At the end of each month, NPR Music asks public radio DJs all over the country which tracks they've been playing on repeat. The resulting list, which covers everything from local favorites to international gems, is never predictable and always worth a listen.
September brought us a single from indie rock favorite Kurt Vile's upcoming album, a slinky, slow-burn success from the indomitable Neneh Cherry and a cover of Ray Charles's "Hey Mister" that resonates through the decades.
Kurt Vile, "Bassackwards"
There's something strangely complex about Kurt Vile and his music. He's a true believer in something, but his laid back demeanor and hipster cred may mask a lot of his soul at times. This new epic (nine minutes, 45-odd seconds) "Bassackwards" may very well be his master stroke. It's spacey, sweet, poignant and ridiculous all at the same time and the gentle acoustic guitar and backmasking are perfect complements to his story.
Those of you who are challenged by the notion of having the patience to listen to a 10-minute song will be surprised. It's the musical equivalent of a page-turning novel – you're not quite sure where the tune could possibly be going, but you're perfectly willing to wait and see. At his core, Kurt's a working class hero and I truly appreciate him to the utmost degree. —Dan Reed, WXPN
Dane Page, "Selma"
Never doubt that music can mend, that songs can be solace. That's what Charlotte, N.C. singer-songwriter Dane Page would come to find following the death of a cherished family member outside of Selma, N.C. Page, searching for meaning and for answers to this grief, would later find Selma's translation to be "protected by the Gods." That was the thing Page couldn't see, and the message he needed to move forward, channeling his solace in the title track of his debut full-length Selma.
While we might not have the answers to life, Page's gentle-hearted folk music reminds us that even in the darkest of days, there's still beauty around us and that "We don't have to stand on the moon just to see the stars." As Page told WFAE in a recent interview. "It was a really spiritual thing, this hope and joy and peace that I found in 'Selma.' I just believe in it so much, and I knew it would be a special song." —Joni Deutsch, WFAE's Amplifier
Adrianne Lenker, "symbol"
As the frontwoman for rock band Big Thief, Adrianne Lenker has become known for writing intricate and incredibly moving music, with her angular electric guitar and heart-wrenching lyrics at the heart of the group's songs. But on her new solo effort, abysskiss, Lenker reminds listeners that she started out her career as a barebones folk musician. While the arrangements on the album might be sparse, the songs are anything but simple. On "symbol," she mutters enigmatic verses in an almost meditative manner, layered over acoustic guitar arpeggios and subtle rhythms. It almost sounds like it could be a lo-fi demo from Kid A-era Radiohead. But this droning quality doesn't last for long, as she delicately opens up and gets to the point in stunning fashion. "The symbol of your love is time," she whispers at the end of a chorus, her voice breaking ever so slightly before repeating it once again for good measure. —Jerad Walker, OPB
Neneh Cherry, "Shot Gun Shack"
Boldness is one of Neneh Cherry's defining characteristics. A few eras ago, "Buffalo Stance" made Cherry the voice of hip-hop youth in rebellion. True, she never surrendered to Bjork-ian artistic rapture, but taken a path valuing edginess over reviving one hit wonder saliency.
Twenty-nine years later, "Shot Gun Shack" shows Cherry every bit as brazen. Instead of giving voice to B-girl braggadocio, she's imbued with the confidence of an artist comfortable in her middle-aged skin. Lyrically, this unusual protest song takes aim at gun violence. An anti-anthem, the cut is a snaking mood piece. Producer Four Tet has programmed a spooky groove of shakers, laidback drum clap and nudging bass that creep along like a Portishead B-side. Hovering, Cherry's dispassionate crooning warns, but its placid manner mirrors a culture numb to body counts.
Experience has curbed Cherry's vocal range and tamed her hip-hop sass, but what shines is an earned integrity. Above dance-floor glory, "Shot Gun Shack" honors truthfulness and that is a boldness borne of life's journey. —David Hyland, WPR
Your Smith, "The Spot"
At first listen "The Spot" evokes a feeling of Sheryl Crow's "All I Wanna Do" with a slower tempo but similar vibe. Caroline Smith, now known as Your Smith, hails from Minneapolis, where her music has been played locally on the radio since her more folky sound. Smith's music evolved to a classic soul vibe and that's when her career took off. With a few albums under her belt, she moved to LA, got picked up by a major label and changed management. She aimed for a more pop, R&B direction, which didn't quite gel. It was time to go back to the drawing board. Her latest incarnation shows as much promise as her re-branded self and sound. Still able to fill the First Avenue venue back home (the place where Prince launched his career), this track could put her on a trajectory to build a national profile. —Willobee Carlan, NV89
Pip Blom, "Pussycat"
If you think you've had an exhausting 2018, just compare yourself to the Amsterdam-based project Pip Blom. This year, the band started recording its debut full-length album, had its first headlining tour ever, lost a band member and are about to release an EP, Paycheck! The first single from the EP, "Pussycat," has a slouchy, forever-young attitude punctuated by heavy guitar and driving drums. Frontwoman and namesake of the band Pip sings the verses with an indolent eye roll next to a screamed chorus, allowing this song to apathetically say, "Whatever, man" and urgently cry out, "Shut up and listen to me" at the same time — a perfect millennial anthem. —Jessi Whitten, Colorado Public Radio
1939 Ensemble, "Prince Street"
1939 Ensemble has been active in the Portland scene since 2011. The brainchild of former The Breeders drummer Jose Medeles, the group started as a duo with fellow collaborator David Coniglio on vibes, then expanded to a trio, adding trumpeter Josh Thomas. Then in 2015, the band expanded to a quartet when guitarist Knate Carter was added.
This bigger sound is fully fleshed out on the band's latest New Cinema, which was released in August on Jealous Butcher Records. The song "Prince Street" was written as a tribute to Ornette Coleman's loft and the burgeoning free jazz scene of the late '60s and early '70s. Beginning with a ping-ponging vibraphone riff, the song builds into a pulsing rhythm that feels like the mechanical energy of a street in the Bowery. Beneath this pulse is a sort of soundscape built from Thomas' pocket piano synth, which lends a cinematic feel — perfect for whatever soundtrack your life needs at the moment.
The accompanying video (produced by our friends at OPBmusic) was shot inside Medeles' Revival Drum Shop a full year before this song was released on the band's latest album. —Matt Fleeger, KMHD Jazz Radio
The Brother Brothers, "Frankie"
One of the first times I met Adam Moss he said very dryly to me, "Cindy, I have a twin brother and I'm telling you this because you seem like someone who would make a big deal out of it. So, don't." I laughed and then met that twin, David, and came to know them as The Brother Brothers. The duo's wonderful debut album Some People I Know is out Oct. 19 and features the lead track "Frankie," a song highlighting the twins' fabulous old-time playing and sibling harmony. "Frankie," written by David, is actually a subtle patriotic song about American ideals: community, conversation, art and expression. The chorus, supported by a medley that would make The Band envious, repeats "I don't care about money;" the thing that everyone needs, yet threatens to take precedence over true happiness.
And yes, I think it's a big deal that Adam and David are twins and I'm not sorry. —Cindy Howe, Folk Alley/WYEP
Our Girl, "I Really Like It"
In the last couple of weeks, I've turned a half dozen people onto Stranger Today, the debut record from British trio Our Girl. Each person promptly fell head over heels for the album, and each picked a different song as their favorite. It's packed to the gills with one great track after another. It's hard to pick a favorite. Mine may be the aptly titled "I Really Like It," a mid-tempo banger with bits of The Breeders, Low and Elastica subtly strewn about. At first glance, it might seem like a rote — yet nonetheless heartfelt — love song. However, the declarations of devotion are a Trojan horse. A few key words slyly reveal a vulnerable narrator rife with fear and longing. It's clever, sophisticated and catchy as hell. —Sean Cannon, WFPK's The Guestlist
The Band of Heathens, "Hey Mister"
Ray Charles' 1972 album A Message From the People was both a critique of America's social ills and an affirmation of the country's strengths; the record's closer was Brother Ray's celebrated arrangement of "America The Beautiful." Charles' original album was out of print for many years, only recently becoming available once again, at a time when this message needs to be heard. In fact, the Austin, Texas group The Band of Heathens has just released its own track-by-track remake of the album. A highlight is this spirited rendition of "Hey Mister," a song addressed to the Congress of The United States asking for a solution to economic inequality in "the richest country in the world." Sadly, this point still needs to be made 46 years after Ray Charles laid down the original track. —Mark Simmet, Iowa Public Radio