Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

After the unprecedented events we witnessed in this country earlier this week, it feels somewhat surreal to blog about something completely unrelated. At the same time, the fact new music keeps coming out is reassuring to me. In fact, music has always had a degree of healing power during challenging times and provided a welcome distraction. While ignoring reality can be dangerous, I believe occasionally escaping from it is a good thing to clear your mind and gather strength.

I’m very excited about this week’s Best of What’s New installment, which features indie and country singer-songwriters, a young incredibly talented vintage soul vocalist who knocked my socks off and…well, you’ll need to continue reading to find out yourself. All of this great music was just released yesterday (January 8).

Denison Witmer/River of Music

Dension Witmer is a singer-songwriter from Lancaster, Pa. According to his artist profile on Apple Music, Tagged by many music journalists as one of the most likely songwriters to fill the void left by Elliott Smith in the acoustic indie singer/songwriter movement, [he] catalogs the experiences of young adulthood in almost painfully honest detail. With a soft and sensitive voice that perfectly matches his laid-back 1970s California pop production and subtly expressive guitar work, he has gone from writing in his journal to becoming an intimate of like-minded artists like Damien Jurado and Pedro the Lion over the span of a few albums. Growing up in Lancaster, PA, Witmer picked up the guitar at the age of 16 and was soon showing enough promise to draw the interest of the Innocence Mission’s Don Peris. As Peris became Witmer’s musical mentor, he would oversee and play guitar and keyboard on his apprentice’s first recordings, 2000’s River Bends EP and the much-heralded Safe Away. Here’s the great River of Music, a track from Witmer’s new EP American Foursquare (Simplified). It surely feels good listening to his soothing voice and beautiful guitar-playing. And the lyrics about the power of music perfectly illustrate what I wrote in the intro of this post.

Morgan Wallen/Livin’ the Dream

Country music singer-songwriter Morgan Wallen, who hails from the tiny Tennessee town of Sneedville (about 250 miles east of Nashville), first gained some prominence as a contestant on season 6 of The Voice in 2014. While Wallen didn’t make it to the final, his stint eventually led to a deal with Panacea Records and his debut EP Stand Alone from August 2015. Wallen switched to Big Loud Records thereafter and released his first full-length studio album If I Know Me in April 2018. Livin’ the Dream is a track from his sophomore release Dangerous: The Double Album. This double album features a hefty 30 tunes, many prominent country songwriters and a guest appearance by Chris Stapleton. Livin’ the Dream, a tale about life as a “rock star,” was co-written by Wallen, Ben Burgess, Jacob Durrett and Michael Wilson Hardy, aka Hardy.

Barry Gibb/To Love Somebody

Yep, that’s Barry Gibb, formerly of the Bee Gees. I recently covered them in a four-part series here (part 1), here (part 2), here (part 3) and here (part 4). All I’d like to say in this post is if you think the Bee Gees were just a disco band, I’d encourage to take a closer look at their music or read my series. Was it necessary for Gibb, the group’s only surviving member, to come out with Greenfields: The Gibb Brothers’ Songbook, Vol 1., an album of newly recorded versions of mostly famous Bee Gees songs? Probably not – on the other hand, why not! The Bee Gees’ catalog is full with well crafted songs. Co-written by Barry Gibb and Robin Gibb, To Love Somebody is among my favorite early Bee Gees tunes. It initially appeared on Bee Gees’ 1st, the group’s first internationally released full-length studio album that was released in July 1967 in the UK and appeared the following month in the U.S. The newly recorded version features Jay Buchanan, lead vocalist of American rock band Rival Sons. The album also includes many other guests, mostly from country music, a favorite genre of Barry’s, such as Little Big Town, Dolly Parton and Sheryl Crow. Be cynical about it, if you like. I dig and stand behind these songs and the Bee Gees!

Aaron Frazer/ If I Got It (Your Love Brought It)

According to his website, Aaron Frazer is a Brooklyn-based, Baltimore-raised songwriter [who] first came into the international spotlight as multi-instrumentalist and co-lead singer for Durand Jones & The Indications. He penned some of the group’s most notable tracks, including ‘Morning In America,’ and sang lead on ‘Is It Any Wonder?’ – the latter an instant sweet soul classic anchored by Aaron’s falsetto, which caught the ear of producer and Black Keys guitarist Dan Auerbach…Soft-spoken with the look of a slightly disaffected 1950s matinee idol, Aaron Frazer possesses a unique voice that’s both contemporary and timeless. His higher register conveys a wide emotional palate and a progressive worldview in the tradition of musical masterminds like Curtis Mayfield. While Aaron’s stirring falsetto and thoughtful songwriting have made him established in the world of revival soul music, he refuses to be pigeonholed. That falsetto is in beautiful action on If I Got It (Your Love Brought It), a tune from Aaron’s debut album Introducing…, which was produced by Auerbach. The song was co-written by Frazer, Auerbach and David Ferguson. So good! check it out!

Sources: Wikipedia; Apple Music; Aaron Frazer website; YouTube

Bee Gees – Part 2: Rise to International Fame

“You can’t deny talent. And the talent was so obvious.” (Robert Stigwood, The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart)

Prior to leaving Australia for England, Hugh Gibb, the father of Barry, Maurice and Robin and their manager at the time, had sent some demos to Beatles manager Brian Epstein. Epstein passed on the tapes to Australian born expatriate Robert Stigwood who had recently joined NEMS, a music store directed by Epstein. Stigwood liked what he heard, and after an audition in February 1967, the Bee Gees got a 5-year deal with Polydor Records to oversee their releases in the UK, while Atco Records would handle U.S. distribution.

Before going to the studio, Vince Melouney (lead guitar) and Colin Petersen (drums) joined the group. In July 1967, the Bee Gees released their first international album titled Bee Gees’ 1st. Stigwood launched an aggressive promotional campaign boldly declaring the Bee Gees were the “most significant new musical talent of 1967.” Lead single New York Mining Disaster 1941 became another hit, reaching no. 12 in the UK and peaking at no. 14 in the U.S. Co-written by Barry Gibb and Robin Gibb, the stunning tune became a top 10 in New Zealand, the Netherlands and Germany, where it reached no. 3, no. 4 and no. 10, respectively.

Bee Gees’ 1st also featured another classic: To Love Somebody, which was co-written by Barry and Robin as well. It also became the album’s second single in June 1967. While it almost matched the chart performance of the predecessor in the U.S. where it peaked at no. 17, it was less successful in the UK, reaching no. 41 there.

Only three months after To Love Somebody, the Bee Gees released another gem that became their first no. 1 single in the UK: (The Lights Went Out In) Massachusetts. The beautiful tune, co-written by the three Gibb brothers, also topped the charts in New Zealand, the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and Austria, and peaked at no. 2 in Switzerland, Ireland and Australia. The Bee Gees had fully arrived on the international scene.

1968 saw the first trips to the U.S., including an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in March, as well as tours to Scandinavia, Germany and Switzerland. The Bee Gees also scored their second no. 1 in the UK with I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You, released in September that year. Co-written by all three brothers, the tune climbed to no. 8 in the U.S. and also was a hit in many other countries.

While the Bee Gees had achieved significant international success, not all was well and things would soon unravel. By 1969, Robin began to sense that Robert Stigwood was favoring Barry as the group’s frontman. Following the release of the next studio album Odessa in March 1969, Robin left to launch a solo career. Barry, Maurice and Colin Petersen went on to record the Bee Gees’ next album Cucumber Castle. Vince Melouney had left the group in 1968.

In December 1969, Barry and Maurice parted ways as well. They each worked on solo albums that didn’t appear. Meanwhile, Robin released his solo debut Robin’s Reign in February 1970 and had a no. 2 single in the UK, Saved by the Bell. But the brothers realized they needed other and reunited later that year. In November 1970, the Bee Gees’ next studio album 2 Years On came out. Here’s the record’s single Lonely Days co-written by all three brothers.

The Bee Gees’ next studio album Trafalgar, which came out in the U.S. in September and in the UK in November 1971, brought mixed success. While lead single How Can You Mend a Broken Heart became the group’s first no. 1 in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100, the album only reached no. 34 on the Billboard 200 and did not chart in the UK at all. By 1973, chart success had largely become elusive. After touring the U.S. and Canada in 1974, the Bee Gees found themselves playing small clubs in England. Something needed to happen to reignite the group. A change in musical direction and singing style would open their next chapter.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

Music From Down Under That Rocks: Part I

A two-part musical journey to Australia

I guess it’s safe to assume this has happened to most folks, particularly those who are into music – suddenly, out of the blue, a song pops into your head you haven’t heard in a million years. Well, that’s what I encountered yesterday with When the War is Over, a tune by Australian rock band Cold Chisel.

It brought me right back to my early twenties when I was playing bass in a band. When the War is Over was one of the covers we did. I was delighted to find it in the library of my streaming music provider. It also turned out I still like it. Then I checked out Cold Chisel. Not only did I discover they still exist, but I also saw they are from Australia. I had no idea about the latter, or at least I don’t recall.

Australian Music Collage

The above episode further made me think about music from Australia. It didn’t take long to remind myself how much great music has come from this part of the world. And there’s much more than just AC/DC, Men at Work and Little River Band, the first three acts that came to my mind.

Since for the most part, this blog focuses on the U.S., England and Canada with occasional posts about German artists, I thought taking a musical trip down under would be well warranted and fun. And since putting everything in one post would be too much, I spontaneously decided to make this a two-part mini-series. So, all on board and let’s go!

AC/DC

One of the greatest rock bands I know, AC/DC were formed in Sydney in 1973 by Scottish-born brothers Malcolm Young (guitar, backing vocals) and Angus Young (lead guitar). The band has gone through many line-up changes and a good deal of tragedy over the decades. Technically, they are still around. There were some recent reports about a new album, for example here and here. Supposedly, it’s a tribute to Malcolm Young, who passed away in November 2017. Reportedly, the album reunites Angus Young with former lead vocalist Brian Johnson, bass player Cliff Williams and drummer Phil Rudd, featuring songs Malcolm had recorded with the band before he was no longer able to play due to dementia. It also features Malcolm’s nephew Stevie Young. Well, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. Meanwhile, here’s a tune arguably from AC/DC’s best phase with lead vocalist Bon Scott. I don’t care that is has been played 100 million times. To me, Highway to Hell will always remain one of the most epic rock songs. Co-written by the Young brothers and Scott, it was the title track from AC/DC’s sixth studio album released in July 1979.

Bee Gees

I realize seeing the Bee Gees in this mini-series may surprise readers, especially fans of blues and rock, music genres I dig and celebrate in this blog. But while the Bee Gees clearly fall outside these genres, I actually like many of their songs for their three-part harmonies, catchy melodies and grooves. And, dare I say it, this even includes their disco-oriented tunes. Since the Gibb brothers were born in England, only lived in Australia for about nine years and didn’t become famous until after they had returned to England, one could also ask whether the Bee Gees should even be considered to be an Australian band. I think it’s defensible since their story started down under when Barry Gibb, Robin Gibb and Maurice Gibb started singing together in December 1957 – remarkably before they had even reached their teenage years. During the first half of the ’60s, they released a few singles each year. In November 1965, their debut album The Bee Gees Sing and Play 14 Barry Gibb Songs appeared, billed as Barry Gibb & The Bee Gees. But their early efforts remained largely unsuccessful, so the Gibb brothers decided to return to England in early 1967. Before they did, they recorded various tunes, including Spicks and Specks, which became their first hit. In February 1967, the Bee Gees signed a deal with Polydor and in July that year released their first international full-length record, Bee Gees’ 1st. The psychedelic pop album marked their international breakthrough and the rest is history. Here’s the above noted Spicks and Specks, written by Barry Gibb.

The Church

The Church were initially established as a trio in Sydney in March 1980 by singer-songwriter and bassist Steve Kilby, guitarist Peter Koppes and drummer Nick Ward. English guitarist Marty Willson-Piper joined one month later after he had seen one of the band’s gigs. In April 1981, The Church released their debut album Of Skins and Heart in Australia, which internationally came out in January 1982 and was titled The Church. The band is still around. Just recently on February 1st, Kilby announced Koppes had departed, leaving him as the only original member. In October 2017, I covered the most recent album by The Church, Man Woman Life Death Infinity, which reminded me of their album I know best and dig to this day: Starfish from April 1988. I just love the atmospheric, spacial sound of that record. Here’s Reptile, credited to all four members of the band at the time: Kilby, Koppes, Ward and Richard Ploog (drums, percussion).

Cold Chisel

Since the idea of this mini-series was sparked by When the War is Over, I simply couldn’t leave out Cold Chisel. That being said, this song and a few other tunes I’ve heard in the meantime pretty much sum up what I know about this band, which was founded in Adelaide in 1973. Wikipedia describes their music as pub rock, R&B, hard rock and rock & roll. Based on what I’ve heard thus far, this doesn’t seem to be off-base. Cold Chisel’s original line-up consisted of Ian Moss (lead guitar, vocals), Don Walker (keyboards, backing vocals), Jimmy Barnes (vocals, guitar), Les Kaczmarek (bass) and Steve Prestwich (drums). They broke up in December 1983 and reunited in October 1997 with a different line-up. While Cold Chisel have enjoyed significant popularity in Australia and New Zealand, success has largely eluded them in other parts of the world. The lyrics of the November 1981 single You Got Nothing I Want, an attack on the U.S. music industry over its lack of the band’s promotion, pretty much sealed their fate in this market. Here’s the aforementioned When the War is Over, which was written by Prestwich and appeared on the band’s fourth studio album Circus Animals released in March 1982.

Crowded House

Crowded House, which I know best from their ’80s pop-rock, were formed in Melbourne in 1985 by Neil Finn (guitar, vocals), Paul Hester (drums) and Nick Seymour (bass). Following their break-up in 1996, Crowded House have been on and off. In 2016, Finn confirmed the band is on indefinite hiatus. In April 2018, he joined Fleetwood Mac to replace Lindsey Buckingham, together with Mike Campbell. But now that the Mac’s 13-month world tour is over and, according to a recent interview Mick Fleetwood gave to Rolling Stone, they are unlikely to do another extended tour, Crowded House are back with a new line-up: Finn (lead vocals, guitar keyboards), Seymour (bass, backing vocals) and Mitchell Froom (keyboards, guitar, backing vocals), along with Finn’s sons Liam Finn (guitars, keyboards, backing vocals) and Elroy Finn (guitars). Perhaps they should consider renaming themselves The Crowded Finns! Anyway, here’s a tune I loved back in the day and still dig: Don’t Dream It’s Over, written by Neil Finn, and from their 1986 eponymous debut album.

Stay tuned for part II…

Sources: Wikipedia; Fox News; Ultimate Classic Rock; Rolling Stone; YouTube