Now Hear This: New music by Belle & Sebastian, Django Django, Tune-Yards, Soccer Mommy, Nils Frahm, Shopping and more - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart
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!

As always, you can stream all the tracks in this column via this handy-dandy Spotify playlist:

1. Girl Ray – “Stupid Things”

Although I closed the door on 2017, with a flourish, in last month’s column, I’ve gotta take one last quick look back here.  One of the shining highlights in what felt like a relatively slow year for classicist indie-pop was the debut LP from this trio of London teenagers, who are just now making it stateside for SXSW and a tour with Porches which kicks off in Philly this Thursday.  The inevitably-named Earl Grey belies the group’s young years with a poised and bewitching mixture of soft psychedelia, shades of C-86 lo-fi and a tinge of British folk which recalls Cate Le Bon or a less antic, more ambitious Veronica Falls (R.I.P.?), especially given the mournfully stark, stoic affect in Poppy Hankins’ vocals.  This hummable highlight, which is reprised later in the album as an unadorned, demo-like fragment, is one of its most immediate offerings (unlike, for instance, the epic, multi-part title track); a sweet-and-sour reflection on the impulsive rush of young romance delivered from a rueful, improbable remove.

Girl Ray opens for Porches this Thursday, February 15th at Union Transfer.

2. Soccer Mommy – “Cool”

Coolness can be a loaded, emotionally explosive subject, and never more so than in the context of high school.  That’s the backdrop of the second taster single from this emerging Key fave’s first “proper” full-length, Clean – due out in early March – which concerns an enviably untouchable classmate perhaps not entirely unlike the recently-graduated members of Girl Ray (well okay, maybe cutting 7”s at age 16 isn’t quite the flavor of cool that Sophie Allison – a Nashville-bred NYU student not long out of high school herself –  has in mind here).  Considering her impossibly dorky choice of bandname, and the itchy covetousness expressed in the song’s chorus (which closely echoes an earlier Soccer Mommy lyric, from last year’s re-recorded demos set Collection: “I wish that I was cool like you”), it’s clear enough that Allison isn’t really invested in the mythos of rock star cool, at least in any customary, black-leather-jacket sense.  Here’s the thing though: “Cool” actually is pretty darn cool, with its gritty, low-slung bass riff; loose, strutting groove and breezy, nonchalant oo-oo-oos; even the unexpected, woozy frisson of the detuning in its final seconds.  The current, burgeoning bumper crop of ‘90s-influenced female indie-rock types is often most compelling when they flirt (musically at least) with the rock’n’roll sexuality and swagger of trailblazers like Liz Phair and PJ Harvey; on that front, “Cool” is a definitively promising sign.

Soccer Mommy opens for Phoebe Bridgers next Wednesday, February 21st at World Cafe Live.

3. Anna Burch – “Asking 4 A Friend”

On the other hand, sometimes it’s enough just to hammer home a familiar, time-honored formula.  The appealingly unfussy solo debut from this Michigan indie-scene veteran (she’s previously logged time with the bands Frontier Ruckus and Failed Flowers, among others) offers a fresh-eyed take on no-frills melodic pop/rock: a little bit jangly, a little bit rootsy, a little bit grungy – especially on this just-slightly-angry mid-tempo chugger – with a charm that recalls her underrated fellow Midwesterners Bad Bad Hats or, to take a more historical lens, Juliana Hatfield.  Burch’s vocals are mixed high, and her lyrics are broadly confessional in tone, but her songs’ strengths have less to do with cultivating a sense of individuality or personality than the confident alignment of generic components into a well-oiled, impeccably-crafted whole.  I guess they know something about that in Detroit.

Anna Burch opens for Ezra Furman on Thursday, March 8th at Underground Arts.

4. Shopping – “Asking For A Friend”

Dance-punk might not be the most au courant thing nowadays, but there’s absolutely nothing out of step about this whip-smart London three-piece, who attend to both sides of the equation masterfully on their barnstorming third outing, The Official Body.  The consumer-culture critique suggested by the band’s moniker, while never bludgeon-force, is nevertheless incisive and undeniably apt – as frontwoman Rachel Aggs inquires here: “Why is it so hard to know what I need? / Why is it never enough to satisfy me?”  Just as critically, they never let their social-politicking interfere with its crucial complement of body-moving/mind-arresting groovery – quite the contrary, as the group’s conversational, call-and-response vocals, Aggs’ spindly-sharp surf-guitar licks, Billy Easter’s limber, rubbery basswork and Andrew Milk’s rock-steady, just-the-right-side-of-stiff drumming coalesce in an intricate, interplay that recalls not only prime ESG and Gang of Four, but also Sleater-Kinney at their most (sleater-)kinetic.

Shopping play Johnny Brendas on Sunday, March 4th, with the likeminded LA dance-punks French Vanilla.

5. Tune-Yards – “Colonizer”

This one gets a bit trickier.  It’s hard not to root for Merrill Garbus: as an idiosyncratic, genre-smashing musical visionary, as a prolific and engaged collaborator, and as an all-around force for positivity, personal empowerment, thoughtful political engagement and free-flowing, warts-and-all creativity, she’s been a dedicated, increasingly vital voice in an indie-music milieu that often fails to adequately appreciate many if not all of those things.  But as much as her band’s music has offered consistently inventive elaborations of a compelling, unmistakable guiding aesthetic, their albums have had a tendency to be overshadowed by one or more show-stopping singles: “Real Live Flesh,” “Water Fountain,” and, especially, the blazing career-pinnacle “Bizness.”  Given the laudable but almost painfully well-intentioned process of self-interrogation that informed the creation of Tune-Yards’ fourth album, the menace evoked in its markedly unsubtle title – and times being what they are – I can feel you creep into my private life almost threatens to become the point at which the band’s political consciousness overwhelms its effervescent musical panache, slipping awkwardly into sententious, unfunky good-white-liberal caricature.

But c’mon now: Garbus is way too savvy to let that happen.  This is, instead, her group’s most tightly focused, deliberate set to date, a typically vibrant, far-reaching affair that pointedly shies away from easy and predictable formulations both rhetorical and compositional.  That discipline pays off in several of her most glorious, unabashed dance bangers to date (see: “Look At Your Hands,” which was a great late-breaking addition to my 2017 dance megamix but also in plenty of surprising and equally effective detours.  “Colonizer” offers the album’s most obvious race-politics flashpoint and its sharpest, most blatant (inwardly-aimed) satirical critique – with sing-song lyrics mulling uneasily over the “blood” in her “white woman’s voice.”  But it’s equally, crucially, a grippingly strange and nuanced musical creation, with any traces of lyrically-induced discomfort (which is, assuredly, real and present for Garbus more than anyone) at once underscored and impishly deflected by the song’s haunted glitch-house safari; a thumping, grunting, psycho-delic hall of mirrors and masks flecked with playfully sinister distortions and shadowy leers.

Tune-Yards come to Union Transfer on Thursday May 10th

6. Khruangbin – Maria También

You don’t often find an instrumental funk band signed to a prestige indie-rock label like Dead Oceans.  But these guys are special.  This Texas-based trio took primary inspiration for their sublime 2015 debut The Universe Smiles on You from Thai funk records of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and while their basic working template – ineffably nimble, in-the-pocket grooves underpinning the mesmerizing, whirling-dervish filigrees of guitarist Mark Speer – hasn’t changed all the much, they have expanded their horizons further on the aptly titled Con Todo El Mundo (“with everybody”).  Despite its Spanish title, this lead single – the album’s most upbeat cut by some distance, boasting its most naggingly infectious riff – takes some of its cues from mid-century Iranian pop (the song’s video features an archival montage of female Iranian performers from before the 1979 revolution), while making space for a tantalizing burst of Middle Eastern percussion along with soul claps, vibraslaps, and even a touch of harpsichord on the bridge.

Khruangbin cruise into Underground Arts on Saturday, April 7th with Chaz Bundwick collaborators The Mattson 2

7. Django Django – “Surface To Air”

Still swirling together a cheerfully eclectic assortment of retro-minded rock/psych signifiers within a breezily modern electronic dance/pop framework – or is it vice versa? – these London lads may have lost the element of surprise since they first emerged as one of the UK’s hottest indie prospects circa 2012.  (I’d sure have pegged them for world domination over the yawnable likes of alt-J, but hey, go figure…)  But their playfully spiky geek-chic pop remains an effective and versatile signature brand.  True to form, third LP Marble Skies offers more sprightly, melody-stuffed neo-New Wave than you’re likely to find this side of early Maximo Park, but it also leaves space for some inspired dabbling outside the lines.  That’s well illustrated by this curiosity, which takes the unexpected step of enlisting Slow Club’s Rebecca Taylor (who apparently goes by the moniker “Self Esteem”) to sing lead (as well as backups) and, perhaps even more unexpectedly, takes a stab at unabashedly frothy, radio-ready dancehall pop.  Most unexpectedly of all – except not so much if you’ve gotten used to the Djangos’ knack for being smart, goofy and stylish all at once – it all works really, really well.

8. The Go! Team – “Getting Back Up”

Fourteen years on from their instant-classic debut, these improbably durable, irrepressibly endearing dance-popsters are now officially older than their ostensible ideal audience demographic.  But they’re still finding fresh new ways to delight and enliven the rambunctious, sweet-toothed pre-teen inside all of us.  Following the more overtly indie-pop orientation of 2015’s The Scene Between, the characteristically sunny, hyperactive Semicircle (whose title is a subtly ingenious case in point: a seemingly drab, utilitarian word whose particular relevance should be instinctively apparent to anyone who’s ever been a kid) reverts to the group’s familiar sample-based stylistic patchwork, hopscotching between soul, funk, hip-hop, gently psychedelic noise-pop and beyond with a dizzying assortment of vocalists.  Highlights abound – as do the messily euphonious sounds of school marching bands – but they saved one of the best for last, in the form of this exultant, anthemic outburst of brass (and glockenspiel!) and tuneful group-sung affirmations from album MVPs the Detroit Youth Choir.

9. Belle and Sebastian – “I’ll Be Your Pilot”

If Girls in Peacetime Want To Dance, the triumphant 2015 LP from Glasgow’s benevolent, long-reigning indie-pop sovereigns, wasn’t the finest full-length of the band’s extroverted post-millennial phase, it was damn close, and it absolutely featured some of the grandest, most ambitious and overall best work of their entire career.  Their next move, by comparison, seems like a bit of a feint, at least at first blush: How To Solve Our Human Problems is not a new album (at least not precisely), but rather a series of three EPs released over as many months, with the final installment – as well as a convenient but slightly concept-derailing single-disc “compilation” – due out this Friday.  Accordingly, it’s a somewhat subtler, less immediate set of songs, though one with just as much depth and variety to offer; it’s also, in both format and some of its contents, something of a throwback to their late-‘90s salad days.  It’s almost conceivable, for instance, that this winsome centerpiece from last month’s Part 2 could’ve come from Stuart Murdoch’s pen some twenty years back, what with its wistful oboe line, distinctively graceful melodic sense and conspicuous literary allusions (to Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince, which is such an obvious/stereotypically Belle & Sebastian-like thing to reference that I’m simultaneously amazed they haven’t invoked it before and slightly surprised they’re not too self-conscious to do so now.)  But the Belle of ’97 would never have rendered it with such deftly tidy production and such a delicately lush, layered arrangement (with subtly winking percussion helping to evoke the “sweet Sahara” of the lyrics), nor would the younger Murdoch have had the restraint or perspective (not to mention the personal circumstances – i.e. his recent fatherhood) to inform such reflective calm and frank, unguarded, utterly uncynical compassion.

10. Club 8 – “Got To Live”

The restless (if no longer quite so young) Swedish popmaestro Johan Angergård has released a lot of albums over the years, with a lot of different outfits and in possibly even more different musical styles.  But, with the exception of the confusingly-named and ever-delightful Acid House Kings, who’ve been sadly silent since their last typically brilliant twee-pop offering back in 2011, all of his various outlets have drifted in a decidedly electronic/synthpop direction this decade.  That includes the Legends (basically a solo project, which started out in a garagey noise-pop/post-punk vein) as well as this long-running, often wispily tender collaboration with vocalist Karolina Komstedt.  (He’s also launched no fewer than three additional duos – Pallers, Eternal Death and Djustin; each, thus far, a one-off – to explore further facets of his electronic hankerings.)  Golden Island, the 10th Club 8 full-length since the duo’s 1996 debut, is something else altogether.  It feels less like a pop album than an atmospheric new age travelogue; uncluttered but expansive, suffused with luxuriously balmy, vaguely balearic vibes, and full of synth textures that evoke steel pans, marimbas, harpsichords and, as here, the sounds of Balinese gamelan.  Angergård’s trusty melodic instincts are still in effect – as is Komstedt’s gently comforting voice – but they’re employed sparingly, and somewhat improbably, in the service of terse, koanistic phrases (“you’ve got to die before you know how to love”) and, in this particular instance, dazed-sounding lyrical nods to Belle & Sebastian and Best Coast, intermingled with placid synth pulses, harmonium drones, subliminal rustlings and odd, otherworldly vocalizing (there are a few snatches of Tuvan throat-singing elsewhere on the album.)  As a handy bonus, it’s somehow way less cheesy than that probably sounds – or, at least, it’s consistently pretty enough that you might not mind.

11. Nils Frahm – “Sunson”

This Berlin-based pianist and composer struck a (rippling, endlessly arpeggiated) chord with his live 2013 double-LP Spaces – a sort of Köln Concert for the modern ambient/post-classical set, recorded on a wide assortment of keyboards in a variety of venues.  All Melody, easily his grandest, most expansive statement since then, traverses similar emotional terrain but with a considerably broader instrumental palette, encompassing strings, vocal choirs, trumpet, bass marimba and more.  That stretching of Frahm’s minimalist bona-fides is clearly signaled by this piece, the album’s first substantial excursion following a brief choral intro, wherein warm, sunrise drones give way to pointillist, syncopated ambient techno, a playful dance of panflute-toned synthesizers, and swell of coloristic orchestral highlights.  Despite all that sound and movement, though, the pervading tone is one of calm, reflection, even stillness.

Nils Frahm brings his surprisingly potent, affecting live performance to Union Transfer on Saturday, March 17th

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