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Now Hear This: New songs from Andy Jenkins, Gang Gang Dance, Gorillaz, Arp, LUMP, Wilder Maker, and more

Orquesta Akokán | via orquestaakokan.bandcamp.com

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

Aw yeah, summer. The entropy, the lethargy, the visceral extremes.  Now, summer makes all sorts of things weird anyway, but I feel like summertime in music-land has gotten especially wonky in recent years. Basically, my take is that the focus on large-scale music festivals which has ballooned over the past decade or so has taken a palpable bite out of non-festival-centric touring itineraries, and thus summer concert calendars, and even, indirectly, album release schedules. (Aside from the overwhelming hype cavalcade of Drake, Jay-Zeyonce and Kanye and Co. all dropping within a matter of weeks, the last few weeks have felt a bit thin for noteworthy new releases, and the rest of July and August, peering ahead, are looking even sparser.) Maybe I’d be less sore about all this if I felt closer to the target audience for either Firefly or Made in America, but as it stands those festivals’ biggest impact on me, personally, has been (presumably) shutting Philly out of proper local headline dates for the makers of some of my favorite music of the year: Janelle Monáe, for instance, and Amen Dunes.

Still, there’s plenty that’s worth seeing, concert-wise, in the coming weeks – it just feels like (even) more of an unpredictable hodge-podge than usual. Some of it is coming in the form of smaller, locally-targeted festivals: there’s XPN’s own XPoNential Festival, of course, and the decidedly weirder and more DIY All Mutable Summer Jam which is running the same weekend (July 27th-28th); I’m also pretty hyped about the free, Latin Roots-affiliated Nuevofest which is coming up this Sunday (read on for more about that.)

Anyhow, this being summertime, what do you say we all take a trip? Just a little musical vacation around the globe and beyond, to points both familiar and strange; real, imaginary and somewhere in between. I can’t say that it will all be straightforward or entirely uncomplicated – what is nowadays, after all – but I do promise we’ll have some fun along the way. And it’ll feel oh so nice to arrive back home at the end.

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Now Hear This: New songs from Ry Cooder, Neko Case, Wajatta, Bernice, Dear Nora, Stephen Malkmus and more

Neko Case
Neko Case | 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.

Happy summer, is it?  I guess I got all the pop out of my system last month, cuz it’s about to get pretty indie in here.  You like indy music, right?  Good, cause I’ve got nothing major planned for this month.  After all, independence day is coming up soon.  In this June installment of Now Hear This, at the halfway point of an already-pretty-excellent year for all kindsa music, we’ll take some stock of the wide, white, anglophone (though in this case, hardly at all male) world of probably the least useful genre descriptor there is.  Then, eventually, we’ll get to some other places – Holland, Africa, outer space, Takoma Park.  We’ll meet some bands named after names, check in with some artists who’ve been around for fifty years, or seventy years, and some who went away for a while and have come back to us.  First, though, let’s hear a heavy hit from one of the least-categorizable heavy-hitters out there… Continue reading →

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Now Hear This: New songs from Kylie, Kali and Koze; PC, PCM and SMD; Daphne, Damien, Daniel and the Decemberists

Kylie Minogue | photo via facebook.com/kylieminogue

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

This year was already off to a pretty good start, musically speaking, but at some point around the beginning of last month things really started popping off. By which I mean we started getting a steady stream of bright, shiny, undeniable capital-P Pop music, the kind of stuff that’s going to become truly indispensable / inescapable come summertime – which, for all intents and purposes is basically already here – and which will likely wind up defining 2018 in our memories forevermore. And I’m digging it! First off, we got Cardi B’s debut album, Invasion of Privacy, which was not just a major cultural event but also way more fun than I would’ve expected, and has been rightly celebrated as such across the board. (Truly, if you haven’t at least heard the made-for-the-summer Latin-pop sizzler “I Like It,” featuring Bad Bunny & J. Balvin, do yourself the favor – also, she’s coming to town in September with Bruno Mars.) Then there was Drake, of course, replacing himself at the top of the charts with “Nice For What” and having more fun than he’s had in ages (maybe ever?), even if at least half of the song’s appeal is down to that Lauryn Hill sample. (He’s also got an album on the way, and a just-announced September Philly date with Migos.) Continue reading →

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

Moses Sumney | photo by Breanna Keohane for WXPN
Moses Sumney | photo by Breanna Keohane for WXPN

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 →