Above image: Jay Som released her debut album “Everybody Works” in early 2017. | Photo: Polyvinyl Records
It’s time for our periodic survey of songs that you might have missed in our messy musical landscape. Here are 10 new tracks spanning four continents, ranging from classic rockers to young singer-songwriters, including a cover of the best song you might never have heard. Check out the Spotify playlist to hear the songs, or click on the titles for YouTube videos.
The Clientele, “Everyone You Meet.” This seems an appropriate place to begin our autumn survey, because it feels like every piece ever written about The Clientele includes the word “autumnal” in the description of the band’s music. On the albums “God Save The Clientele” (2007) and “Bonfires of the Heath” (2009), the London outfit crafted a sublime style of lush, low-tempo pop infused with swirling strings and echoes of Nick Drake’s fragile folk. After an eight-year hiatus, the new “Music for the Age of Miracles” makes it seem that time stood still in the interim. This is a gorgeous recording, full of sounds that seem both vaguely familiar and like nothing else you’ve recently heard. You can practically see the leaves fall as you listen.
Nicole Atkins, “Listen Up.” Ever since her 2007 debut, Nicole Atkins has shown a gift for the kind of vocal drama favored by old-school divas like Patsy Cline and Dusty Springfield. In the hands of a lesser singer and songwriter, the music might sound overwrought, but Atkins’s pastiche of pop, soul and country comes off as naturally as a Carole King tune. Her new album “Goodnight Rhonda Lee” dials back some of the sweeping production of earlier efforts in favor of a sound that is simpler and more direct. The album — cut in a week with the production team behind Leon Bridges’ debut — is tough and tender, and her voice has achieved a new depth and grit. A terrific, mature record.
Jay Som, “Baybee.” The aural equivalent of champagne bubbles that go straight to your head, the synthesized hook that gives this track its early-1980s yacht-rock sheen defies resistance. Jay Som (real name Melina Duterte) made her new album “Everybody Works” entirely on her own at home, but you’d never know. Not the mere sketches that so many DIY projects can seem, Jay Som’s songs are fully executed and realized. This is sumptuous indie pop that sounds like it could’ve been a major-label hit 35 years ago, or 35 years from now.
Ted Leo, “Can’t Go Back.” Ted Leo rose to a certain level of fame as a stalwart of east coast punk, and his recordings with Ted Leo and The Pharmacists often had a sense of desperation about them as the band careened from verse to chorus and back again. Still, Leo always possessed a knack for melody, which he has thoroughly demonstrated in The Both, his collaboration with Aimee Mann. That ability is on full display on “The Hanged Man,” his first true solo album, and especially on this, the first single. A buoyant slice of soul-inflected sunshine-pop, the song finds Leo in a new context, one which suits him remarkably well.
Bedouine, “One of These Days.” The self-titled debut album by Bedouine (real name Azniv Korkejian) is a left-field delight, the kind of recording you didn’t know you needed until you heard it. Korkejian was born in Syria to an Armenian family and spent much of her childhood in Saudi Arabia before settling in the United States, but little of her culturally complex upbringing shows through in her music in any sort of evident way. The most obvious antecedent here is the Laurel Canyon pop-folk of the late 1960s and early ‘70s, plus the likes of Melanie and even early Roberta Flack. Korkejian didn’t begin making music until she was an adult, and at age 32, her debut reflects a maturity that might otherwise have been absent. “One of These Days” chugs along in a loose-limbed gallop (just listen to that bass line!) that perfectly suits her low-key vocal delivery.
Songhoy Blues, “Bamako.” Mali’s Songhoy Blues are the latest in the fine tradition of West African bands that accent hard 1970s American funk and rock with local polyrhythms to make a sound that is taut, combustible and highly danceable even for an audience that won’t understand one word of the lyrics. Their 2015 debut “Music in Exile” earned them a following in Europe, and they ventured to London to record their new album, “Résistance,” which features a guest appearance by Iggy Pop. The single “Bamako” is a burner that will be easily accessible for anyone who ever loved Kool and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie” or Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Shining Star.”
The Dream Syndicate, “Filter Me Through You.” The Dream Syndicate (not to be confused with The Dream Academy) was one of the most under-heralded bands of the 1980s, with Steve Wynn’s knife-edge songs and post-Velvet Underground jittery guitar attack putting them in the company of indie-rock heroes like R.E.M. and the Replacements, but still setting them apart. The band dissolved late in the decade, and Wynn has enjoyed a prolific solo career filled with one scorching rock song after another. Wynn unveiled a new lineup of The Dream Syndicate in 2012, with two past members of the band included, and that foursome toured but never recorded until recently. “How Did I Find Myself Here?”, the first Dream Syndicate album in nearly 20 years, was released in September, and it finds the band just as fierce as ever.
Sampha, “Blood on Me.” Since 1992, the Mercury Prize has been awarded annually to the best album by an artist from the United Kingdom or Ireland. Though winners have included the likes of PJ Harvey, Arctic Monkeys and Franz Ferdinand, the panel that makes the pick has a history of recognizing young artists who push the boundaries of popular music. Just last month, the 2017 Mercury Prize went to Sampha for his album “Process,” a hyper-modern R&B album that bounces from spare piano ballads and icy, atmospheric soundscapes to propulsive pop-funk like “Blood on Me.” The whole LP is a challenging and rewarding listen.
Jen Cloher, “Sensory Memory.” It’s easy to underestimate the appeal of Jen Cloher’s self-titled album until you find yourself humming a half-dozen of the tracks to yourself. Cloher’s songs have a way of getting under your skin and burrowing deep thanks to an easy-rocking, stripped down style that will resonate with anyone who ever loved the third and fourth Velvet Underground records. More than a decade into her career, the fact that she has titled her new album simply “Jen Cloher” feels like an act of artistic rebirth. Long overshadowed, sometimes painfully, by her partner Courtney Barnett (whom Cloher calls her wife, though Australia does not yet recognize same-sex marriage), Cloher sounds supremely confident throughout, even as she grapples with the personal insecurities inherent in any relationship, as on this lovely and insistent track. (“Sensory Memory” isn’t on YouTube in the United States, but this track is terrific, too).
Cheap Trick, “Blackberry Way.” The Beatles’ influence is often invoked, and rightly so, when discussing the quartet of classic studio albums that Cheap Trick made in the 1970s. But no one is more responsible for the Trick’s mix of arch melodies and minor-key weirdness on those LPs than The Move, whose “California Man” the band covered on 1978’s “Heaven Tonight.” Cheap Trick’s new album “We’re All Alright!” bears more resemblance to the straight-ahead hard rock that marked much of their work in the 1980s and beyond, but this cover of The Move’s 1968 single brings it all back home. Written by bandleader Roy Wood (who later formed ELO with Jeff Lynne), the original version hit No. 1 in The Move’s native United Kingdom, but was largely ignored in the United States except by a precious few who recognized its rapturous perfection. Cheap Trick recognized the same thing, and they give the song a reverent (if beefed-up) reading that takes flight under Robin Zander’s force-of-nature vocals, which stand undiminished even 40 years after the band’s debut album. (“Blackberry Way” is included on the deluxe edition of “We’re All Alright!”)
—Michael Atchison writes about music for The Bridge. He is the author of three books, including the novel “Mellow Submarine,” which Publishers Weekly calls “a fast-paced delight.” He’s on Twitter at @MichaelAtchison.