia to New Orleans, Carsie Blanton talks recording her latest album So Ferocious.

Carsie Blanton | Photo by: Bobby Bonsey Photography
Carsie Blanton | Photo by Bobby Bonsey Photography

Carsie Blanton spent eight years in Philadelphia – the longest, the Virginia-born songwriter says, that she’s lived in one place as an adult. She arrived here as a teenager, forged strong and lasting connections with the local songwriting community, played a key role in developing the city’s swing & blues dancing scene, and just generally won our hearts with her captivating warble, her sprightly metaphors and her signature flower-adorned curls. Continue reading →