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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 →

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Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile bring living room intimacy to the Tower Theater

Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile | photo by Natalie Piserchio for WXPN | nataliepiserchio.com

From the moment it was first announced, there’s been something tremendously appealing about this team-up. Kurt Vile, Philly’s humble hometown guitar hero, and the wry Melburnian riffster Courtney Barnett are two of indie rock’s most beloved, affable slackers, and the notion of the two of them palling around, goofing off and trading drawled vocals and casually sublime guitar licks was worth a bucket of grins. So it is with Lotta Sea Lice, the duo’s goofily-named, pointedly low-stakes collaborative LP, out last month, which, if hardly revolutionary in any respect, is just so abundantly pleasant. And so it was with their sold out Philly date last Friday night: just a couple of friends giving the kind of amiably understated performance that can make a majestic, storied venue like the Tower Theater feel like a big, cozy living room. Continue reading →

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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 →