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Now Hear This: New Songs from Cold Specks, Moses Sumney, Cults, Susanne Sundfør, Laura Baird, Eamon and Mavis Staples

Moses Sumney | photo via facebook.com/mosessumney

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

October is the coolest month – musically speaking.  There are more (and, pound for pound, bigger) new releases flying around these days than any other time of year.  It’s dizzying.  And correspondingly, of course, there are also many many artists touring through town, now and in the coming weeks.  It’s left me with little choice but to offer an, umm, especially generous baker’s dozen by way of my monthly recap below.  So come feast your ears! 

Among other things, last month saw a considerable number of comebacks, of varying magnitudes – returns to action, artistic reinvigorations, etc – from artists all across the spectrum.  I’ve highlighted a good number of them below, along with a smaller, select handful of shining newcomer – most of whom turn out to be not entirely that new, after all.

The biggest (unintentional) theme for this month, a through-line linking all of these widely ranging selections, is the power of the voice.  The playlist below features a striking array of voices – extraordinary voices and commonplace voices, singly or in multiple, highly processed or unadorned.  And whether or not I call attention to to it in my write-up, each and every cut here offers something memorable in terms of its vocal dimension; a certain quality of the voice (or voices) at hand, or of the way that voice are used.  Let it be a reminder for us all, to keep on using our voices. Continue reading →

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In a sea of infinite content, Arcade Fire holds its own at Wells Fargo Center

Arcade Fire | photo by Jeremy Zimmerman | jeremy-zim.com

I first got over Arcade Fire more than a decade ago. I guess you could say we peaked early. I was head over heels the first time I saw them, yelping and jumping, clattering countless tom-toms and swapping instruments with abandon. They were crammed onto the stage of a tiny club in Carrboro, NC, where I happened to be passing through on the night before Merge Records’ 15th anniversary festival. (I’d mostly stopped in to check out another new signee to the label, Lou Barlow. According to my blog, the night also included Win and Regine doing an impromptu rendition of The Magnetic Fields’ “Born On A Train,” as part of “Merge karaoke.”)

That show was a true, rare rock’n’roll thrill, one which even the mighty Funeral, when it finally arrived, couldn’t quite recapture (but I loved it anyway), and which had already begun to fade when I saw them again, in the First Unitarian basement, that fall. (It’s slightly hard to imagine, but I was significantly turned off by their lackluster cover of my all-time favorite song, Talking Heads’ “This Must Be The Place.”) That was the last time I saw them play live – that is, until this Sunday night, when they gave a decidedly (and yet, not entirely) different, undeniably thrilling performance at Wells Fargo Center as part of their “Infinite Content” tour. Continue reading →

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Now Hear This: New songs by Torres, Alvvays, Lucky Soul, EMA, Partner, Dent May and more

Alvvays | 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.

It’s prime time. As summer winds to a close, we’ve arrived emphatically at the part of the year where seemingly every week brings a fresh trove of high-profile new releases. The last few weeks have seen records from what feels like a who’s-who of top-tier “prestige” indie rock acts: The National, Grizzly Bear, Iron and Wine, LCD Soundsystem and, of course, Philly’s entry in the conversation, The War on Drugs. And there’s more right around the corner from Beck, St. Vincent, Destroyer, Wolf Parade and, of course, Philly’s entry in the next phase of the conversation, Kurt Vile (in collaboration with Courtney Barnett.) As always, it’ll be interesting to see which of these albums manage to live up to the anticipation, and how many wind up largely forgotten in a few months time.

But it’s a great time of year for all sorts of music; not just the big names and known entities. There’s so much stuff coming out it’s hard to even keep track of it all, and the influx of well-established acts means higher-than-usual potential for worthy smaller records to slip through the cracks. But I’ll do my best to help – read on for a smattering of relatively under-the-radar releases from the past month or so. No deliberate themes or through-lines this time, but there are a few trends that stick out. Notably, we are now sufficiently far enough removed from last November’s election – and the many varieties of devastating fallout that ensued – that an increasing number of new releases are referencing or responding to the national (and global) political situation at least on some level – and there are several examples below. Also, for no particular reason except that it just happened that way, all of these songs were made by women – well, with one or two exceptions right at the end, but at least those are sung in falsetto. Enjoy! Continue reading →

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Now Hear This: New songs by Haim, SZA, Kesha, Daphni, Aminé, Julia Michaels and more.

SZA | photo by Cameron Pollack for WXPN
SZA | photo by Cameron Pollack for WXPN

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

Ciao!! Now Hear This is coming to you this month one week later than regularly programmed, due to your faithful correspondent’s international travel schedule: I recently spent ten days in Sicily, where I got to experience firsthand the pleasures of a record-setting heatwave fondly dubbed “Lucifer.” Trips abroad always afford an interesting lens on pop music – you never know quite what you’ll get when you flip on a radio. The Italian pop I encountered seemed generally jaunty and decidedly dorky, featuring a surprising amount of accordion. The DJs were effusive and highly entertaining, speaking faster than I could probably follow even if I did know any Italian. I heard “Young Folks” and noname (the latter playing in a shop.) I heard one DJ leapfrog from The Beatles to Run-DMC to Empire of the Sun; rambling excitedly over the introduction to each song. The only current American pop number I heard in multiple places while in Italy was Calvin Harris’ “Feels” (ft. Pharrell, Katy Perry and Big Sean), a supposedly “summery” song that I guess I support more in theory than in practice. Continue reading →

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Now Hear This: New songs by Lorde, Ride, Algiers, Offa Rex, Saint Etienne, Japanese Breakfast and more

Lorde | Photo By Noah Silvestry | silvestography.com

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

We are having a shoegaze moment.  I’m not entirely sure that the fuzzy, buzzy swirls of early-‘90s Britain speak to our times in any particular way, beyond their basic, perennial resonance with the heavy haze of a hot summer.  But there seems to be as much life in the now-venerable style – along with its cuddlier, more scrutable cousin, dream-pop – as at any point in the last quarter-century. Continue reading →

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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 →