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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.)

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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).”

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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.

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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 →

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Car Seat Headrest, indie rock’s complex, post-teenage messiahs, bring anthems and anxiety to Underground Arts

Car Seat Headrest | photo by Anna Webber | courtesy of the artist
Car Seat Headrest | photo by Anna Webber | courtesy of the artist

Car Seat Headrest – who headline Underground Arts this Sunday following an appearance at WXPN’s Non-COMM convention – is the rapidly exploding brainchild of 23-year-old indie rock whiz kid Will Toledo.

With this week’s Teens of Denial – the outfit’s first studio album of new material, following a dozen or so Bandcamp releases, plus last year’s Matador-abetted re-recording of select tracks from the back-catalog – Toledo and company have fully arrived, anointed, it seems, as the inheritors of a considerable array of rock’n’roll mythologies. Continue reading →

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Boy-band intellectuals The 1975 to fashion a sensitive, new-wave Mann

The1975 Roger Deckker 1
The 1975 | photo by Roger Deckker | courtesy of the artist

Poptimism’s 2016 cause célèbre – UK quartet The 1975, who headline the Mann’s Skyline stage this Sunday – are a decidedly odd proposition. At least in marked contrast to, say, a Carly Rae Jepsen – the “girl-next-door type sings sparky electro-pop songs about teenage crushes…” They’re odd in overt, ostentatious, readily quantifiable ways. Like giving their chart-topping second album a 16-word-long, multiply #problematic title – I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful yet So Unaware of It (at least, that seems to be one agreed-upon capitalization) – in addition to a 17-song tracklist and a 74-minute running time.

They’re odd in ways that probably shouldn’t really be so odd by now, like managing to dredge up some fresh, relatively untapped 1980s signifiers to resuscitate (the terse INXS-plus-Thin White Duke pop-funk of “Love Me”; the scintillating Fine Young Cannibals-meets-Stewart Copeland funk-pop of “She’s American”), never mind that we’ve been revisiting that decade for a good sixteen years now.** Continue reading →

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Parquet Courts to enact human performance at Union Transfer

Parquet Courts
Parquet Courts | Photo by Ben Rayner | courtesy of the artist

Parquet Courts kinda keep you guessing.  They may be the most fascinating and distinctive rock band to emerge this decade.  But it’s frustratingly hard to parse exactly what they’re up to.  Are their many quirks (linguistic, aesthetic, compositional, vocal) ingenious idiosyncrasies or insufferable affectations?  Are they slackers or stoners or hipsters or goofballs?  Art-punk philosopher-poets or sardonic, smirking smart-asses?   All of the above, possibly.  Or maybe they’re just some thoughtful dudes with well-thumbed post-punk collections and a knack for obliquely infectious guitar riffs. Continue reading →