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.
All the rest are still in the game, as are most of the other ‘90s-era favorites I can think of – though in plenty of cases, creative differences being what they are, now reconfigured as solo acts or otherwise in new collaborative endeavors. Within the last month alone – along with notable releases from the more-or-less intact Breeders, Yo La Tengo, of Montreal, Dr. Octagon (!), Moby, Meshell Ndegeocello, resurgent Drive Like Jehu-reincarnation Hot Snakes, Guided by Voices (who play Union Transfer next Monday) and Eels (ditto, but in June) – we’ve also gotten new solo works (or new collaborative projects) from the members of a great many iconic acts whose initial heyday was in the range of fifteen to 35 years ago.
Most notably: a White Stripe (Jack, whose Boarding House Reach I found, unlike some listeners, to be enjoyably bizarre rather than obtusely so), not one but two Strokes (Albert Hammond Jr., who played a very fun Free at Noon show in support of his delightfully classicist Francis Trouble, and Julian Casablancas, who is now “of” rather than “and” The Voidz, wresting virtue from the jaws of delirious chaos) and a Talking Head (David Byrne, whose American Utopia is, I regret to say, a decidedly lesser work within a generally stellar solo oeuvre – although his current world tour, which I caught on its first night in Red Bank, NJ, is truly phenomenal and an absolute can’t-miss when it hits Camden for XPoNential fest this July.) But also: Tracey Thorn (whose exceptional new Record, possibly my favorite of the year so far, is up there with Everything But The Girl’s very best), JB Dunckel of Air (whose H+ offers everything you could want from an Air album in 2018, if indeed that’s something you could want), the righteous, half-of-Fugazi-featuring instrumental concern Messthetics, Dean Ween Group, and The Books’ Paul de Jong.
As for the folks on my list: apart from the aforementioned Thorn, it so happens that only the very top two – or, more precisely, representatives thereof – have actually released new music thus far in 2018. I’ll get to those (along with a smattering of other recent solo-ish joints) at the very end of this column, and leave you in a little suspense until then. First, though: it’s springtime! – let’s do a little gardening.
As always, you can stream all the tracks in this column via this handy-dandy Spotify playlist:
1. Kacey Musgraves – “Oh What A World”
Kacey Musgraves, perhaps the most eminently likable performer to come out of Nashville in the past decade, is known, among other things, for being “that country girl who sings about weed” (although, you know, she’s hardly the only one.) It’s a reputation she cemented with her 2013 breakout anthem “Follow Your Arrow” and has enjoyed teasing in variably, subtle ways throughout her subsequent output. You could certainly read the reference to “plants that grow and open your mind” in this blissful standout from her utterly luminous new album, as a sly, perfectly-pitched continuation of that thread. (Somewhat surprisingly, given Golden Hour’s hazy, gently psychedelic sonics, it’s one of the few possible stoner winks on the record – the other primary one being the title of its equally gorgeous opener, “Slow Burn.”) But I think it’s a little more interesting – and more mind-opening – to take the line at face value, as an innocent expression of wonder at the everyday miracle of plant-based life forms, painting them just as remarkable as more obviously spectacular marvels like auroras and bioluminescence. Musgraves’ other impressively durable songwriting signature is to invoke clichés in ways so obvious they become revelatory; here she follows a line that runs (with a little tweaking) from Louis Armstrong and Sam Cooke through Rufus Wainwright. While the results might come across as hopelessly dippy or cloying in lesser hands, they feel just right here: softly transcendent and effortlessly heartwarming, thanks in part to a marvelously airy (and Air-y) confluence of pedal steel, banjos and vocoder.
Kacey Musgraves comes to town on June 15th to open for noted solo artist Harry Styles at the Wells Fargo Center; later on she’s kicking off her own headlining tour – named after this song – which starts in Europe but will hopefully bring her back to these parts before too long.
2. Caitlin Canty – “Basil Gone To Blossom”
Okay, maybe that was a bit of a tease. Here’s an actual country song about gardening – or at least, one with a robust gardening metaphor – in the grand tradition of “Good Year For The Roses” and the Stephin Merritt-penned “Plant White Roses.” The Vermont-born, Nashville-based Canty lights on a piquant and, in all likelihood, entirely original conceit for this lovelorn homesteader’s lament: likening her romantic plight to the disappointment and wasted potential of a bolted herb patch. A lightly jaunty two-step from her thoroughly lovely new record, Motel Bouquet, the song’s succinct lyrics don’t do a whole lot to elaborate on that central analogy, but they don’t need to: if you’ve ever known the frustration of watching your kitchen garden start to flower partway into a summer – thereby rendering it useless – the image speaks for itself.
3. Haley Heynderickx – “Oom Sha La La”
Sticking with the theme: this peppy, relatively straightforward slice of doo-woppin’ indie rock isn’t necessarily the most representative clipping from this Portland, OR, songwriter’s striking, tenderly pruned full-length debut I Need to Start a Garden – through much of which her agile and curious fingerpicking and formidably quavering voice are augmented only by sparing, judicious coloristic accents. But it is the tune that supplies the album’s title phrase – a declaration which takes on a rather startling, momentarily unhinged fervor. There’s a metaphorical tinge here too – that “need” reflects her determination to assert control over the decaying jumble of spoilt milk, olived thumbs and pomegranate hearts cluttering up her mental refrigerator (not to mention the thorny process of bringing the album to fruition) – but it feels like at the same time like a very literal resolution. And it’s not the first time I’ve heard that sentiment expressed with similarly vehement desperation.
4. Alasdair Roberts, Amble Skuse & David McGuinness – “Babylon”
There’s also a fair amount of vegetal growth strewn about the traditional British ballads on What News?, a remarkable collaboration between Scottish folksinger-songwriter Roberts, electronic composer Skuse and antiquarian keyboardist McGuinness, which plays like a UK counterpart to avant-archivist Sam Amidon’s experimental sojourns or, more recently, Vermont/Virginia duo Anna & Elizabeth’s fascinating Smithsonian Folkways debut. Much of that plant life is set up to contrast with often tragic and senseless human death – most poignantly on the delicate, album-closing treatment of “Long A-Growing”, whose title refers first to the narrator’s “bonny boy” and later to the grass atop his son’s untimely grave. Here, a sylvan setting along the persistently invoked “bonny banks o’ the Airdrie” provides the backdrop to an almost cartoonishly macabre tale of a double-sororicide/suicide – stemming from an improbable case of mistaken identity – much as Roberts’ lusty vocal and McGuiness’ resolutely cheerful, sprightly performance on an 1844-vintage pianoforte are subverted by the oblique intrusion of Skuse’s subtle, disquieting clicks, warbles and whirrs. (Worth noting: you can – and should – stream this album, and Roberts’ many others, per the April 1st announcement that Drag City records has finally, no foolin’, signed on with Spotify. Huzzah!)
5. Mount Eerie – “Now Only”
A different kind of death dominates the recent work of Anacortes, WA’s Phil Elverum, who was once the driving (and sole constant) creative force behind The Microphones and has long since transitioned gracefully into the more emphatically solo (and by now, much longer running) Mount Eerie. His astonishing 2017 album A Crow Looked At Me was an unflinchingly intimate, often overwhelming meditation and sifting-through following the passing of his wife (and the mother of his young daughter), the artist and musician Geneviève Castrée. The six songs that comprise its follow-up, Now Only, which arrived almost exactly a year later, continue that messy, powerfully human process of mourning and sense-making, with the added emotional strangeness of a year spent navigating the widespread acclaim that accompanied his public airing of personal grief. This title track, whose lyrical vignettes sum up much of the absurdity of those experiences – and essentially, in a nutshell, the absurd juxtaposition of death and life – features the closest thing to a conventional chorus on either album, with piano, bass and drums kicking in abruptly, almost comically, to underscore a sweetly tuneful refrain: “People get cancer and die / people get hit by trucks and die…” Lyrically, it scans like a differently-angled paraphrase of the basic, incontrovertible truth which opened Crow: “Death is real / someone’s there and then they’re not.” Musically, it feels like a game, aspirational attempt at “conventional” songwriting structure that falls hopelessly, mockingly short: the passage only occurs twice, and not at all in the song’s second half, which reverts to sparse, diaristic, only tangentially songlike fumblings with meaning and loss (“…what is left but this merchandise?”), eventually arriving at something like a satisfying encapsulation (“this is what my life feels like now”) – if only for the moment.
6. Nap Eyes – “I’m Bad”
When I interviewed Nigel Chapman, the frontman and songwriter of this quirky, bookish Haligonian quartet, on the occasion of their first visit to Philly two years ago, he came across as preternaturally cheerful and friendly; a garrulous, almost giddy conversationalist – but also, at the same time, as relentlessly, compulsively – and quite perceptively – self-scrutinizing. The tension between those traits – niceness and neuroses, both equally deep-seated – plays out in many of his lyrics, and it’s especially evident here. This song, the almost-title cut of their delightful new LP, I’m Bad Now, is a slyly salty dis track, almost Dylanesque in its understated, offhanded savagery. Ostensibly (per the title – which, it’s worth noting, doesn’t appear in the lyrics – and the press release) the song’s curt dismissal (“…you’re so dumb”) is directed inwardly, which is certainly in keeping with Chapman’s self-flagellating tendencies. Still, I’m not entirely convinced – construing the whole thing as an internal dialogue requires a fair bit of cerebral maneuvering, even for a brain like Chapman’s, and I kinda like the thought that he’s (also) channeling a bit of secret, outwardly-focused anger that’s hiding somewhere under that affable Canadian exterior. (Maybe that’s badness he means?) Either way, it marks a delicious juxtaposition with the song’s laid-back, sweetly rootsy lope, which finds the band sounding fuller, warmer and more confident than ever before.
Nap Eyes come to play at Johnny Brenda’s on Tuesday, April 17th. Which probably isn’t Tax Day in Canada.
7. NoMBe – “Man Up”
Twenty years on from the heyday of neo-soul; nearing fifty since What’s Going On, there are sadly few artists out there who can (or at least do) fashion compellingly “conscious” R&B that doesn’t just come off as impossibly corny. But the Heidelberg-via-Los Angeles singer/songwriter/producer/guitarist Noah McBeth (get it?) pulls that off – and whole a lot more – with considerable aplomb across They Might’ve Even Loved Me, an audacious pop/soul/funk/rock/folk debut odyssey whose range is comparable to Miguel and Cody ChesnuTT combined – and then some. The album is expressly feminist in intent, with its eighteen tracks dedicated to the most important women in his life. (Among them, presumably, is his godmother, who is none other than the great Chaka Khan.) That definitely doesn’t mean it’s some kind of emasculated affair – the tracklist features the likes of “Bad Girls,” “Freak Like Me,” and “Sex” none of which pull any punches – but the record’s typically genre-straddling opening salvo definitely sets a few things straight from the jump: “this world was never meant for us / it’s for girls and children first, and then men.” Yes, sir!
NoMBe loves up The Foundry at the Fillmore (consensually, of course) on Tuesday, May 8th.
8. Young Fathers – “Border Girl
This Edinburgh trio have been an improbable proposition from the start: very likely Scotland’s only multiracial, abstract hip-hop outfit; certainly the only one ever to garner an unexpected Mercury Prize win, a feat which raised their profile without dulling their experimental edge in the slightest. Their excellent third full-length, Cocoa Sugar, is the result of an explicit attempt to render their music more accessible – which, while undeniably successful, doesn’t make it any less inscrutable and unique. “Border Girl,” the album’s most insistently infectious track – whose lyrics seem broadly political/motivational but are difficult to fully apprehend – is a typically impressionistic art-pop melange of gospel-tinged organ and choral interjections, vaguely African vibes (two of the band’s members have West African roots) and intermittent rapping, plus a sparse hymn-like mid-section, and rides a shuffling, beat-boxy groove that’s surprisingly fresh considering how much it resembles Timbaland’s circa-2006 productions for Justin Timberlake.
Young Fathers will be in New York, at Elsewhere, on May 1st – very possibly worth the trip, but unfortunately as close as they’re likely to get to us for at least a while.
9. Baloji – “Soleil De Volt”
Along similar lines: although he got his start as part of the Belgian rap crew Starflam, hip-hop (even “global hip-hop”) has long been far too narrow a box to contain this Congolese-born polymath, who is (among other things) a poet and filmmaker as well as a musician. Baloji Tshiani’s third album, the sonically and thematically dense 137 Avenue Kaniama – which is apparently also a book – is a dizzying, audaciously eclectic and irresistibly kinetic eighty-minute collage of rhythmic and textural ideas from across the African continent and also far beyond. It’s not a party all the time – several passages in the album’s latter half get quite somber and poignant, personal and political, in ways that are evident even if you don’t speak French – but the majority of it is a total riot, never more so than on this chameleonic mega-bop, which shape-shifts continually and seamlessly across its five-minute runtime: from twitching half-time syncopations to sunny Afropop upbeats to scintillating disco-house and skittering 2-step to snarling, fired-up rock-funk.
10. Makeness – “Rough Moss”
Of all the ways that rock and electronic music have been hybridized over the past twenty years – and despite (though possibly in part because of) its ubiquity at the time – surprisingly few have taken up the gauntlet thrown down by The Chemical Brothers, most emphatically, on 1997’s Dig Your Own Hole: a fertile blueprint for infusing dance music with the muscularity and blunt-force churn of rock’n’roll, while maximizing both genres’ affinity for heady psychedelia. Beyond the initial wave of big-beat bass-boosters (The Prodigy, Lo-Fidelity Allstars) and a comparably tame, less lysergic resurgence about a decade later (Justice, Digitalism), it’s been an undeservedly fallow field for some time, tended only by a faithful few, including the producers James Holden and Daniel Avery and, from the pop side of things, the sneaky Australian revivalists Jagwar Ma. Enter Kyle Molleson, a Hebridean-reared Londoner who records as Makeness (it’s the name of a hilly ridge near Edinburgh – how jolly British of him!). His debut LP, Loud Patterns, is a swirl of thrillingly rude, block-rocking techno and industrial-strength bang-pop that certainly lives up to its title. While the majority of the album’s tracks feature vocals (which tend to emphasize his avowed debt to Caribou’s Dan Snaith), I’m at least as taken by the several that don’t, like this strobing, slow-build acid scorcher, which grows increasingly gnarled and thorny as it picks up steam. (Theoretically, this could be considered a solo project, as Molleson’s also a member of the band Glad Hand, but I haven’t heard of them either so it doesn’t count.)
Makeness open for their Secretly Canadian labelmates Unknown Mortal Orchestra at Union Transfer on Saturday, April 28th.
11. Panda Bear – “Part of the Math”
In relative terms, Panda Bear might be the most successful, highly regarded side-project of our time. Noah Lennox’s output under this cuddly moniker – which technically predates the convening of his cherished Animal Collective – has, for some time now (creeping up on a decade, arguably) been more reliable and rewarding than that of his flagship band. His latest offering, January’s A Day With The Homies EP – five songs totaling a generous half hour – is a limited-edition, strictly vinyl-only affair. As in, I can’t share a proper stream with you because there isn’t one. That might suggest, especially when taken in tandem with the record’s title, that this is some kind of niche, for-fans-only situation, but the music begs to differ – in fact, it’s right up there with his best, most immediate and accessible work, in large part because it’s anything but overthought. Take this unfussy yet undeniable banger, a fluidly evolving sound-flume that fires off a series of woozy, fuzzed-out depth charges before loosing Lenox’s signature honeyed harmonies atop a surprisingly tough, slamming beat. Come to think of it, this scratches very much the same acid-damaged techno-rock itch I was just describing – the coda, in particular, with its high, lonesome melodica warbles and a sleepy female voice intoning “open your eyes,” would slide right in on the backside of any peak-era ChemBros LP.
While you can’t officially hear this, or any of Homies, digitally anywhere – and even the vinyl is evidently sold out online – I’m sure you can find it around here someplace, the internet being what it is. You can also get a decent sense (sans harmonies, sadly) from this recent live video above. Or you can just catch it in person when Panda Bear lumbers on over to Union Transfer on Sunday, May 6th.
12. Gwenno – “Herdhya”
Here’s an odd one. Gwenno Saunders is probably still best known for her tenure as a member of campily retro indie-pop girl group The Pipettes, a situation that, for better or worse, seems unlikely to be altered by making strange, otherworldly concept records with all the lyrics in Cornish, like her just-released sophomore outing Le Kov. (Her 2015 debut LP was sung primarily in Welsh, a somewhat less critically endangered language.) While fellow ex-Pipette Rose Elinor Dougal has likewise delved into dream-pop in her (also highly worthwhile) solo output, Gwenno’s newer material might as well be coming from an entirely different universe – one that makes space for burbly, off-kilter chamber pop (like “Daromres y’n Howl,” a duet with Super Furry Animals’ Gruff Rhys) but also for starry, soft-focus electronic psychedelia like this stunning mood piece, which recalls the murmuring, ethereal atmospherics of Kelly Lee Owens.
13. Cavern of Anti-Matter – “Malfunction”
Stereolab have never been my favorite band, in particular, but they’re a pretty hard one not to love. So, when the chips were down, I was mildly surprised but not at all displeased to designate their high-water mark, 1996’s Emperor Tomato Ketchup – a truly flawless piece of work – as my second-favorite full-length of the last quarter-century. (Remember that list I told you about?) The group parted ways (“indefinitely”) in 2009 – I feel lucky to have caught their final Philadelphia performance at the Trocadero the previous year – and its principals have since followed a classic, time-honored form of solo-project afterlife, pioneered, famously, by the Fab Four: divvying up various facets of the original band’s aesthetic in a way that retrospectively reaffirms how much more they were than the sum of their parts. So while Laetitia Sadier continues breathing her eternally radiant voice into softly fluorescent analogue-pop reveries – most recently with her Source Ensemble – her erstwhile counterpart Tim Gane has been doubling down on modular ticker-tape lockgrooves and fluttering ping-pong drones.
Okay, maybe that’s somewhat reductive, but it’s easy to hear the switched-on sound-dust that was reconstituted (refried?) to concoct his new band’s very ‘Labbishly-titled third album, Hormone Lemonade. (Okay I’ll stop now, hee-hee.) CoA-M – which also includes early Stereolab drummer and the brilliantly-named synth maestro Holger Zapf – are actually based in Berlin (if not in the actual 1970s), which I suppose means they come by their vintage Krautflavors semi-honestly. In any case, they’re amply evident on this sixteen-minute album-opening epic, which is called “Malfunction” and yet operates like a miraculous machine, unfolding calmly and fluidly from its majestic opening chord sequence to its sturdy motorik pulse and hypnotic, endlessly spiraling synth squiggles.
14. Alexis Taylor – “Oh Baby”
Hot Chip are my favorite contemporary band – their masterpiece, In Our Heads, easily tops my 1993-2018 albums list – so I’m probably a little biased here. But I’m pretty sure they can boast the best constellation of side projects of any band going. For one thing, I can’t think of anybody else this side of Wilco with quite so many. Joe Goddard, both as a solo artist/producer and with his fantastic duo The 2 Bears (whom I like almost as much as his main band), has generated a voluminous bounty of vibrantly colorful, all-embracing dance music. New Build, the joint venture of synth-man Felix Martin and guitarist Al Doyle (who’s also in LCD Soundsystem) have two LPs of smart, well-turned electro-pop to their credit, while occasional member Rob Smoughton also has a fine sideline as the smooth soft-pop crooner Grosvenor. As for Alexis Taylor, the de facto frontman, his extracurricular meanderings have led him the furthest astray from the band’s aesthetic homebase, with both his loose, exploratory avant-jazz/improv outfit About Group and his tender, minimal, typically piano-heavy solo jaunts providing an intuitive, unfussy and often fragmentary-feeling counterpoint to Hot Chip’s crystalline complexity and finely-tuned craftsmanship.
All of which shifts – not completely, but substantially – with Beautiful Thing (out next week), Taylor’s fourth solo album, his first to be made with a producer (namely Tim Goldsworthy, of U.N.K.L.E. and the DFA) and by far and away his least introverted. While, Taylor being Taylor, the record certainly has its share of soulful and swoon-worthy ballads, it’s also got some of his liveliest, most exuberant solo creations, among them the overtly Chippy title track and this beaming, Goddard-produced gem, which marries the zenlike, off-the-cuff simplicity of his prior outings with the earnest, overflowing zest for live and love that marks Hot Chip at their finest. Whatever, or whoever, you might happen to be falling in love with these days, this makes for a nearly unbeatable soundtrack.
Alexis Taylor makes a rare solo appearance at Johnny Brenda’s on Tuesday, June 19th. Get hyped!
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