Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

Here’s the latest installment of my recurring new music feature. It nicely illustrates that great new music isn’t a matter of age. In fact, I’ve said it all along: Old guys rock! 🙂 Three of the following artists have been around for 50 years, while the remaining three represent a younger generation. There’s some blues rock, coz you rarely can go wrong with it; some prog and art rock; some post punk rock; and some indie rock and pop. Let’s get to it!

Walter Trout/Wanna Dance

Long-time blues rocker Walter Trout, who originally hails from Ocean City, N.J., is a survivor – literally. He started his music career on the Jersey shore scene in the late 1960s. After relocating to Los Angeles in the early ’70s, the guitarist became a sideman for John Lee Hooker, Percy Mayfield, Big Mama Thornton and Joe Tex, among others. From 1981 to 1984, Trout was the lead guitarist for Canned Heat. In 1984, he joined John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and, as he noted during a recent one-hour online chat, it was Mayall who encouraged him not to copy other previous Bluesbreakers’ lead guitarists like Peter Green and Eric Clapton but to develop his own style. Trout did, left the Bluesbreakers in 1989 and launched his solo career. He has since released more than 20 albums. In 2014, things got dicey when Trout was diagnosed with liver failure – likely a result from alcohol and substance abuse he overcame in the ’80s. A liver transplant saved his life just in time. After a long recovery, Trout was able to return to music, which as he has said is the only thing he could ever do. Released on June 12, Wanna Dance is a great blues rocker from Ordinary Madness, an upcoming album of all original music, scheduled for August 28. I saw Trout in New York City in April 2019 and witnessed firsthand he is a compelling, no BS artist. Really looking forward to this record!

Ohmme/Flood Your Gut

Ohmme (formerly know as Homme) are an indie rock band from Chicago formed in 2014 by singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalists Sima Cunningham and Macie Stewart. In 2016, Matt Carroll joined the two young women on drums. Apple Music characterizes them as “an experimental indie pop band who use their striking vocal harmonies and lean, angular guitar patterns to create songs that are spare but full-bodied, making clever use of dynamics to generate a rich sound out of a small number of elements” – jeez, you wonder whether they pay reviewers by the number of words they stick in one sentence! Ohmme takes the opposite approach on their Facebook page: “An experiment with voice, guitar, and sound.” The band released their debut single in November 2015, followed by an eponymous EP in 2017. Flood Your Gut is the opener to Ohmme’s new (second) studio album Fantasize Your Ghost, released on June 5. Admittedly, the somewhat monotonous trance-inducing sound of this tune didn’t grab me immediately, but the more often I listen to it, the more I dig it – there’s something weirdly catchy about it!

Kansas/Jets Overhead

American rock band Kansas may have formed in the early ’70s, but evidently, they aren’t dust in the wind yet. Frankly, I wasn’t aware the band is still active. Granted, Kansas have gone through many lineup changes in their 50-year history; if I see this correctly, it appears guitarist Rich Williams and drummer Phil Erhart are the only remaining founding members, who have been on all of the band’s 15 studio releases that came out between 1974 and 2016, as well as their upcoming album The Absence of Presence, scheduled for July 17. I’m mostly familiar with Kansas’ better known tunes like Carry On Wayward Son, Dust in the Wind, Point of No Return and Play the Game Tonight. I oftentimes feel rock that’s based on simple guitar riffs is best and consider the fantastic Carry On Wayward Son as an exception that proves the rule. Jets Overhead, which was written by guitarist Zak Rizvi and appeared on June 5, is the third track released ahead of the album. You rarely hear a violin solo in a rock song these days. Sounds pretty good to me!

Phoebe Bridgers/Graceland Too

Phoebe Bridgers is a Los Angeles-based 25-year-old singer-songwriter. Apple Musics characterization of her music as “folk-based” with “a dreamy and hook-filled indie pop heart” sounds right to me. Apart from her solo work, she’s also a member of indie rock band Boygenius and performs with Conor Oberst in indie rock duo Better Oblivion Community Center. In March 2014, Bridgers released her debut, an EP cheerfully titled Killer. Following what appears to be a live album, 2016 Tour CD, her first full-length studio release Stranger in the Alps appeared in September 2017. Graceland Too is a country-flavored tune from Bridgers’ sophomore album Punisher, which came out on June 18. This song has a beautiful warm sound that nicely blends with Bridgers’ voice.

Elvis Costello/No Flag

Released June 5, No Flag is the first new song by Elvis Costello since Purse, an EP from April 2019, featuring four previously unreleased songs recorded with his band the Imposters. According to a news announcement, Costello recorded No Flag alone in Finland in February this year. “I wanted to go somewhere nobody knew me,” he explained. “So, this is ‘The Helsinki Sound.’” The announcement also asks readers to “look out for the next installment of this story on July 10th” – perhaps a hint to a forthcoming new album? With an unsettling melody and dark lyrics like No time for this kind of love/No flag waving high above/No sign for the dark place that I live/No God for the damn that I don’t give, the timing of the release during the COVID-19 pandemic certainly doesn’t look like a coincidence.

JJ Wilde/Cold Shoulder

JJ Wilde is a singer-songwriter hailing from Kitchener in Ontario, Canada, which is located about 60 miles of Toronto. Wilde started writing and playing guitar during her teenage years. Despite a massive amount of songs and gigging, she apparently struggled in the early part of her career, and ended up working three jobs. When Wilde about to give up music professionally in 2018, she finally got a break, signing with Black Box Recordings. Last year, her debut EP Wilde Eyes, Steady Hands appeared. Ruthless, Wilde’s first full album, was released on June 12. “This album has felt like a long time coming, and no time at all,” wrote Wilde on her Facebook page. “Most of the inspiration for the album came from an apartment I lived in two years before I started this journey. I was in a dark place, and was very unsure of where my life was going. Almost 4 years later, with countless shows, tours, travelling, writing sessions, I now feel like this album is the complete first draft of an inside look into my world.” Here’s Cold Shoulder. I like this melodic rocker – check it out!

Sources: Wikipedia; Apple Music; Ohmme Facebook page; Kansas website; Elvis Costello website; JJ Wilde Facebook page; YouTube

Leiber-Stoller, Songwriting Partnership Extraordinaire

I believe Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller first entered my radar screen as a 13-year-old when I got an Elvis Presley songbook for guitar. It was shortly after I had started taking lessons and was able to play a few chords. Elvis was my idol at the time. What I didn’t know then and frankly didn’t fully appreciate until conducting some research for this post was the enormous scope of Leiber-Stoller’s work, which goes far beyond some of the best-known early classic rock & roll tunes.

For some time, I had contemplated writing about important songwriting partnerships including Leiber-Stoller, but once I noticed how many songs these guys wrote and how many artists they worked with, I felt they warranted a dedicated post. I also decided to largely exclude their production work and primarily focus on their writing during the ’50s and early ’60s, which is their most exciting period, in my opinion.

Lyricist Jerry Leiber was born as Jerome Leiber on April 25, 1933 in Baltimore, Md. Composer Michael Stoller, who later changed his legal fist name to Mike, was born on March 13, 1933 in Belle Harbor, Queens, N.Y. In addition to being born the same year to Jewish families, Leiber and Stoller also shared a love for blues, boogie-woogie and black culture. They met in Los Angeles in 1950, while Leiber was a senior in high school and Stoller was a college freshman.

Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller
Mike Stoller (l) & Jerry Leiber in 1980

According to an extended interview Lieber and Stoller gave to NAMM Oral History Program in December 2007, Leiber had written some lyrics and knew he wanted to be a songwriter. What he didn’t know was how to write music. A drummer referred him to piano player Mike Stoller. Once they met and Stoller looked at some of Leiber’s lyrics, he noticed they were 12-bar blues. He said, “I love the blues” and started playing the piano, with Leiber singing along. And Stoller said, “Mike, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” Okay, I made up that last quote, borrowing from one of my favorite black and white movies of all time. What is true is that day the two men agreed to form a partnership that would generate some of the best-known songs of the ’50s and ’60s.

The first artist who recorded a Leiber-Stoller composition was Jimmy Witherspoon, one of the blues singers the duo followed to help them develop their “black style” of writing music and lyrics. Real Ugly Woman appeared as a single in 1951. The words are just as lovely as the title! 🙂 A little excerpt: Well, she’s a real ugly woman/Don’t see how she got that way/Yeah, she’s a real ugly woman/Don’t see how she got that way/Yes, and every time she comes around/she runs all my friends away

The following year in 1952, Leiber and Stoller scored their first hit with Hard Times, which was recorded by Charles Brown. The tune climbed to no. 7 on the Billboard R&B Chart.

1952 also saw one of Leiber and Stoller’s best-known songs, Hound Dog, which was first recorded by Big Mama Thornton. It was also the first time the duo produced music, though the production credits went to Johnny Otis, who was supposed to lead the recording session but ended up playing the drums on the tune. Released in February that year, it sold more than half a million copies and topped the Billboard R&B Chart. Three years later, Elvis Presley turned Hound Dog into a mega-hit. I like his version but have to say Thornton really killed it, so here’s her original.

Another early rock & roll classic penned by Lieber-Stoller is Kansas City, which according to Wikipedia is one of their most recorded tunes with over three hundred versions – they had to count them all! Initially, the tune was titled K.C. Loving and recorded by American boogie-woogie pianist and singer Little Willie Littlefield. It appeared in August 1952. While the song had some regional success, it didn’t chart nationally. That changed in April 1959 when Wilbert Harrison released his version, which became a no. 1 on the Billboard’s Hot 100 and R&B charts. Here’s the original. Feel free to shuffle along!

Going back to Elvis, while Leiber and Stoller didn’t mind having written a million-seller with Hound Dog, they weren’t particularly fond of Presley’s cover. But it led to writing more songs for Elvis, including one of my favorite ’50s rock & roll tunes of all time: Jailhouse Rock. Released in September 1957, is was the title track of the Elvis motion picture that came out in November of the same year. Leiber-Stoller played a prominent role in the making of the film’s soundtrack. Apart from Jailhouse Rock, they wrote three other tunes and worked with Elvis in the studio. Of course, I had to take a clip from the picture, which has to be one of the most iconic dance scenes ever captured on film. Doesn’t it feel a bit like watching an early version of a Michael Jackson music video?

Blues and rock & roll represent the early years of Leiber and Stoller’s songwriting. Beginning in the mid-’50s after they had started working for Atlantic Records, the duo branched out and became more pop-oriented. Among other artists, they wrote a number of songs for The Drifters and The Coasters. Here’s Ruby Baby, a great soulful, groovy, doo-wop tune from 1956. More than 25 years later, Donald Fagen became one of the other artists covering the song, when he included it on his excellent debut solo album The Nightfly from October 1982.

Next up: Yakety Yak by The Coasters. The song was released in April 1958 and topped the Billboard Pop Chart, Billboard R&B Chart and Cash Box Pop Chart. The track was also produced by Leiber-Stoller and became the biggest hit for The Coasters.

The last Leiber-Stoller tune I’d like to highlight is Stand By Me, which they co-wrote with Ben E. King. He first recorded it in April 1961, a year after he had left The Drifters to start a solo career. In addition to writing, once again Leiber-Stoller also produced the beautiful track, which remains one of my favorite ’60s songs to this day.

Asked during the above NAMM interview to comment on the fact that “nice Jewish boys didn’t really write a whole lot of hit records for blues singers at that point” (in the early ’50s), Stoller said, “Actually, they did later on, or at least later on we did know…It was considered to be somewhat peculiar at the time.” Added Lieber: “Black people always thought we were black until they came in contact with us and saw that we weren’t.” BTW, if you’re into rock & roll history, you may enjoy watching the entire interview, even though it’s close to 90 minutes. Again, you can do so here.

Altogether, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote or co-wrote 70-plus chart hits. According to lieberstoller.com, their songs have been performed by more than 1,000 artists, who in addition to the above include The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, B.B. King, James Brown, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Beach Boys, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Jimi Hendrix, Muddy Waters, Joe Williams, Tom Jones, Count Basie, Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson, Luther Vandross, John Lennon, Aretha Franklin and even Edith Piaf, among others – wow, it almost poses the question which artists did not sing their songs!

Leiber-Stoller’s work has extensively and rightly been recognized. Accolades include inductions into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1987 and 1985, respectively, as well as a Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Academy of Songwriters in 1996. As reported by The New York Times, Jerry Leiber died from cardio-pulmonary failure on August 22, 2011 in Los Angeles at the age of 78. Mike Stoller is 86 years old and still alive. He can be heard introducing Little Steven & The Disciples of Soul on their great 2018 Soulfire Live! album for a gig at the Orpheum Theatre in New York – priceless!

Sources: Wikipedia; NAMM; Leiberstoller.com; The New York Times; YouTube

Blues Veteran Walter Trout Releases Blistering New Covers Album

Survivor Blues features “obscure songs that have hardly been covered”

There’s nothing fishy about Walter Trout. For five decades, the guitarist has played and lived the blues, initially as sideman for the likes of John Lee Hooker, Joe Tax and John Mayall during the ’70s and 80s, and starting from 1989, as a solo artist. Now, Trout has released a covers album aptly titled Survivor Blues, featuring tunes he feels have been underappreciated. Since there are only so many ways you can play the blues, I think it’s all about execution. If you dig electric blues, you’re in for a trout, I mean treat!

Born on March 6, 1951 in Ocean City, N.J., Trout started his career in the Garden State in the late 1960s. In a cool video about the making of Survivor Blues, which is published on his website, Trout recalls how as a 16- or 17-year-old he met B.B. King. After spotting King in a New Jersey record store, he asked him for an autograph, saying he loved the blues and was trying to figure it out on the guitar. King ended up talking to him for more than one hour. One thing’s for sure: That conversation did not discourage young Walter Trout to pursue the blues!

walter trout
Walter Trout in 2018

In 1974, Trout moved to Los Angeles and became a sideman for R&B singer and songwriter Percy Mayfield, who among others wrote Hit The Road Jack, which became a no. 1 hit for Ray Charles in 1961. Other artists Trout backed during the 70s included  John Lee Hooker, Big Mama Thornton and Joe Tex. In 1981, he joined blues rockers Canned Heat as a guitarist. From 1985 until 1989, Trout was part of John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, following the trail of many other blues musicians. One night, he was spotted by a Danish concert promoter who offered him to pay for a solo tour.

Trout left the Bluesbreakers, and in 1989 his solo debut Life In The Jungle came out. He has since released more than 20 additional records, initially as Walter Trout Band, then as Walter Trout and the Free RadicalsWalter Trout and the Radicals and, starting with The Outsider in 2008, simply as Walter Trout. Survivor Blues is the 10th album appearing under his name and follows the award-winning We’re All In This Together. The 2017 album of original tunes features many other blues heavyweights like Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Sonny Landreth, Robben Ford and Charlie Musselwhite.

“I didn’t want to do ‘Stormy Monday’ or ‘Messin’ With The Kid.’ I didn’t want to do the Blues greatest hits,” Trout commented on the new album. I wanted to do old, obscure songs that have hardly been covered…My idea was to do these songs like me, to arrange them for my band and style – not to just copy the originals note-for-note.” Trout also sought active input from his band on how to render the songs, which were mostly recorded live in study, a smart approach, in my opinion.

walter trout 2

Trout’s wife and manager Marie came up with the record’s title. ‘You’re a group of survivors,’ she told him. ‘You’ve all been through hell and you’ve come back. These songs are survivors. This album needs to be called Survivor Blues.’ In 2014, Trout received a liver transplant after he had been diagnosed with liver failure – likely a result from alcohol and substance abuse he overcame in the ’80s. Reflecting on the members of his band, Trout said, “Mike [Michael Leasure, drums] is in recovery. Johnny [Johnny Griparic, bass] almost didn’t make it. Skip [Skip Edwards, keyboards] has had a triple bypass. And I almost didn’t make it after my liver disease in 2014.”

Time for some music. I’d like to kick it off with the excellent opener Me, My Guitar And The Blues. Written by Jimmy Dawkins, the tune was the title track of his 1997 solo album. Trout couldn’t get enough of the electric blues guitarist’s records during his early years as an up and comer in New Jersey. “The last line – ‘Since you left me, All I have left is Me, My Guitar and the Blues’ – is one of the greatest lyrics I’ve heard in my life and I start crying just saying it,” Trout stated. The lyrics are also a perfect way to set the tone for an album titled Survivor Blues.

Please Love Me, co-written by B.B. King and Jules Taub, was the opener of King’s 1956 debut album Singin’ The Blues. Trout calls King “the greatest blues man that ever lived.” Something tells me Trout’s sentiment may reflect the above noted long conversation with his hero.

One of my favorites on the album is Luther Johnson’s Woman Don’t Lie. The track appeared on a record titled Born In Georgia, released in March 2008. On his take Trout shares lead vocals with blues vocalist Sugaray Rayford. The result is just beautiful!

Appropriately, Trout also paid homage to John Mayall with Nature’s Disappearing, a tune from his 1970 album USA Union. “I was nervous about doing it because it’s by my mentor and surrogate father,” Trout noted. “John told me he’d read an article about ecology and pollution – he put the magazine down at the end and wrote that song in five minutes. It’s even more relevant today, with all the environmental regulations being thrown out and national parks being sold off to oil companies.” I dig the groove of this cover and think the Godfather of British Blues is smiling.

On Goin’ Down To The River Trout is joined by Robby Krieger, in whose Los Angeles studio the album was recorded. The tune was written by hill country blues singer and guitarist Mississippi Fred McDowell.  “There was something about the lyric,” noted Trout. “But the original is very different. I decided to take the verses that spoke to me, and then rearranged the song almost Muddy Waters-esque with that slide lick. Robby Krieger was coming in every day, listening and hanging out, so I said, ‘I’d love it if you played on this song’. So when I say ‘Play it, Robby’ – that’s Robby Krieger from The Doors. We just did that in the studio – boom, there you go.”

Survivor Blues has been produced by Trout’s long-time producer Eric Corne. It appears on Provogue Records/Mascot Label Group and is available in CD and vinyl formats, as well as on iTunes, Spotify and other digital music platforms.

Trout, who fortunately seems to be in good health, is supporting Survivor Blues with an extended tour that is set to kick off in Minneapolis on January 31st. Currently, the schedule lists around 50 dates, mostly in the U.S., and stretches all the way out to August. Not listed for some reason is a gig that shows up in Ticketmaster: April 8 at The Iridium in New York City. Blues is made to be experienced live, and this show is definitely on my radar screen.

Sources: Wikipedia, Walter Trout website, YouTube

 

 

Ladies Singing The Blues And Killing It

A playlist of five outstanding female artists who may not be top of mind when you think of the blues

If somebody asked you who comes to mind when thinking of the blues, you might mention artists like B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and Eric Clapton – all terrific choices! What else do they have in common? They are all men! Sure, if you dig the genre, you’ve probably also listened to Etta James, Janis Joplin and Bonnie Raitt, and perhaps even to early trailblazers like Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Big Mama Thornton. But I bet you likely wouldn’t have included them in your answer to the above question. At least I can safely say that for myself!

Just like in so many other professions, music is yet another field where women oftentimes don’t get the credit they deserve. And it seems to me this is even more so the case for the blues compared to some other genres like jazz where you’d probably name Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone, or soul where you’d likely include Aretha Franklin or Tina Turner when asked the above question.

The idea behind this playlist is fairly simple: Celebrate five female artists who shine at singing the blues. And to make this more interesting, I’m excluding some of the obvious choices like Etta James or Janis Joplin. All of the songs appear on the artists’ most recent albums from this year.

I’d like to give credit where credit is due. All of the artists highlighted in this post were included in an Apple Music blues playlist that was served up to me as a listening suggestion. When some of their names rang a bill, I decided to check the site of blues aficionado and fellow music blogger Music Enthusiast – BTW, a blog I can recommend to any music fan and guitarist! And, yep, he previously included four of the five artists on his blog. So kudos to Apple Music and Music Enthusiast!

I still think this doesn’t change the premise of this post, which is that female blues artists oftentimes don’t get the recognition they deserve. And while I’m under no illusion that this post isn’t coming anywhere close to making up for this unfortunate state of affairs, I guess it’s one post at a time. So with that, let’s finally get to it, shall we?

Kicking off the list is Lindsay Beaver with Too Cold To Cry. She doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry. Maybe somebody should change that. Luckily, she has a website, and according to the bio there, Beaver is a drummer, songwriter and bandleader from Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. To date, she has self-released five albums with her band The 24th Street Wailers, of which she produced three. BTW, how many female record producers can you name? Just saying. This could be a good topic for another post. Written by Beaver, Too Cold To Cry appears on her new album Tough As Love, which was only released two weeks ago. As this clip suggests, Beaver seems to be one hell of a firecracker!

Next up: Shemekia Copeland and Ain’t Got Time For Hate. This blues vocalist, who was born in Harlem, New York is the daughter of Texas blues guitarist and singer Johnny Copeland. The tune is from an album called America’s Child, which came out in August. In addition to Copeland’s powerful voice, I dig the timely lyrics: Black and white/Gran or ten/Every woman/Child and man/Rich or poor/Gay or straight/We ain’t got time for hate… Well said!

Another gem is Shine Bright by Marcia Ball. This blues singer and kickass pianist from Vinton, La. has been around for a very long time. How long? How about 1970! Since 1972 she’s released 18 records. Shine Bright is the title track of her most recent album, which appeared in April. Check out this clip, which is actually a stripped back live take of the studio version. I can highly recommend the latter as well. I know this may sound a bit silly, but if you’d meet this lady in the street, unless you knew her, would you ever guess what a smoking hot artist she is – damn!

Danielle Nicole is a blues and soul musician from Kansas City, Mo. Prior to releasing her solo debut Wolf Den in 2015, Nicole co-founded Kansas City soul and blues rock band Trampled Under Foot in 2000 (a nod to Led Zeppelin?) and was their lead vocalist. The band recorded five albums before it dissolved in 2015. Here’s Crawl, a nice blues rocker from Nicole’s third solo record Cry No More from February.

The last outstanding artist I’d like to highlight in this post is Bettye LaVette. This singer-songwriter from Muskegon, Mich. also has been around for a long time. In fact, she recorded her first single My Man – He’s A Lovin’ Man as a 16-year-old in 1962. Things Have Changed is the title track of LaVette’s last studio album from January – a collection of tunes written and originally sung by Bob Dylan. In this case, Dylan first released the song as a single in May 2000. It was part of a soundtrack from a motion picture called Wonder Boys.

Admittedly, I still don’t know much about the above artists. But based on the songs in this post and a few other tunes I’ve sampled from the corresponding albums, it’s obvious to me how top-notch each of them is. You can bet I’m going to further explore them.

Sources: Wikipedia, Lindsay Beaver website, YouTube