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.

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

1. Orquesta Akokán – “La Cosa”

First off, let’s pop down to Cuba… while we still can! The recently released Orquesta Akokán represents the first foray into Latin music by Daptone Records, the label best known for being home to the late soul musicians Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley (which perhaps feels just slightly unmoored in the wake of their recent passings.) As with everything the label touches, the emphasis is on authenticity, atmosphere and superlative craftsmanship in revisiting not just the sound but the spirit of bygone musical styles – in this case, Cuban big-band mambo of the 1940s – a pursuit reflected in the decision to record in Havana’s iconic, beloved, state-owned Estudios Areito. The project is an unabashed labor of love (the group’s apt name comes from a Yoruba word meaning “from the heart”) on the part of its principals: New York-based producer Jacob Plasse and pianist/arranger Michael Eckroth – who wrote the charts for the album’s nine stellar original tunes – and pedigreed vocalist Jose “Pepito” Gomez, who pulled together a crackerjack intergenerational sixteen-piece band of veteran Cuban and Cuban-American musicians. “La Cosa” is one of the more straightforward numbers – unlike some of the other selections, it maintains more or less the same groove throughout – but still a fine showcase for the group’s marriage of contrapuntal intricacy and infectious kineticism. It’s been two decades since Buena Vista Social Club last focused international awareness on Estudios Areito via a similarly cross-cultural undertaking, and Orquesta Akokán deserves to enjoy every bit as much attention and acclaim…plus it’s way more fun to dance to. I know I already declared Confidence Man’s debut to be the party record of the year, but…I mean, you’ve got time to play more than one album at your party, right?

Orquesta Akokán are not merely performing but making their United States debut at the sold-out Nuevofest – this Sunday, July 15th, at World Cafe Live – whose line-up also features Chicago’s intriguing jazz/punk/cumbia hybridizers Dos Santos and the singular, spellbinding Afro-Caribbean electronic creations of Puerto Rico’s Ìfé. 

2. La Santa Cecilia (feat. Rebel Cats) – “México Americano”

Not performing at Nuevofest – though they’d certainly fit right in – but rather joining us two days later at the Foundry, La Santa Cecilia are a proudly bi-cultural Los Angeleno outfit whose very existence feels like something of a political act in times like these. Or maybe, sad to say, that’s just business as usual. The continued relevance of this song – a plainspoken but potent testament of defiant, border-straddling cultural pride penned by the Chicano songwriter Rumel Fuentes in the late 1960s; a no less troubling time for Mexican-Americans – suggests that not too much (certainly, not enough) has changed in the past fifty years. La Santa Cecilia’s take on the song, which has also been performed by the band’s Angeleno forebears Los Lobos, comes from their most recent record Amar Y Vivir – a wide-ranging covers set (a lá Natalia Lafourcade’s Musas) of Mexican and Latin-American classics (plus, curiously, Smokey Robinson’s “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me”), all performed live (and filmed) at various spots around Mexico City. Their rendition adds even more spice to the cross-cultural molé, swirling together the original’s norteño groove and button-accordion flutters with the ’50s rock stylings of the Mexican rockabilly group Rebel Cats, all topped off by a powerhouse lead vocal from “La Marisol” Hernández.

La Santa Cecilia play the Foundry at the Fillmore next Tuesday, July 17th. Oh, and by the way, if you really want to go all out and stretch your Nuevofest experience into a multi-day affair, consider tacking on the free set this Saturday, July 14th by fellow (East) L.A. Spanglish fusionists Las Cafeteras – part of the (sadly, final) summer concert series at the Walnut and 40th Street Green – at 6 p.m., with the Philadelphia Women’s Slavic Ensemble opening.

3. Jupiter & Okwess – “Bengai Yo”

There’s something roughly analogous happening on Kin Sonic, the ferociously adrenalized second album from Jean-Pierre “Jupiter” Bokondji and his band Okwess International (the name means “food” in the Kibunda language.) Slamming together the sounds and rhythms of their native Democratic Republic of Congo (the album title is seemingly a play on their hometown of Kinshasa) with hard-hitting Westernized rock and funk, the group’s breathless polyrhythms and roiling electric guitars punctuate the often pointedly political lyrics of their self-styled “rebel general,” delivered in his richly guttural growl and in a handful of distinct Bantu languages. The album reaffirms its cultural cross-pollination with cameos from the likes of Bad Seeds/Dirty Three violinist Warren Ellis and – as on this brief but powerfully funky closing track, a tense, gritty wail against injustice – some squirming keyboard work from Damon Albarn, who always seems to be lurking somewhere nearby wherever East rubs up against West. (Jupiter and Albarn first worked together, to deep and disorienting effect, on the latter’s DRC Music project back in 2011.)

Jupiter & Okwess are one of the highlights of this year’s XPoNential Music Festival, performing in Wiggins Park on Saturday, July 28th, as part of (if you ask me) the weekend’s most stacked lineup, which also includes Femi Kuti & the Positive Force in addition to Now Hear This alums Courtney Marie Andrews and Natalie Prass.

4. Gorillaz (feat. George Benson) – “Humility”

Speaking of Albarn: he’s just graced us with the second Gorillaz full-length in a little over a year, and it’s a surprising delight – a striking turnaround, in several respects, from last spring’s Humanz (which, by contrast, arrived after a seven-year sabbatical.) Now, to be honest, I’ve never had much time or attention for the (virtual) band’s convoluted backstory or cartoon visuals, which probably makes me a bad Gorillaz fan – but I am a true blu Albarn believer, which is part of what makes The Now Now, for me, probably the most satisfying release from the “group” since 2005’s Demon Days. With the guest vocalists limited to a single track – and it’s pretty hard to argue with Snoop Dogg – this feels more than anything like a solo outlet for Albarn (or, if you insist, 2-D): a low-key but focused exploration of a well-defined tonal palette that’s readily familiar and yet not quite like anything he’s done before. As such, it’s a refreshing change of pace from the messy, crowded and overstuffed Humanz and Plastic Beach. The Now Now feels more of a piece with Albarn’s recent work with Kali Uchis: woozy, layered electro-pop that’s both warm and world-weary, fog-shrouded and neon-dazed, with plenty of that wistful, tuneful, drowsily downcast Albarnian croon.  As with 2010’s The Fall, which likewise took shape while Albarn was on tour, several of the tracks are named for the locations where they were, presumably, created – Kansas, Idaho, Lake Zürich – but none of it conveys much sense of place so much as a transient, anonymous, globalized placelessness.  It’s consistent enough in tone and quality that it’s hard to pick out a clear highlight, but this first single and lead-off track, while ably setting the laid-back, sweetly melancholic tone for the rest of the proceedings, is easily the brightest and breeziest thing here – and features the inimitable guitar stylings of Mr. Breezin’ himself, George Benson.

Gorillaz come to Wells Fargo Center on Thursday, October 11th; not, unfortunately with Uchis – who plays the TLA a few days later – but, instead, with the also-pretty-rad alt-R&B gang The Internet. Could be a pretty good birthday week for me!

5. Arp – “Folding Water”

And now let’s fall down a wormhole. The New York-based artist, composer and producer born Alexis Georgopoulos isn’t really the type to re-trace his own tracks, although he doesn’t seem to mind following in somebody else’s. Especially if that somebody is Brian Eno. There’s a reasonable, if reductive, case to be made that most of Arp’s career to date has involved serially cribbing from the myriad phases of Eno’s legendary output, along with that of his various associates and collaborators. For instance, Arp’s early, starkly minimalist synthesizer explorations paid tribute to Eno’s Berlin School buddies Cluster, while More, his highly gratifying 2013 swerve into vocal-oriented baroque pop, art-rock and glam, tipped its hat even more overtly to Eno’s mid-‘70s pop records, with bits of Bowie and Roxy Music in there for good measure. Insofar as Zebra – Georgopoulos’ first solo full-length in five years, which retains More’s sonic diversity while retreating back to instrumental, more-or-less ambient territory – fits into that paradigm, it’s via a conscious engagement with the concepts and aesthetics of “Fourth World Music,” developed some forty years ago by the trumpeter and composer (and, yes, Eno collaborator) Jon Hassell. Fourth World, which Hassell conceived of as a fusion between the primitive and futuristic, resides at the nexus of avant-garde electronic music, pan-global “ethnic” music (broadly evocative rather than culturally specific), forward-thinking jazz (or at least improvisation) and ambient or, perhaps more precisely, New Age music – all stylistic spheres which are very much in play throughout Zebra. While several of the album’s cuts veer (quite pleasantly) into more readily melodic, often marimba-centric chill-out exotica, pieces like the oblique, jazz-tickled “Moving Target” and this addictively twitchy interlude for synthesizers and hand drums constitute clear nods in Hassell’s generous direction.
6. Jon Hassell – “Al Kongo Udu”

Speaking of Hassell: as serendipity – or perhaps trendiness – would have it, he too made a major reappearance last month, dropping his first album since 2009. The timing is apt: after a few decades during which Fourth World music languished, largely forgotten, in the realm of decidedly questionable taste, it has recently emerged (like other musics once tainted with painfully unhip New Age-y overtones) as an area of considerable renewed interest in avant-garde and electronic music circles, informing the work of neo-abstractionist boundary-pushers like Visible Cloaks and RAMZi, drawing connections between streams as seemingly disparate as Balearica and vaporwave, and inspiring compilations, DJ mixes and a bevy of reissues – including the two volumes of Hassell’s seminal-in-retrospect Fourth World series: 1980’s Possible Musics (with Eno) and 1981’s Dream Theory in Malaya (both recently re-pressed by Glitterbeat Records, which is, incidentally, also Jupiter and Okwess’ European label.) As a conceptual framework developed during a lingering, transitional post-colonial moment, prefiguring (and even looking beyond) our almost fully globalized, exhaustively interconnected present, Fourth World can be complicated, and not exactly unproblematic, to (re)consider from a contemporary perspective. Its emphasis on evoking non-specific, even wholly imaginary cultures and ethnicities means that technically, or at least theoretically, it avoids exploiting or appropriating from anybody in particular (though, I dunno dude, if that’s the scenario then why use titles that reference “Burundi” or “Malaya” or “Kongo”?) In any case, Hassell’s music remains at least as confusing to listen to as it is to think about – though probably a good deal more fun. Listening to Pictures (Pentimento Volume 1) marks not only his first outing in nine years but also the launch of a new label, Ndeya, and, per its title, a new series of conceptual releases, all indications that, at age 81, he is very much continuing to move forward.  That’s clear musically as well, with a set that’s as dreamily disorienting and elliptically evocative as anything he’s created before, but perhaps even more abstract, glitchy and dense, plush with layers of sonic collage and electronic manipulation, like a buzzing, waterlogged Oneohtrix Point Never.
7. Oneohtrix Point Never – “Toys 2”

Oh yes, and speaking of ol’ Oneohtrix (whose utterly asinine moniker only seems to grow ever more supremely obnoxious the more reverently exalted his music becomes), wouldn’tchaknow he just dropped a new one-oh too. Danny Lopatin and I haven’t always gotten along, suffice to say, but I’ve really been trying with Age Of, the vaporwave-adjacent (or whatever) producer’s latest, and I’ve gotta say… um, inconclusive! It’s a really, really aggressively weird record. Sometimes I think I like it more than anything of his I’ve paid attention to since the often hilarious 2011 collaborative concept album Channel Pressure (by Ford & Lopatin, featuring the awesomely-titled “Too Much MIDI (Please Forgive Me.)”) Other times it leaves me entirely chilly. Age Of is not specifically Fourth Worldish in nature, although Hassell’s tendrils (like those of the Japanese artists who built on his developments into the 1980s) are certainly in there somewhere. But it is, at least for large swaths, probably Lopatin’s most New Age-y work. Actually, the fustian, harpsichord-heavy title track suggests a sort of deep-future analog of Fourth World wherein European classicism is viewed as a primitive ethnic culture. Anyway, this one piece is pretty gorgeous, and almost feels like it meets Hassell’s definition, what with the smattering of Asian-tinged timbres arrayed throughout its stately (though increasingly diffuse) promenade. If harmonicas scanned as ethnic, it would totally fit (hey, shouldn’t Appalachia count, anyway?) For whatever its worth, the track has an absurd, and very Lopatin-ish conceptual backstory which explains the title: he created it as the imaginary score for a hypothetical sequel to the 1992 film Toys which would feature a CG Robin Williams (thereby contradicting the wishes expressed in the actual Robin Williams’ actual will.) Okay, wise guy…

8. Hatchback – “Haiphong Boogie”

Moving on. The exceedingly Californian producer Sam Grawe, a.k.a. Hatchback, has an admirably simple, linear artistic agenda. He makes music that is beautiful; meticulously, sumptuously, immersively so; and that doesn’t seem particularly concerned with being anything more than that. His 2008 debut, which rode the then-cresting wave of Balearic electronica – and basically epitomized the most idealized, airbrushed form of the rather nebulous trend/genre – bore the simple, illustrative title Colours of the Sun. Fittingly, the most (probably only) innovative, forward-thinking act of his career was to declare, with his 2011 sophomore album Zeus & Apollo, the dawn of a “New Age of New Age” – a then-quizzical assertion which has undoubtedly proven prescient in the interim. Year of the Dragon, which arrived last week, is his first release since then; “Haiphong Boogie” is its opening cut and, as the title suggests, it’s got a vaguely Southeast Asian flavor thanks to some percolating, koto-like synths, and you can sort of dance to it. It’s beautiful, as my toddler might say. So, here we have some indubitably ethnic-flecked, electronic new age music that, nevertheless, feels neither ancient nor futuristic enough to qualify as Fourth World. It’s more or less comparable to the parts of Arp’s Zebra that are the least Hassell-like. Indeed, on a hypothetical continuum which would have Hassell on one end (he who reportedly backed out of participating in Eno and David Byrne’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts because he found it “too commercial”), Oneohtrix a little further over and Arp further still, Hatchback would be all the way over on the right. And hey, there’s nothing wrong with knowing your place.

9. Gang Gang Dance – “Young Boy (Marika In Amerika)”

Another welcome June return came from these tricksy avant-pop polyglots, who came up within the globally-curious arty-indie ‘00s Brooklyn scene of Dirty Projectors and Animal Collectives, but often seemed to stand somehow slightly apart from it. Come to think of it, they’ve always been a lot more Fourth World-y than most of their peers, albeit within a more pop context (relatively speaking) than the term typically connotes. That’s definitely true of Kazuashita, their first record since 2011’s Eye Contact (which holds up great, BTW) and their most New Age-vibed offering to date – the title, suitably, is a bit of Japanese wordplay loosely translating to “peace tomorrow.” It’s a wondrous, politically-charged yet expansively lush dreamscape, meandering seamlessly between Hassellian alien/tribal interludes and outré, eye-popping ethnojams that very much make good on the “Dance” in their name. “Young Boy” is one of the more bumptious and bite-sized cuts, a wash of airy swirls and skittering beats that, from moment to the next, conjure up images of India or Atlanta, Greece, Japan or outer space, while Lizzi Bougatsos, in her ethereal, helium-pitched way, offers up oblique commentary on wrongful police shootings. So it goes.

Gang up with Gang Gang Dance at Boot and Saddle on Thursaday, September 6th.

10. Angélique Kidjo – “Once In A Lifetime”

And to bring it full circle – or, at least, to bring it all back home to Africa – here’s something from the iconic Beninese singer Angélique Kidjo’s new, full-length reworking of an album – Talking Heads’ rather good 1980 LP Remain in Light – which Eno (of course) produced and which Jon Hassell played on (that’s his alien, all-but-unrecognizable trumpet whiffling and burbling through the final minute of “Houses in Motion.”) It’s so nice when obviously brilliant ideas like this get to be actualized. Kidjo’s performance of the album at this May’s NonCOMMvention – or more specifically, of its first five tracks (i.e. exactly the part of the album you want to dance to) – was easily among the most indelible moments of my 2018 thus far, inciting some of the best dancing I’ve danced in ages: fully embodied, cathartic, zoned-in, freely intertwining college African dance class flashbacks with intuitive goggly kneejerking Byrne-isms. And the recorded iteration is pretty great too. In some ways the more subdued, more liberally interpreted back half is more intriguing than Kidjo’s relatively faithful (though hardly verbatim) re-Africanized renditions of the A-side’s timeless trio of groove-monsters, which are merely as awesome as you’d imagine anyway. But “Once In A Lifetime,” precisely because it’s the album’s most deeply familiar cut, occasions perhaps the most revelatory transformation here, with Kidjo adding fresh melodic inflections to Byrne’s bug-eyed barks, a punchy, darting horn chart and a wholly reimagined, newly limber groove. (By the way, this video of Kidjo and Byrne playing the song together, obviously unrehearsed, at Carnegie Hall last year, is pretty priceless.)

If WXPN really loved you, they would have booked Angélique to come back and blow your mind/ass at XPN Fest this month. Instead you’ll have to make do with, oh, you know, the actual David Byrne, with his fully mobile six-piece percussion squadron, playing a bunch of these same songs (and a bunch of others) in a spectacular, sui generis and I’m sure by now phenomenally well-oiled theatrical-musical-conceptual-art machine. The tour-opening show over in Red Bank, NJ was one of the more dazzling and exciting things I’ve witnessed in a while, and I can’t wait to re-experience it and see how it’s evolved after sixty-plus more performances all over the dang world.

11. Wilder Maker – “Closer To God”

Let’s shift gears a bit now – though not entirely. There is a certain undeniable religiosity infusing this arresting lead-off track from the Northern Spy Records debut (out this Friday) of these adventurous-minded indie rockers. It just might not manifest in quite the ways you might assume of a song called “Closer to God” on an album entitled Zion by a band from Brooklyn with a frontman named Gabriel Birnbaum… – not to mention, a song punctuated by recurrent chorally -abetted cries of “Amen!” The verses recount a shaggy, Dylanesque slacker-poetic narrative of moving day in New York, starting out in a packed-up apartment with “a blank mild look/like no-one had ever conned the landlord out of a thousand bucks with a sick cat and a vet bill/made the poor bastard cry” – and winding up on a sweaty rooftop somewhere, obliquely enough to suggest that the titular refrain could be meant somewhat more in the Nine Inch Nails sense than you initially thought. Meanwhile, the song’s taut, thrumming groove, steadily mounting, classic-rock intensity and, especially, Birnbaum’s righteous, spindly, Eastern-tinged guitar riffs – he also, not coincidentally, blows sax with the Ethiopique jazz/funk traditionalists Debo Band – combine to counterbalance (or incept) the seemingly mundane lyrical scenario with something altogether more transcendent.

Wilder Maker headline Boot and Saddle this Thursday, July 12th, alongside Philly friendly friends Friendship and Flat Mary Road.

12. LUMP – “Curse of the Contemporary”

Laura Marling and Mike Lindsay – the constituent components of LUMP – are essentially, by this point, known entities. Both have amassed enviably sturdy discographies – she with six sterling singer-songwriter albums over the past decade, tracing her trajectory from London to LA and back again; he primarily with the British folktronica outfit Tunng (who’ve got a new album due in August) plus a few offshoot projects – discographies that, without suggesting a sense of diminishing returns, or a lack of progression and development, have nevertheless inched their way toward a slightly stale familiarity. But a change turns out to be better than a rest, in this case: the eponymous “product” of their initial collaboration may be brief (a scant half hour) but it is wholly inspired. Indeed, it’s some of the best (and catchiest) work either has produced in some time, with Marling paring down and streamlining her lyrical and compositional approach, and Lindsay’s tenderly electronic musical confectionary offering a strikingly fresh setting for her always potent voice. Or rather, voices – on “Curse of the Contemporary”, for example, she sports no fewer than three: an airy soprano soaring languidly over a bright McCartneyesque bassline, a lower, vaguely patrician sing-songing huff atop the crisply crunching chorus chords, and a ghostly multitracked swirl intoning the title phrase. The song seems to be a slyly contemptuous survival guide for the “bored in California” (a phrase Marling rhymes, almost winkingly vapidly, with “warn ya”), one which perhaps offers some clues as to why she ditched the Golden State to return to soggy olde England.

13. Bonny Doon – “A Lotta Things”

Time to come home. This is just some really nice bedrock, heartland indie folk-rock music. That may or may not be a thing you need (more of) in your life – and you probably already know – but if you do, Bonny Doon’ll do ya right. It sure ain’t earth-shattering; indeed quite the opposite (earth-reassembling?). But these Michigan boys fit right in on Woodsist alongside the likes of Woods, Hand Habits and Kevin Morby, with a laid-back, chime-toned guitar style evoking label alumni Real Estate and a genial, earthy glow that might recall Clem Snide, the Jayhawks or, just maybe, Pavement at their most sweetly bucolic – mostly because singer Bill Lenox’s voice has a hint of Malkmus in it, as well as a bit of Dr. Dog’s Scott McMicken. “A Lotta Things,” a highlight of their second album Longwave, released this spring about a year after their debut, sports a just-darkly-clever-enough chorus (“I should be grateful, I know/but I’m not…”) that conveys the essential sentiment of say, a Malkmus or Nap Eyes jam, without a need for all the smart-aleck circumlocutions. Feel good bummed.

Bonny Doon come to Union Transfer this Saturday, July 14th, supporting the somewhat more dynamic indie-rock it-person of the moment, Snail Mail.

14. Andy Jenkins – “Get Together”

Considering all the shine his labelmate and fellow Richmonder Natalie Prass has been enjoying lately, I’d think we’d be hearing at least little more about Andy Jenkins, whose wonderfully warm and breezy June debut, Sweet Bunch, continues Spacebomb’s spotless winning streak of artist introductions (which, in addition to Prass, has included the label/collective/studio’s producer/mastermind Matthew E. White, Howard Ivans and 2017 breakout star Bedouine) and furthers the cumulative impression of Richmond as a groovy lil getaway where the living is easy and the vibes are perennially high in the mid-‘70s. The album’s general mode of operations will hardly be a shock to Spacebomb disciples – stoned, soulful, country-tinged folk-rock is well with White et. al.’s wheelhouse – although, to be honest, Jenkins’ sweetly earnest, tuneful songwriting connects for me where White’s often falls a little short. That’s especially true of the hazily swaggering, very George Harrison title track and this nimble, sun-dappled, blissfully repetitious groover (both of which, admittedly, were co-written by White.) Although Sweet Bunch forgoes the familiar Spacebomb strings and brass treatment, it feels just as lush and full thanks to backups from a six-piece choir and the tasty psych-guitar stylings from mainstay Alan Parker, who gets to stretch out here a bit more than usual.