Now Hear This: New songs by Sylvan Esso, Juana Molina, Colin Stetson, White Reaper, Shugo Tokumaru, Alice Coltrane and more - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart
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!

Meanwhile, the new music keeps on coming; a limitless fount of blessings. This past month was probably 2017’s best yet, and last Friday, in particular, was the single most absurdly stacked new release day we’ve had all year. (Some sort of Cinco de Mayo synchronicity? A superstition that 5/5 street dates will translate to 5/5 review scores? Who knows.) More specifically, last week brought us a tremendous embarrassment of riches in the realm of lower-key, gentle, lazy-time music – right on schedule for the mellow mellow month of May. We got pristine, elegantly poised folk from Joan Shelley and Wooden Wand; an unusually touching turn from that chillest of chill-bros, Mac DeMarco; a tender whirlwind of queer art-pop from Perfume Genius; a second helping of groovy kid’s music from Walkman Walter Martin; a triple-reissue from Norwegian ambientalist Deathprod; pastoral instrumentalism from Bill McKay; a delightful set of neo-classical lounge-pop from the reconstituted, next-generation edition of iconic chamber-jazzers Penguin Cafe (fka Orchestra) and, of course, the warmly welcomed 22-years-later return of dream-pop pioneers Slowdive.

And the list goes on… I’ll get to several other relatively subdued 5/5 releases in the round-up below, a few of which will lead us on an expansive, intercontinental journey that may wind up in some unexpected places. But first, let’s kick things off with a couple of corkers.

1. White Reaper – “The Stack”

These Louisville, KY garage-punkers returned last month with a polished-up, glam-slamming sound for their sophomore outing, and a swaggering album title to match: The World’s Best American Band. That titular claim may or may not be literally true – or, you know, plausible – even if you squint and limit the definition of “American band” exclusively to riffs-blazing classic rock revivalists. (In which case other current contenders would include Philly’s own Sheer Mag and the seemingly-dormant-or-worse Free Energy, Vermont’s King Tuff and, er, Norwegian knuckle-heads Death By Unga Bunga.) But it feels true enough while the thing is playing, and feelings count for a lot. This tidily blistering pop nugget, maybe the most British-sounding thing on the album, centers around an age-old showbiz maxim – “if you make the girls dance, the boy’s will dance with ‘em” – and boasts a piano-pounding, hip-shakin’ groove to put it into action.

Best American band? Decide for yourself when White Reaper conquers MilkBoy on Thursday, June 1st.

2. Charly Bliss – “Westermarck”

Not sure what the Charly part’s about, but they sure got the surname right: these NYC indie kids nail a certain euphorically tangy power-pop sweet spot. It’s a sound that’s been done a zillion times, but is only rarely quite this intoxicating, thanks to the bubbly synergy of the band’s fuzz-rock crunch and Eva Hendricks chirping, sugary vocals. (Which, FWIW, might take a sec to get used to: they struck me as a dealbreaker on my first listen, until I realized they’re actually the band’s secret weapon. YMMV, obv.) Besides being – like pretty much every track on April’s debut LP Guppy – a masterclass in pop-song hookcraft, alternating between a massive, soaring chorus and a nifty circular verse melody that’s every bit as catchy, “Westermarck” is also a great and deceptively intricate example of how arrangement and production (in this case blatantly, gloriously ‘90s-indebted production) can make a great tune that much more effective. Check out how the constant subtle shifts in sound – from chunky acoustic strums on the first verse to clean, chiming arpeggiations on the second to an emptied-out bass-and-drums bridge leading into a perfectly Weezer-esque guitar solo – make the consistently chugging, full-throttle chorus feel fresher every time it hits.

Charly Bliss play Boot and Saddle on Wednesday, May 17th

3. Sylvan Esso – “The Glow”

And while we’re nerding out about sonics…check this thing out. Nick Sanborn and Amelia Meath came out of nowhere (well, ok, North Carolina) several years ago with a curious, appealingly homespun style – minimalistic electro-pop with a raggedy indie-folk pedigree and a funny, sexy, warmly human spirit – that promptly won the hearts of earnest hipster types everywhere. At any rate, enough to sell out two nights at Union Transfer, later this month, well before the release of their long-awaited second album. That album, What Now, dropped the other week after three excellent advance singles (including the viciously catchy “Radio,” one of last year’s absolute peak jams) and it is an instant stunner; retaining the intimacy, idiosyncrasy and immediacy of the duo’s debut while pushing their sound into strange, bold new places.

That’s true right from the start, with the gorgeous pace-setting machine/voice canticle “Sound” giving way to something even more startling and unexpected: the clicking glitch of an overtaxed CD player, struggling to reproduce the sound of acoustic guitar. Which turns into the quirky, shapeshifting backbeat of this weird, luminous slice of mongrelized motorik-folk-pop – as much of an earworm as anything Amelia Meath has ever sung – which is also explicitly (like so much of the best music) a vehicle for nostalgia, as Meath leafs through a mental rolodex of high school memories. And those digital stammers – themselves aural relics of a bygone era – turn out to be not just grade-A ear-candy but also highly thematically apropos, because what Meath remembers is not only the glow of those youthful feelings but indeed, evidently, The Glow [Pt. 2], as in the Microphones’ landmark 2001 lo-fi opus, which she presumably listened to on an occasionally malfunctioning Discman. (It feels pertinent that 2001 also marked, arguably, the pinnacle of glitch as a musical genre, though who knows whether high-schooler Meath was also listening to Múm and Fennesz at the time.) So yeah…there’s levels to it. I think my favorite part, though, is imagining how excited Nick and Amelia must have been when they first figured all this out.

Sylvan Esso play Saturday May 20th and Sunday May 21st at Union Transfer. Both nights are sold out.

4. Angaleena Presley ft. Yelawolf – “Country”

Wherein country music gets its very own “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” – er, kinda – in the batshit form of a semi-unhinged psychobilly rollick-cum-garishly sneering Nashville piss-take. No question that, even more than Hip-Hop, capital-C Country can be as much a straitjacket as a musical genre. And no doubt that Presley – the wild-card Pistol Annie with the mile-wide cynical streak – is genuine (and justified) in bristling against the constrictions of modern-day Music Row, in all its “applepie barefoot” gender oppression, bogus authenticity and “jeans jeans jeans jeans,” although her goofily accented yee-haws and melodramatic sound design here make the whole thing feel like more of a campy larf than a gutpunch takedown. Indeed, it’s barely even a song – she promises us a hook, but what we mostly get instead is Yelawolf (the Alabaman Eminem protégé who, once upon a time, made easily my favorite rap mixtape of 2010) thankin’ God for Sturgill Simpson. Well, dagnabit, Presley may be considerably more tuneful, more affecting and, for that matter, more effective at defying country conventions from the inside out elsewhere on her recently-dropped sophomore LP, Wrangled – who else would slip sweetly harmonized lines about being “like Elvis but with lipstick and boobs” and “flipping the bird to those whores in high-school” into a seemingly standard-issue syrupy ballad about broken dreams? But, erm, this one is kinda hard to ignore.

Angaleena Presley plays Kennett Flash in Kennett Square on Tuesday, May 16th and the FM Kirby Center for the Performing Arts in Wilkes-Barre on Thursday May 18th

5. Courtney Marie Andrews and Bonnie “Prince” Billy – “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free”

So who’s really keeping it cun-chree these days? How about Seattle-based songbird Courtney Marie Andrews, whose full-throated, richly warbly alto recalls Emmylou Harris or Linda (Marie) Ronstadt in their ‘70s prime, and whose 2016 breakout album Honest Life (actually her sixth LP) boasted a bounty of finely crafted, heart-tugging ballads to match? (Check out gently grooving standout “Irene” for a quick taster, or swing by that ol’ Broad St. honky-tonk Boot & Saddle tomorrow to scope her out in person.) Or how about Bonnie “Prince” Billy, that inveterate roots rambler, whose contribution to last Friday’s continuous low-key hit parade was a heartfelt, genially ragamuffin tribute to his late, longtime hero, Merle Haggard?

Billy (a.k.a. Will Oldham), always a highly prolific collaborator, has been in an especially tributary mood of late, with recent album projects including an Everly Brothers-honoring duets record and last year’s quirky, quietly fantastic Mekons salute with the pseudonymous Chivalrous Amoekons. But Best Troubador – Oldham deserves the sobriquet at least as much, easy, as his fellow Louisvillians in White Reaper merit “best band,” even if he’s presumably trying to bestow it on Hag – is a particularly fine and, for Oldham, particular meaningful entry in that lineage, and a wonderfully idiosyncratic introduction (if you’re like me) to a daunting, monumental catalog of songs. I wish I could share some of it with you here, but Drag City remain defiantly allergic to online streaming (technically, this release is available for streaming on Apple Music – a notable first for the label – but nowhere else.)

Anyhow: Courtney and Bonnie teamed up on a version of this timely/timeless gospel-jazz chestnut – recorded, most famously, by Nina Simone, exactly fifty years ago – as part of the beautifully executed anti-Trump bandcamp benefit compilation Our First 100 Days (which, like the administration’s first hundred days it paralleled, wrapped up at the end of last month – but you can still donate to download it, which is a pretty obvious win/win if you haven’t done it yet.) While Andrews and Oldham are vocalists of decidedly different calibers, they complement one another surprisingly well here, and the result is a stirring, righteous country-soul stomper with plenty of personality.

Courtney Marie Andrews plays the Boot and Saddle tomorrow, Tuesday, May 9th.

6. Doug Tuttle – “Only In A Dream”

There’s absolutely nothing revolutionary about the hazy, gently psychedelic pop on Peace Potato, the fabulously-named third solo album from this Somerville, MA tunesmith –formerly of the band MMOSS – which also dropped last Friday. But that doesn’t stop it from offering some of the loveliest, most enjoyably laidback tuneage I’ve come across in some time. Even at an ambling pace, even with a full third of its two-minute runtime devoted to nothing more than crisp acoustic strums and lightly Leslie-fied vocals, this dreamy little number manages to pull out a surprising number of time-tested psych-pop stops, including organs, tambourines and ample twelve-string jangle, plus a sweet, mellotron-ish solo breakdown.

Doug Tuttle plays Bourbon and Branch on Sunday, May 21st

7. Peter Broderick & David Allred – “Living On A Wire”

This pair of Portland, OR songwriters joined forces for a lovely little collaborative album, released last month to far too little fanfare, which consists exclusively of Broderick’s violin, Allred’s upright bass and the pair’s well-matched voices. A few songs are purely instrumental, while the sing-songy centerpiece/statement-of-purpose “The Ways” is a cappella, but most of Find The Ways – like this typically understated opening cut – blends the duo’s airy string playing and casually harmonized vocals in a manner that is stately yet playful; inviting and unaffected despite its austerity. Their sensibility is not without its antecedents – I hear echoes of the pioneering avant/folk cellist Arthur Russell, Sam Amidon’s artfully stark reimaginings of public-domain folk music, and The Books’ curious, koan-like ludic logic – but it’s got a refreshingly simple, pleasantly colorless flavor all its own. That transparency and directness applies equally to the lyrics, which grapple in heady, heartfelt, highly relatable ways with the moral quandaries of existing in our unimaginably precarious times, proposing such straightforward/not-straightforward strategies as “helping others in tiny little ways/to help others help me help others in need” and “feeling what they’re feeling/even when it’s not too appealing.” Indubitably.

8. Os Peregrinos – “Pulpo á Mugardesa”

Are you ready for a journey? Let’s travel now to Spain for a selection from Canto Peregrino, the utterly delightful debut mini-LP from this duo (Charlie Mysterio and Roger de Flor; both apparently veterans of their national scene, though definitely unknown to me), which comes via the reliable Spanish indie Elefant records. Pulpo á Mugardesa is a Galician specialty – octopus as prepared in the town of Mugardo – a dish that, according to this heartfelt tribute, “tastes like glory.” And I could say much the same of Os Peregrinos (Portuguese – confusingly enough – for “The Pilgrims”), whose music reminds me of nothing so much as an Iberian answer to Super Furry Animals at their most breezy and laidback: just the right blend of Bossa Nova, lounge-y pop and gentle psychedelia, with vocals that are a dead ringer for Gruff Rhys if he sang in Spanish instead of Welsh.

9. Juana Molina – “In The Lassa”

Juana Molina is from Argentina – indeed, she’s the daughter of a tango musician – but while the subtle syncopations of her homeland are clearly a deep, all-pervasive influence in her work, you’ll rarely hear much resembling a recognizable, straightforwardly Latin rhythm per se. She’s far more apt to set her bewitching, minimalist sonic pop experiments atop, say, a slippery, mindbending 7/4 groove or a murmuring, meandering drone than something so pedestrian as a clave. This highlight from her typically spellbinding seventh album, Halo – which was also released last Friday – veers close to being an exception. It builds up gradually from a typically skeletal framework – nothing but skittering, barely-there digital percussion and a frisky, deep-pocketed bass – into a bumping, intricate, vaguely sinister samba-funk vibe, topped off by a woozy, whispery vocal whirlpool and a trickling, prickling guitar figure that oddly recalls the marimbas from Paul Simon’s Brazilian-sojourn-era “Can’t Run But” (a.k.a. the Radio Times theme song.)

10. Shugo Tokumaru – “Cheese Eye”

Anything is possible in Tokumaruniverse. Probable, even. The Tokyo-based mad-genius musical polymath – something like Cornelius’ ADD-addled kid nephew – crammed nearly every available inch of Toss – his sixth-ish album and first US release in five years – with sound, primarily of the most vibrantly whimsical, kaleidoscopic sort imaginable. I’d borrow the title of one typically off-the-rails selection to describe it as “Bricolage music” if that didn’t seem discordantly highbrow for something so purely, deliciously madcap (albeit, to be sure, mind-bogglingly technical and labyrinthine.) Amid all the dense tinkertoy sound-collages – most of them spliced with the kind of bright, swoony Beatle-pop that it seems only the Japanese can truly muster – Tokumaru also finds space for some almost impossibly pretty, tender ballads (“Hikageno,” “Route”) and a fully credible slice of finger-picked acoustic primitivism (“Dody.”) And then there’s “Cheese Eye.” (I can’t decide whether I prefer to think of the title as a slightly painful play on “cheesy” or try to fathom what its literal meaning might entail.) While there’s an overtly cartoonish, eye-popping quality to most of Shugo’s creations, here’s where he really goes full Hanna-Barbera (or, to be a bit more precise, Looney Tunes), scrambling through dozens of musical settings and melodic fragments in a little over three minutes. It’s exhausting, exhilarating, and probably the most fun piece of music I’ve heard this year. Somewhere, Carl Stalling is smiling.

11. Colin Stetson – “Like Wolves On The Fold”

Another of music’s most singular operators also returned last Friday, with an album that, while not necessarily relaxing, is certainly transfixing, and very likely conducive to some extreme, transcendental mental states. There’s a certain lone cowboy, rugged-individualist machismo suggested by this Montreal-based saxophonist’s musical M.O. – monolithic, emotionally overwhelming compositions that double as feats of physical endurance; squeezing seemingly every possible ounce of sound from his instruments (most prominently the bass sax) with no overdubs involved or allowed – which might perhaps be underscored by the title, skull-pile artwork and general Western-tinged aesthetic of All This I Do For Glory, Stetson’s first solo opus since 2013. But although his work does undeniably involve some vigorous athleticism, it also, increasingly, exudes a degree of subtlety, spiritual generosity and solemn, almost perversely self-effacing humility that suggest that “glory” in this context should probably not be understood via, say, a White Reaper-style mindset.
Whereas Stetson often saddles his music with high-minded conceptual references that don’t always translate to the experience of what is after all highly abstract music, the title of this compellingly understated piece could perhaps suggest a simpler, programmatic interpretation, with Stetson simultaneously embodying both the sheep in the fold (his signature ceaseless, fluttering, circular-breathing-enabled cascades of notes) and the wolves howling perilously nearby (wailing vocally through his horn as he plays), with the percussion of the clacking, close-miked keys serving to ratchet up the tension. Alternatively, just let it all wash over you, and feel what you feel.

12. Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda – “Om Rama”

One final leg of the journey, and one last addition to the May 5th zone-out pile, with some music that is meditative in perhaps a stricter, more literal sense than we’ve encountered previously. The ever-unpredictable and sadly underactive Luaka Bop label has leapt, in spectacular fashion, into the booming cottage industry of unearthed New Age obscurities with the new World Spirituality Classics Volume 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda, a compilation shining light on a little-heard side of the avant-jazz titan (who passed in 2007.) From a musical perspective, Luaka might have reasonably enough presented this as a new installment in their occasional World Psychedelic Classics series rather than initiating a new venture – the stuff is certainly psychedelic enough. But the distinction is a significant one, and signals clear deference to the music’s original, devotional intent: these excerpts are taken from four private-press cassettes (in this case, 1990’s Infinite Chants) created specifically for the members of Coltrane’s Vedantic ashram in Malibu. This astonishing nine-minute odyssey, which kicks off the comp, swirls together Hindu chanting (as we begin, in medias res, in a sea of tambourine-wielding acolytes), Black American gospel-soul (particularly in the track’s unexpectedly funky mid-section) and spacey New Age synthesizer explorations. It’s like nothing else out there, really; a tantalizing glimpse into an improbable, little-imagined musical world.

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