Now Hear This: New songs by Amber Coffman, The Mountain Goats, Jade Jackson, Bleachers, Diagrams, Blondie and more
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.
First though, a handful of more-and-less-likely contenders for your sunny-day workout mix, roof-deck dance party, windows-down roadtrip to the shore, or what have you. New for this month’s column, listen to the all the tunes in one go via this handy-dandy Spotify list (also contains all the music featured in previous months this year, plus a few bonus selections):
1. Blondie – “Long Time”
Who’da thunk, some forty years ago, that Blondie would be generating such vital, ripping, no-excuses-necessary pop music in 2017? Well here we are. The new wave icons’ performance at last month’s NonCOMMvention was a major highlight; a hugely entertaining reminder of both how stacked their catalog is and how weird and goofy they’ve always been. And while the classics in the setlist were thrilling, to be sure, the material from the band’s new album, Pollinator, held its own impressively well.
This one, in particular, is gaining serious traction on my personal mental summer-jam hit-parade. A co-write with Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes, it stands comfortably among the best things either party has ever done. While its opening seconds nod undeniably to “Heart of Glass” – it’d be fun to hear a seamless segue between the two songs in concert – it’s far from a retread, updating that anthem’s timeless groove with a bevy of melodic hooks and an especially touching performance from Debbie Harry; a concerned inquiry, addressed to a lover ensnared in an “insecure typhoon,” which could double as a tender check-in from an old friend, or perhaps a life-long favorite band: “Are you happy?”
Blondie will be back in town with Garbage on Wednesday, August 2nd, bringing their “Rage and Rapture” co-headline tour to the Mann Center.
2. Paramore – “Told You So”
It feels fitting that Paramore returned to follow up their monumental 2013 self-titled opus (officially my second favorite album of decade so far – don’t sleep!) just a week after Blondie buzzed us with Pollinator. After all, Blondie were literally the inventors of the punk-to-pop trajectory that Paramore have emphatically, unexpectedly re-traced with the oh-so-New Wave After Laughter. It’s hard to think of a clearer antecedent, from any decade, for the new album’s infectious, ‘80s-soaked cool-kid dance-pop (complete with a bright little reggae number.) Plus, Hayley Williams is now a blondie herself!
Glistening synths, palm-muted guitar licks and roto-tom fills aside, Williams and crew are clearly still in the business of misery: “For all I know, the best is over and the worst is yet to come,” she frets at the top of the album’s tightly-wound second single, with just a teasing tweak of vocal processing. Still, for a pessimist, she sounds pretty optimistic. Crippling anxiety has rarely felt so effervescent.
Paramore play the Sands Event Center in Bethlehem on October 10th
3. Bleachers – “I Miss Those Days”
Jack Antonoff is our preeminent purveyor of unbridled anthemism. Whether it’s his name-making work with Fun. or his co-writes and production for Taylor Swift, Lorde, Carly Rae, et al., his trademark sense of giddy, fist-pumping urgency is infectious and unmistakable. But it’s Bleachers, the basically-solo project that’s pretty much the biggest weirdest little pop band going (I mean, the first album featured both Grimes and freaking Yoko Ono) that serves as the central test kitchen for his secret sauce of deconstructed high-gloss ’80s pop, anxious half-spoken confessionalism, massive beats, even bigger gang-vocal singalong choruses, and Bruce Springsteen.
Album number two, the just-dropped Gone Now, tinkers with some novel sounds and flavors, but it doesn’t really mess with the basic recipe. And while it may not offer an instant-classic, heart-leaping-from-your-chest moment quite on par with “I Wanna Get Better,” it proves there’s plenty of life left in Antonoff’s obvious-seeming yet surprisingly versatile formula, which often centers around finding something we all, at some point in our lives, want to shout (“Let’s Get Married!” “Don’t Take The Money!”) and wringing it for all its worth. Exhibit A this time around, and about as Bleachers-y as you can get, is this ode to misbegotten youthful nostalgia, a thrillingly maximalist battle-cry whose chorus all but urges us to join in.
Bleachers will be at the Firefly Music Festival in Dover Delaware on Sunday June 18th
4. Amber Coffman – “Dark Night”
It’s difficult to approach City of No Reply, the luscious debut from erstwhile Dirty Projectors vocalist and guitarist Amber Coffman, without contemplating it in reference to her former band. Of course, that’s typically and naturally true of any artist’s first solo work outside of a well-established group. But it’s particularly sticky in this case, not least because Dave Longstreth – the Projectors’ primary (and now sole) member and Coffman’s ex-boyfriend, who dedicated February’s emotionally jagged, awkwardly eponymous Dirty Projectors (the band’s first outing since her departure) to a messy dissection of their romantic and artistic split – also happens to have been Coffman’s co-writer and producer for much if not all of the album.
So yeah: it’s complicated. Not nearly so complicated, though, is this bubbly, exuberant summertime banger-in-waiting; the album’s simplest, sweetest moment and surely its greatest departure from Coffman’s art-damaged past. Sure, her old band’s sonic spiderwebs are still kicking around here too – indeed, it’s one of several City cuts to reunite Coffman with her DPs co-harmonizers Angel Deradoorian and Haley Dekle, to glorious ’90s-retro girl-group effect. So think of it, perhaps, as the record’s fullest repudiation/riposte to Longstreth’s mannered, never-quite-consummated flirtation with urban-radio tropes: an unabashed empowerment jam with Coffman unleashing her grade-A Pop/R&B coo (previously lent to the likes of Major Lazer, Frank Ocean and Snoop Lion) atop a fuzzy-buzzy bassline and a deliciously basic trop-pop cadence lifted from, of all things, Shaggy’s “Angel”.
5. Making Movies – Locura Colectiva
This Kansas City outfit’s wild, sprawling, conceptual new one I Am Another You – like its 2013 predecessor A La Deriva – was produced by Steve Berlin of Los Lobos. Which makes a ton of sense (certainly much more than them being named after a Dire Straits album – and why not Brothers in Arms?), because I haven’t heard such a vibrant, adventurous cross-pollination of Latin American musics (cumbia, son, Afro-cuban, etc.) with US roots styles (most prominently, good old rock’n’roll) since the Lobos’ own experimental ’90s masterworks Kiko and Colossal Head. The album’s twenty-strong tracklist (which includes contributions from members of Ozomatli, Hurray for the Riff Raff and Tennis) is a embarrassment of riches, but here’s one early standout, a fiery blast of punked-up cumbia-rock (with a brief rubato sci-fi interlude in the middle.) The song’s title translates to “collective insanity,” and its lyrics places us firmly in the midst of our present godless, proto-apocalyptic times.
6. Jade Jackson – “Better Off”
If this young lady doesn’t receive the full WXPN royal treatment, right quick, something ain’t right with the world. Well I guess we knew that already, but anyhow she really does seem right up y’all’s alley: a wise-beyond-her-years alt-country spitfire squarely in the lineage of Lucinda Williams and Lydia Loveless, with a spot-on, soulfully raspy voice. Her debut collection, Gilded, boasts an abundance of hooky, affecting, readily quotable songs, with production (courtesy of Social Distortion’s Mike Ness, an early and enthusiastic booster) that splits the difference between punk swagger and honky-tonk polish. Plus, you’ve gotta respect somebody who can fill her record with tear-stained ballads aplenty but save the closing slot for a barnstorming stomper; in this case, a ringing, Loveless-styled kiss-off to an underwhelming paramour, in no uncertain terms. But it’s not like she’s looking for anything unreasonable. As she deigns to break it down: “I need somebody who’ll smile when I sing.” You got me, Jade.
Jade Jackson plays the Eagleview Concerts in the Square series in Exton tomorrow, Tuesday June 13th, and returns to Philly on August 4th to open for Social Distortion at the Fillmore.
7. (Sandy) Alex G – Poison Root
Even without much knowledge of his deep, daunting Bandcamp back-catalog, it’s evident from the recently-released Rocket that this Philly songwriter – full surname Giannascoli; previously known, before one of the more WTF name-shifts in recent memory, as Alex G – is quite the odd duck. He gets compared to Elliott Smith a bunch, but I don’t really hear that. I hear something more in the vein of R. Stevie Moore or Todd Rundgren or perhaps even Ween: gifted but inscrutable weirdos who’ll try pretty much anything; any harebrained stylistic whimsy that tickles their fancy, and somehow manage to make most of it work. As has been amplydocumented here at The Key, Rocket’s five pre-releases singles spanned the gamut from old-timey-tinged country-folk to chiming, phantasmagoric psych to aggro noise-rap to groovy, cyborg-voiced piano-lounge balladry, and while the album as a whole isn’t quite as scattershot as that suggests, it’s still frustratingly hard to pin down. You might sum it up, very approximately, as an album of ramshackle, rootsy indie-pop. (But like, really ramshackle. Hey, maybe that’s why there’s that creepy four-horned ram staring at me from the album cover.) But it’s truly its own beast.
Strangely easy to miss, what with all that’s going on across Rocket’s fourteen tracks, is this aptly quirky opening cut, which doesn’t really sound like anything else here (save perhaps the fragmentary, instrumental title track) but still does a good job of establishing the record’s rustic, rickety strangeness. It introduces some key instrumentation – Giannascoli’s steady acoustic strums, some battered-sounding piano, sprightly banjo and, most notably, Molly Germer’s rich-toned fiddle: flitting and trilling at first, then locking into a vigorous, cyclical ostinato – but in a mode quite different from the more familiar, melodic settings in which they appear later. It feels less like a back-porch sing-along jam than a slightly scruffier take on the patient, intricately layered musical puzzles of The Books’ Lemon of Pink.
(Sandy) Alex G play Union Transfer on Saturday July 8th, with Japanese Breakfast and Cende.
8. Jake Xerxes Fussell – “Have You Ever Seen Peaches Growing On A Sweet Potato Vine?”
This preternaturally talented Durhamite is an intrepid investigator and highly affable interpreter of wayward American roots music; the faithful son of his folklorist father, and a clear spiritual successor to the rarefied tradition of Ry Cooder. His gobstopping second album, What in the Natural World, cut for the nigh infallible Paradise of Bachelors imprint, is a collection of what he calls “transmogrified folk/blues koans”: head-scratching musical inscrutables sourced from myriad corners of old weird America. (And beyond – one highlight is an especially Cooder-esque two-stepping rendition of Pete Seeger’s Welsh-derived “Bells of Rhymney.”) This here gem is a languorous reworking of an idiosyncratic, raggy ramble by Georgia bluesman Jimmy Lee Williams, dolled up with some fancy fretwork and spun out to a marvelously unhurried six minutes. Fussell gamely glosses the musical question of the title without ever quite lifting the veil from its rather convoluted seeming innuendo, but his ruminations on the theme offer plenty to chew on, just the same.
Jake X. Fussell is set to appear at Boot and Saddle next Tuesday, the 20th of June, opening for the exemplary folk singer/writer Joan Shelley; a pairing that seems ripe with potential for stimulating musical interplay.
9. Diagrams – “Under The Graphite Sky”
The British “folktronica” outfit Tunng made some of the loveliest, most quietly intriguing music of the 2000s, specializing in a sweetly quirky, rustic ambience which evoked the odd, dark corners of the pastoral world right alongside its beauty and light. The band hasn’t released an album in several years, but founding members Sam Genders (who left the group in 2010) and Mike Lindsay have kept its spirit humming right along with an assortment of like-minded endeavors including Throws, the Accidental and Diagrams – a Genders solo project whose excellent third album, Dorothy, happens to be co-produced by Lindsay.
The album is named for Dorothy Trogdon, a nonagenarian poet and resident of Orcas Island, WA, whose words form the basis for its lyrics. While this intergenerational, transatlantic pairing of collaborators is an unlikely one, Trogdon and Genders clearly have a deep shared interest in the natural world and its subtle interplay with human psychology. This striking piece appears on the album in two forms: it opens with this fluttering, deftly orchestrated musical setting, and closes with an outdoor dictaphone recording of Trogdon reciting the poem’s text.
10. The Mountain Goats – “The Grey King and the Silver Flame Attunement”
Okay. I’m not that hardcore of a Mountain Goats fan – but I’m pretty hardcore. Enough to comfortably assert that Goths – John Darnielle and co’s 16th album (by my count) will not go down as one of their greatest works, though it is a frequently charming, eminently worthwhile experiment. The “no guitars” conceit leads to some interesting places (notably Peter Hughes’ gleaming Peter Hook turn on “Shelved” – the danciest the Goats have ever gotten), but most aren’t quite as satisfying as the band’s earlier forays into alternative instrumentation – on, say, Heretic Pride, for instance. The record’s titular thematic focus, despite casting some light onto yet another chapter of Darnielle’s fascinating back-story and offering new avenues into some of his pet preoccupations, doesn’t feel quite as fresh and fruitful as previous forays into occultism (the more loosely conceptual All Eternals Deck) or subcultural psychology (2015’s wrestling-oriented Beat the Champ) or obscure musical hero worship (“Harlem Roulette,” “Sept. 15th 1983,” etc.)
Mostly though, it’s just that some of these songs feel uncharacteristically underwritten. Several choruses comprise just a single repeated line; a tactic that’s resulted in some of Darnielle’s best-ever songs (“Cotton,” “This Year”) but can also easily fall flat, as on the otherwise sharp and insightful “Unicorn Tolerance” and “We Do It Different On The West Coast.” But here’s one that gets it right. The verses of “The Grey King” (a classically oblique Darnielle song title which is apparently, bizarrely, a reiki reference) paint a scenario that is at once pedestrian and strangely nerve-rattling – a freeway ride undertaken by some young goths in suburban California – in an ominous, mythic tone that’s delightfully at odds with the song’s soft, feathery arrangement (featuring some truly lovely work from the band’s newest member, reedist Matt Douglas.) Mirroring that uneasy juxtaposition, the chorus is a direct if equivocating self-assessment; seven words that speak volumes about the narrator’s existential plight (and everyone’s): “I’m hardcore, but I’m not that hardcore.” In Darnielle’s marvelously economical way, and in his tenderest head-voice, that succinct statement somehow gains more nuance with each restatement.
11. Penguin Cafe – “Franz Schubert”
And we’ll crank it up to eleven with your monthly ration of bliss-out. The (original) Penguin Cafe Orchestra, formed in the early ‘70s by Simon Jeffes, developed a gently whimsical, hard-to-define hybrid of folk, jazz and classical minimalism that, from this juncture, feels like nearly as significant an influence on the current crop of leftfield modern-classical/neo-New Age types as the ambient grandaddy himself, Brian Eno (who released the first PCO album on his Obscure Records label.) The Invisible Sea the third outing from this rebranded/rebooted next generation iteration of the group led by Jeffes’ son, Arthur, slips in this curious tribute to a very different group of 1970s pioneers: Kraftwerk. The latter-day Penguins’ take on Trans-Europe Express comedown “Franz Schubert,” a gorgeous early piece of synthesized ambient-pop, translates the 1977 original into a fully acoustic, pleasantly meandering haze of bells, accordion, plucked strings and bowed drones. Ahhhhh.