Above image: Lilly Hiatt | Photo: Alysse Gafjken
It’s time for our periodic survey of songs that you might have missed in our messy musical landscape. Here are 10 new tracks calibrated to appeal to Bridge listeners, beginning with a pair of bands from down under. Check out the Spotify playlist to hear the songs, or click on the titles for YouTube videos.
Gang of Youths, “Fear and Trembling.” This Australian band’s second album, “Go Farther in Lightness,” serves as a summation of four-plus decades of anthemic rock and roll, full of pumping fists, swelling hearts and grand romantic gestures. The first track floats in like Bruce Springsteen circa 1975 and roars out like Titus Andronicus in 2012, while the second approximates neighbors simultaneously blasting Arcade Fire’s “Neon Bible” and The Gaslight Anthem’s “The ’59 Sound” on either side of gossamer walls. It continues so for 78 minutes, evoking Tom Waits, The Boomtown Rats and The National along the way, with lovely instrumental interludes providing dynamic relief between full-throated rockers. Unabashed, unafraid, unashamed, this is a band proudly wearing its heart on its sleeve.
Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, “Julie’s Place.” While the obvious influences on Gang of Youths hail from the northern hemisphere, fellow Aussies Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever find inspiration closer to home in the sublime guitar pop of The Go-Betweens, The Church, The Triffids and (New Zealand’s) The Chills. “French Press,” their second EP in as many years, pairs a tight, chugging rhythm section with guitars that shower glints of light in every direction. The band’s self-described “tough pop/soft punk” has an inherent swagger but it’s just . . . so beautiful. Thirteen songs into their career and not a dud in the bunch, RBCF is a band to watch.
Lilly Hiatt, “Records.” Lilly Hiatt — who opens for Drive-By Truckers on Jan. 26 at The Truman — took the shards of her own personal calamities and turned them into her jagged third album “Trinity Lane,” a stellar collection that so thoroughly merges country and rock and roll that it renders any distinction between the two meaningless. Simultaneously vulnerable and resilient, Hiatt wrestles with heartbreak and sobriety while clinging to music, the steadfast anchor in her life. “I’ll take lonely if it means free / It’s never how you thought it’d be / But that record waited up for me.”
This is the Kit, “Hotter Colder.” It’s partly the undisguised English accent and partly the crystalline beauty of her voice that makes This is the Kit’s Kate Stables come off as a hybrid of PJ Harvey and Fairport Convention’s Sandy Denny. But there’s also the blend of Fairport’s pastoral British folk and Harvey’s prickly post-punk urgency that makes her band’s (mostly) quiet music leap to the foreground.
Julien Baker, “Appointments.” Julien Baker is a 22-year-old singer-songwriter from Memphis who sounds both younger and older than her tender age. She combines a young person’s sense of wonder with a surprising level of maturity in her song craft. The arrangements throughout “Turn Out the Lights” (her second album) are built mostly around guitar, piano and strings, and they give the songs a sense of cavernous space. When, on this track, Baker layers vocals on top of vocals, she conjures a cathedral in the mind. Paired with chiming guitars that recall Jeff Buckley’s classic 1994 album “Grace” (recorded before Baker was born!), the effect is a song that feels sacred upon the very first listen.
Sheer Mag, “Just Can’t Get Enough.” This Philadelphia crew seems to take hazy memories of 1974 as a mission statement by welding retro-rock riffs to the dare-ya-to-resist melodies of the Raspberries and Badfinger, while Tina Halladay’s vocals feature the distorted edge of a Maxell C90 pushed past its limits. Their singles over the past couple of years demonstrated a promise that’s fulfilled in spades on “Need to Feel Your Love,” their first full-length album, a dozen songs that sound like little less than pure electricity.
Michael Head and the Red Elastic Band, “Rumer.” In certain circles, Michael Head is revered as a sort of prophet without honor, a brilliant songwriter who never got his full due, derailed in part by his own personal struggles. In the 1980s and ‘90s, as leader of the bands Pale Fountains, Shack and The Strands, the Liverpudlian brought a quiet, folk-inflected sensibility to a scene still dominated by noisy post-punk guitars. That sensibility remains intact on “Adiós Señor Pussycat,” an enchanting collection of songs that chimes with an off-handed beauty that will sneak up on you.
Robert Finley, “Medicine Woman.” Robert Finley has been playing guitar and performing a blend of blues and soul for decades, but it wasn’t until 2016 — at age 63 — that he released his first album, “Age Don’t Mean a Thing,” on a tiny independent label. That, in turn, caught the attention of the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, who produced and wrote or co-wrote all of the songs on “Goin’ Platinum!,” a mix of swampy, bluesy tracks that recalls the Stax/Volt sound of the 1960s.
SZA, “Prom.” It seems weird to include SZA in a discussion of music that you might have failed to notice, because she had a massive year that recently culminated in five Grammy nominations. But in our fragmented musical world, it’s entirely possible that you missed her altogether. Her album “Ctrl” is a freewheeling mix of R&B, hip-hop and pop, and this track, with its minimalist drum-machine rhythm, is sure to appeal to anyone who ever loved Prince’s early 80s funk/new-wave pastiche.
The Hold Steady, “Entitlement Crew.” After one of the great four-album blasts to ever start a career (2004’s “Almost Killed Me” through 2008’s “Stay Positive”), The Hold Steady entered a protracted state of evolution that began with the exit of keyboardist Franz Nicolay and the arrival of guitarist Steve Selvedge, a swap that deemphasized the band’s penchant for Springsteen-style street operas in favor of a more direct hard rock sound. But street operas were the thing that The Hold Steady did best, and the songs from those first four albums continued to nourish the band’s rabid fan base a full decade after their release. With Nicolay now back in the fold, The Hold Steady just released two new songs that turn back those 10 years in a wild explosion of words and riffs and keyboard flourishes. Who knows if they’re back for good? But they’re back for now, and that’s good enough for the true believers.
—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.