Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

Another week has flown by, which means it’s time again to take a look at newly released music. After some digging, I think I’ve found a decent and diverse set of tunes. This installment of Best of What’s New features a great Hammond B-3 jazzy rendition of a popular Donovan song, melodic indie rock, pop folk-oriented alternative country and soulful Americana. All tunes appear on albums that came out yesterday (March 26). Sounds intriguing? Let’s get to it!

Dr. Lonnie Smith/Sunshine Superman (feat. Iggy Pop)

An artist calling himself Dr. Lonnie Smith who teams up with the godfather of punk Iggy Pop to cover a great Donovan tune was sure to get my attention. Born in Buffalo, N.Y. in July 1942, Smith is a jazz Hammond B3 organist who first came to prominence in the mid-60s when he joined the quartet of jazz guitarist George Benson. After recording two albums with Benson, Smith released his solo debut Finger Lickin’ Good Soul Organ in 1967. Twenty-six additional records have since appeared under his name. According to his website, Smith has recorded everything from covers of the Beatles, the Stylistics and the Eurythmics, to tribute albums of Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane and Beck-all by employing ensembles ranging from a trio to a fifteen-piece big band. He also appeared on close to 80 albums by other artists, such as Lou Donaldson, Marvin Gaye, Jimmy Ponder, Ron Holloway, Eric Gale and Nora Jones. His artist profile on Apple Music notes Smith at some point became Dr. Lonnie Smith (for “no particular reason,” the same reason he gives for why he always wears a traditional Sikh turban). His rendition of Sunshine Superman, the title track of Donovan’s third studio album from August 1966, is the closer of the doctor’s new album Breathe. Iggy Pop provides vocals on this tune, as well as album opener Why Can’t We Live Together. This is just cool stuff!

Real Estate/Half a Human

Real Estate are an indie rock band from Ridgewood, N.J. According to their artist profile on Apple Music, Real Estate’s core members were childhood friends, but the band didn’t take shape until 2008, after they’d all completed college and returned to their hometown of Ridgewood, New Jersey. Arriving in 2009, the group’s self-titled debut album earned a Best New Music tag from Pitchfork—a distinction that was also given to their next two LPs. Days, their 2011 sophomore LP, hit No. 11 on  Billboard’s Alternative Albums chart, and 2014’s Atlas did even better, reaching No. 7. Following the departure of guitarist Matthew Mondanile in 2016, lo-fi pop specialist Julian Lynch—another childhood friend from New Jersey—took his place in the band. In addition to Lynch, Real Estate’s current lineup includes co-founders Martin Courtney (vocals, guitar) and Alex Bleeker (bass, vocals), along with Matt Kallman (keyboards) and Sammi Niss (drums). Half a Human, co-written by Bleeker, Lynch, Courtney, Kallman and the band’s former drummer Jackson Pollis, is the title track of their sixth and new album. The melodic and laid back sound of this tune drew me in right away.

Esther Rose/Songs Remain

Esther Rose is a country artist from New Orleans, La. She began her career by collaborating with her then-husband and guitarist Luke Winslow-King. In 2017, Rose released her solo debut album This Time Last Night. Songs Remain is a track from her third and latest album How Many Times. On this record, Rose expands her alt-country sound into a blossoming world of folk pop and tender harmonies, notes her website. A collection of complete takes recorded live to tape with rich instrumentation, soul-tugging hooks, and resonating vocal melodies, How Many Times carries you into the room in which it was made. There to help realize this was co-producer Ross Farbe of synthpop band Video Age, who Rose also credits for bringing a stereo pop glow to these new songs. I like what I’m hearing here!

Miko Marks & The Resurrectors/Ancestors

Let’s wrap up things with African American country singer Miko Marks who was born in Flint, Mich. In 2005, she released her debut single Freeway Bound, which also was the title track of her first studio album that appeared in September that year. The sophomore It Feels Good followed in August 2007. In 2006, Marks was named Best New Country Artist by U.S. trade magazine New Music Weekly. She also won various awards at the Independent Music Awards in 2006, 2007 and 2008. After a pretty successful looking early career, it appears things slowed down for Marks. Ancestors is the opener of Our Country, her first album since It Feels Good. She’s backed by The Resurrectors, the impressive sounding house band of Redtone Records. Well, it may have been more than 13 years since Marks’ last release, but it surely looks like the wait was worth it. I just love the soulful southern rock sound of Ancestors, which first appeared as a single in December 2020.

Sources: Wikipedia; Dr. Lonnie Smith website; Apple Music; YouTube

The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random songs at a time

It’s Sunday again and hope everybody is doing well. I think I’ve put together another fairly eclectic collection of songs. Like in previous installments of The Sunday Six, I’d like to start things nice and easy, before hitting the accelerator and going a little bit more rough toward the end. I also spontaneously decided to throw in a bonus.

Sting/Fields of Gold

Let’s kick it off with one of my favorite tunes by Sting, Fields of Gold, a perfect song for a Sunday. It appeared on his fourth solo album Ten Summoner’s Tales from March 1993. I’d consider that album to be the Mount Rushmore of his solo catalog. Like most tracks on Ten Summoner’s Tales, Sting wrote Fields of Gold all by himself. The song also appeared separately as a single in May of the same year. Unlike the album, which peaked at no. 2 in the UK and the U.S. and topped the charts in Austria, Fields of Gold only made it to no. 16, no. 23 and no. 85, respectively, on these countries’ single charts.

Lou Reed/Caroline Says II

Why a tune by an artist I admittedly do not know as well as I probably should? Coz I came across it the other day and I like it. Now you know what oftentimes ends up driving my picks for The Sunday Six – hence the subtitle Celebrating music with six random songs at a time. Penned by Lou Reed, Caroline Says II was included on his third solo album Berlin released in July 1973. The lyrics that appear to be about physical spouse abuse are rather grim:…Caroline says/as she gets up from the floor/You can hit me all you want to/but I don’t love you anymore… The album also includes a track titled Caroline Says I. Both of these tunes came out as a single in 1973 as well. BTW, Reed had some notable guests on Berlin, who apart from producer Bob Ezrin (piano, mellotron) included Jack Bruce (bass), prolific drummer Aynsley Dunbar and Steve Winwood (Hammond, harmonium). To the mainstream audience, Reed, who passed away from liver disease in October 2013 at the age of 71, is probably best known for Walk on the Wild Side, his biggest single chart success.

The Jayhawks/This Forgotten Town

I love this tune by American alternative country and country rock band The Jayhawks. In fact, I previously featured it last August in a Best of What’s New installment. The Jayhawks were formed in Minneapolis in 1985. After seven records, they went on hiatus in 2014 and reemerged in 2019. Their current line-up consists of original co-founders Gary Louris (electric guitar, vocals) and  Marc Perlman (bass), together with Tim O’Reagan (drums, vocals), Karen Grotberg (keyboards, backing vocals) and John Jackson (acoustic guitar, violin, mandolin). This Forgotten Town, co-written by Louris, Perlman and O’Reagan, is from their most recent album XOXO from July 2020. I still stand behind what I said in August 2020. I dig the warm sound, and there’s some great harmony singing as well. And now that I’ve listened to the tune again, it does remind me a bit of The Band.

Lenny Kravitz/Fields of Joy

Lenny Kravitz entered my radar screen in France in late 1991 when his sophomore album Mama Said, which had come out in April that year, happened to play in the background in a restaurant I was visiting. I immediately liked what I heard. So did my brother-in-law, who asked the waiter about the music. After my return to Germany, I got the CD. I’ve since continued to listen to Kravitz who has faced all kinds of criticism. Some of the clever commentary, especially early in his career, included “not sounding Black enough” (no idea what exactly that’s even supposed to mean!) and being too close to some of his ’60s influences, such as Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles – jeez, how horrible to have been inspired by two of the greatest music acts of all time! Anyhoo, Fields of Joy, co-written by Michael Kamen and Hal Fredricks with musical arrangement by Doug Neslund and Kravitz, is the opener of Mama Said. It also became one of the album’s seven singles.

Alice Cooper/Rock & Roll

“Mr. Shock Rock” is always good for some kickass music. Rock & Roll is the opener of Alice Cooper’s upcoming studio album Detroit Stories scheduled for February 26 – based on Wikipedia, it’s his 21st, not counting the seven records released with the band that had been named after him between 1969 and 1973. Written by Lou Reed (there he is again!), the tune was first recorded by The Velvet Underground for their fourth studio album Loaded from November 1970. I think Cooper does a nice job giving the tune more of a rock vibe. I also like how he’s dialing up the soulful backing vocals. In addition to Rock & Roll, two (original) tunes from Detroit Stories are already out. Looks like we can look forward to a fun album.

The Byrds/Eight Miles High

Okay, admittedly, a pattern seems to emerge for The Sunday Six. After doing five tunes from other decades, it suddenly occurs to me I just cannot leave out the ’60s, one of my favorite decades in music. Not sure whether this pattern is going to continue, but I just noticed it myself. The Byrds and probably also this tune need no introduction. Co-written by Gene Clark, Roger McGuinn and David Crosby, Eight Miles High is from their third studio album Fifth Dimension  released in July 1966. It remains one of my all-time favorite ’60s tunes. I think it’s pretty cool how the band combined their jingle-jangle pop rock a la Mr. Tambourine Man with psychedelic influences – simply a great song!

And just as I was about to wrap up this post, I came across this instrumental live version of Eight Miles High. Did I mention I dig this tune? 🙂 Apparently, this footage was captured at New York’s Fillmore East in September 1970 – kinda feels like The Byrds embracing the jam style of The Grateful Dead. Okay, do we really need an almost 10-minute instrumental of Eight Miles High? I’m leaving it up to you to decide. I think it’s pretty cool, showing the band’s impressive instrumental chops.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

Singer-Songwriter Jason Isbell Releases New Album

“Reunions” may have been his most challenging record to make so far

While I had heard of Jason Isbell before and listened to some of his past music, I had not taken a closer look at the singer-songwriter from Green Hill, Ala., who at age 41 has experienced both remarkable success and full-blown addiction to alcohol and cocaine in his late ’20s. Both sides of his story provide important context for Reunions, Isbell’s new album, which he recorded with his backing band The 400 Unit. It was broadly released yesterday, May 15.

Apparently, Isbell grew up in a musical family. His grandfather and uncle showed him how to play various instruments. As a 6-year-old, he learned the mandolin, and in high school, he played the trumpet and French horn. Somewhere along the way, he picked up the guitar and started playing in a garage band and a country cover band. Eventually, he met session bassist David Horn, whose son Patterson Hood was a co-founder of alternative country and Southern rock band Drive-By Truckers. When he was 21, Isbell got a publishing deal with FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala., where he worked until he joined Drive-By-Truckers the following year during their supporting tour for their third studio album Southern Rock Opera.

Isbell stayed for six years and recorded three studio albums with the band, contributing guitar and vocals, and writing some of their songs. During these years with Drive-By Truckers, Isbell developed his alcohol and cocaine addiction. Apparently, it did not slow him down much. Following his departure from the band in April 2007, Isbell wasted no time to launch a solo career and released his solo debut Sirens of the Ditch in July that year.

Jason Isbell

The 400 Unit, weirdly named after a colloquial name for the psychiatric ward of a local hospital in Florence, Ala., came together for Isbell’s sophomore album Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit released in February 2009. Two years later, Isbell agreed to enter a rehab program at a Nashville facility. He managed to overcome his addiction and has been sober since. In February 2013, Isbell married singer-songwriter and violinist Amanda Shires. Since 2011, she had been a guest on his albums and eventually became a member of The 400 Unit. In parallel, Shires continued to pursue her solo career. In 2019, she also formed country band The Highwomen. Isbell played guitar on their eponymous debut album, which appeared last September.

Since Isbell got out of drug rehab, he won many accolades for his music, which among others include four Grammy awards and various Americana Music Honors & Awards. They turned out to be a mixed blessing when making his new album. “For some reason, I felt really pressured,” Isbell told The New York Times. “You think, ‘If I make a record that’s not great, everybody’s going to dismiss me entirely. If I [expletive] up my relationship, everybody’s going to be so shocked that they’ll write me off completely.’ All those things, when you say them out loud sound ridiculous, but they stay in there and gnaw at you.”

Jasom Isbell & Amanda Shires
Jason Isbell with Amanda Shires

The pressure took a toll on his marriage and at some point prompted Shires to move to a motel, since she felt belittled. “I want him to make the best art he can but not at the expense of making me feel less,” she noted to The New York Times. “I needed space because lines were getting crossed.” So with all the drama surrounding the album, how did it turn out? Pretty good, in my opinion, though one hopes this outcome happened despite the aforementioned challenges, not because of them. Let’s get to some music!

Here is the opener What’ve I Done to Help. Like all of the remaining nine tracks on the album, the tune was written by Isbell. “It seems like this song set the right mood for the record,” Isbell told Apple Music. “It’s a little bit indicting of myself, but I think it’s also a positive message: Most of what I’m talking about on this album is trying to be aware as possible and not just get lost in your own selfish bubble, because sometimes the hardest thing to do is to be honest with yourself.” BTW, none other than David Crosby provides harmony vocals on the tune!

In Overseas, Isbell was trying to write a song that’s about multiple things at once, which he views as a big challenge. “On the one hand, you have an expatriate who had just had enough of the country they’re living in and moved on and left a family behind,” he explained to Apple Music. “And the other is more about my own personal story, where I was home with our daughter when my wife was on tour for a few months.” Apparently, the song was inspired by Eric Clapton, who once said in an interview he didn’t feel he would ever be a great songwriter since he wasn’t able to write allegorically. “I was probably 12 or 13 when I read that,” Isbell said, “and it stuck with me.”

Running With Your Eyes Closed has a little bit of a Mark Knopfler guitar vibe, which is definitely part of the reason it speaks to me. According to Isbell, “It’s a love song, but I really try hard to look at relationships from different angles, because songs of the initial spark of a relationship – that territory has been covered so many times before and so well that I don’t know that I would have anything new to bring.” I really dig the sound of this track. Check it out!

One of the most personal tracks on the album is It Gets Better. “I was awake until four in the morning, just sort of laying there, not terribly concerned or worried about anything,” Isbell explained. “And there was a time where I thought, ‘Well, if I was just drunk, I could go to sleep’. But then I also thought, ‘Well, yeah, but I would wake up a couple hours later when the liquor wore off.’ I think it’s important for me to remember how it felt to be handicapped by this disease and how my days actually went. I’ve finally gotten to the point now where I don’t really hate that guy anymore, and I think that’s even helped me because I can go back and actually revisit emotions and memories from those times without having to wear a suit of armor.”

Let’s do one more. Here’s the closer Letting You Go, a tune Isbell wrote for his four-year-old daughter, recalling her as a baby and fast-forwarding to picture her getting married and leaving the house. Well, that certainly looks like a big jump into the future; then again, time flies, as I can attest when it comes to my own son who is 18 now – how did that happen so quickly? “Once, when my daughter was very little, my wife said, ‘Every day, they get a little bit farther away from you’,” Isbell reflected. “And that’s the truth of it: It’s a long letting-go process.” He clearly is very attached to the little girl.

Reunions is Isbell’s fourth straight album produced by Dave Cobb, who has also produced for Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson and John Prine, among others. In addition to Shires (fiddle, backing vocals), The 400 Unit features Sadler Vaden (guitar, backing vocals), Jimbo Hart (bass, backing vocals), Derry DeBorja (keyboard, accordion, backing vocals) and Chad Gamble (drums, backing vocals).

So what does David Crosby think about Isbell? “Jason has become one of the best writers in the country,” he commented to The New York Times. “And my idea of really good writers is Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan. His singing is emotional. It’s honest. He’s really trying to tell you the story.” Hopefully, Crosby’s praise won’t put additional pressure on Isbell when comes to making his next record. As strange as it sounds, it might actually be a good thing for Isbell if he doesn’t get a ton of accolades for Reunions!

Sources: Wikipedia; The New York Times; Apple Music; YouTube