Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

It’s Saturday and as such time to take another look at new music. In most cases, Best of What’s New features artists who are new to me. This week’s installment is a bit different, including two relatively young acts and two artists who have been around for more than 45 years. Let’s get to it!

Jackson Browne/Still Looking For Something

I’d like to kick things off with Jackson Browne, one of my favorite American singer-songwriters. If I recall it correctly, Browne entered my radar screen ca. 1980, when I first listened to Running on Empty, his fifth studio record from December 1977. I love it to this day, and it remains Browne’s album I’m best familiar with. He has since released 10 additional studio albums including his latest, Downhill From Everywhere. It appeared yesterday (July 23) and is his first new album in nearly seven years. While I haven’t had sufficient time to explore the ten tracks in greater detail, based on sampling a few tunes, I like what I’m hearing so far. Vocally, Browne still pretty much sounds like on Running On Empty, which is remarkable. Back then, he was 29 years old. He’s turning 73 this October. Here’s the opener, Still Looking For Something, one of four tracks that were solely written by Browne.

David Crosby/Ships in the Night

I trust David Crosby doesn’t need much of an introduction. He’s best known as co-founder of The Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash. In February 1971, Crosby released his debut solo album If I Could Only Remember My Name. Only two additional solo records followed until 1993. Since his fourth studio album Croz from January 2014, Crosby has substantially increased the pace of his solo releases. Four albums have since appeared including his new one titled For Free, which also came out yesterday. Similar to Jackson Browne, I’ve yet to more closely explore Crosby’s latest work. Fellow blogger Music Enthusiast featured one of the tracks, Rodriguez For a Night, in a recent post dedicated to Crosby. Written together with Donald Fagen and Crosby’s son James Raymond, the tune has a cool Steely Dan vibe. As American Songwriter notes in this review, Crosby doesn’t play any guitar on the album and instead sticks to singing. Here’s another song I like from the album: Ships in the Night. Check it out!

Ida Mae/Click Click Domino

Ida Mae are a British alternative folk and blues rock husband-and-wife duo from Norfolk, England, featuring Chris Turpin and Stephanie Jean. Here’s an excerpt from their Apple Music profile. Delivering romantic and atmospheric songs with resonant guitar and passionate vocals, the pair owe their influences to the sound of Americana and deep South blues-rock…The duo decided to work together after Turpin had put out three albums with his former act, Kill It Kid, in Bath, Somerset. He decided to try something new with Jean and the pair spent time writing and recording their own material — it was quite a sonic departure from Kill It Kid (who were more influenced by alternative rock and grunge). After having amassed enough material, the pair put out their debut single, “Reaching,” in early 2019. The track found the duo delving more deeply into the sound of country blues pioneers such as Son House and Robert Johnson. The song was featured on their first LP, Chasing Lights, which arrived in June of that year. Click Click Domino, co-written by the couple, is the title track of their sophomore album released on July 16. It features Marcus King on electric guitar. I dig the energy of this tune and the raw guitar sound.

Crown Lands/White Buffalo

Crown Lands are a Canadian rock duo from Oshawa, Ontario. According to their artist profile on Apple Music, they mix the influences of hard rock with progressive and psychedelic sensibilities…Crown Lands were formed in 2015 by Kevin Comeau, who handles guitar, bass, and drums, and Cody Bowles, who sings lead and plays drums. Both men were raised in Southwestern Ontario, though when they first met, Comeau had been living in Los Angeles and trying to make a career in music, playing in a reggae band. Comeau was back home visiting family for the holidays when he met Bowles, and the two quickly bonded over their shared love of vintage rock sounds, especially Rush. Comeau moved back to Ontario, and the two were soon jamming regularly and started playing out with their material. They chose the name Crown Lands as a reference to Bowles’ First Nations heritage (he’s a member of the Mi’kmaq nation), the name referring to territory seized from the indigenous peoples by the government. In August 2016, they independently released their debut EP Mantra. After two additional EPs that appeared in 2017 and 2020, Crown Lands released their eponymous first full-length album in August 2020. White Buffalo, co-written by Bowles and Comeau, is the title track of their latest EP that came out on July 8. When listening to this catchy rocker, one would never guess Crown Lands is a two-man act. Bowles’ vocals remind me a bit of Greta Van Fleet’s Josh Kiszka.

Sources: Wikipedia; American Songwriter; Apple Music; YouTube

Clips & Pix: Neil Young & Graham Nash/Birds (Demo)

This nice demo of Neil Young and Graham Nash performing Young’s Birds appears on the massive Déjà Vu 50th Anniversary Reissue that appeared last Friday, May 14. In addition to remastered edits of the original tunes, the reissue features 38 previously unreleased tacks, including session recordings, outtakes and demos.

Déjà Vu, the sophomore studio album by Crosby, Stills & Nash, and their first as a quartet with Neil Young, originally was released on March 11, 1970. Due to the pandemic and some bad blood between the former band mates, the reissue was delayed by more than a year. Plus, as Rolling Stone sarcastically reported, these guys always broke the rules, starting with the use of their names as a band.

While I’ve only heard bits and pieces so far, the reissue looks like something fans of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young are going to enjoy. More casual listeners of CSNY will probably get less out of it. The box set is available in five-vinyl-LP and four-CD/ one vinyl-LP formats. Both boxes come with a 12×12 hardback book.

While David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and Neil Young at least each gave their blessing to the reissue, it mostly appears to have been Nash and Stills who were committed to it. Among the additional tracks, Young is only represented with two: The above Birds and an alternate take of Helpless.

According to Ultimate Classic Rock, Crosby told Rolling Stone, “I am very proud of the record, [but] this is like a repackaging. It’s probably a good thing, but it’s not that big a deal to me. The guy who looks backwards and does this kind of stuff is Nash. He always has been. I don’t really give much of a shit about that.” If anybody was harboring any hope of a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young reunion, insensitive commentary like this certainly doesn’t help!

Let’s end it on a more positive note. Here’s what Nash had to say to Rolling Stone about the demo of Birds with Young. “I know it’s just me and Neil doing it with his acoustic guitar, but that’s a beautiful piece of music. It’s me trying to be the best harmony singer I can be with somebody of the stature of Neil Young. I don’t want to stick out singing extra words that he’s not singing. I have to be on my game. And ‘Birds’ is a perfect example of that.” Young included a piano version of Birds on his third solo album After the Gold Rush from September 1970.

Sources: Wikipedia; Rolling Stone; Ultimate Classic Rock; 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

Clips & Pix: CPR/Déjà-Vu

Here’s another gem my dear longtime music friend and connaisseur from Germany brought to my attention earlier today: a mind-boggling 9:41-minute version of Déjà-Vu, the title track of the legendary 1971 studio album by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, written by David Crosby, and here performed by CPR.

And, nope, as you probably figured, CPR in this case doesn’t stand for cardiopulmonary resuscitation but for Crosby, Pevar & Raymond, a band that featured David Crosby, session guitarist Jeff Pevar and Crosby’s son, keyboardist James Raymond. CPR was active between 1996 and 2004 and released two studio and two live albums.

The above amazing performance was captured in 1998 for 2 Meter Sessions, a Dutch music broadcast program. The band was absolutely killing it. In addition to Crosby (vocals, guitar), Pevar (guitar, vocals) and Raymond (piano, vocals), the line-up included Andrew Ford (bass) and Steve DiStanislao (drums).

If you’re truly into music, I encourage you to watch the entire clip. It’s a labor of love you can literally feel. And check out the facial expressions of David Crosby. He knew there was magic happening in that room. Pevar’s guitar playing is unbelievable. Ford’s melodic bass work is beautiful. DiStanislao, Raymond and Crosby are fantastic as well. And the harmony singing – holy cow!

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

My Playlist: Jackson Browne

“…The Pretender, These Days, For Every Man, I’m Alive, Fountain of Sorrow, Running On Empty, For a Dancer, Before the Deluge. Now, I know the Eagles got in first; but let’s face it it – and I think Don Henley would agree with me – these are the songs they wish they had written. I wish I had written them myself, along with Like a Rolling Stone and Satisfaction…”

The above words were spoken by Bruce Springsteen in 2004 as part of his Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction speech for Jackson Browne. Springsteen also recalled when he first met Browne in New York City at The Bitter End, a storied Greenwich Village performance venue, he knew the singer-songwriter from California was “simply one of the best”. Coming from somebody who has written so many great songs himself and during that same speech also admitted to be “a little competitive”, I think these remarks speak volumes.

The first Jackson Browne record I listened to in its entirety was what I still consider a true ’70s gem: Running On Empty. If I recall it correctly, my brother-in-law had it on vinyl, and I initially copied it on music cassette. I was spending countless hours at the time taping music from records, CDs and certain radio programs. I still have hundreds of tapes floating around. While it’s safe to assume the quality of most is less than stellar at this time, I just cannot throw them out!

Back to Browne with whom I happen to share one fun fact: We were both born in Heidelberg, Germany, though close to 18 years apart. Browne’s dad was stationed in Germany, working for American military newspaper Stars and Stripes. Two of his three siblings were born there as well. In 1951 when Browne was three years old, his family relocated to Los Angeles.

During his teenage years, Browne started performing folk songs at local L.A. venues like The Ash Grove and The Troubador Club. After graduating from high school in 1966, he joined country rockers Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, which would later record some of his songs. After a few months, Browne left and moved to New York City where he became a staff writer for Elektra Records’ publishing company Nina Music.

In 1967, Browne met and became romantically involved with singer Nico of The Velvet Underground. He became a significant contributor to her debut solo album Chelsea Girl. After they broke up in 1968, Browne returned to Los Angeles where he met Glenn Frey soon thereafter. Before he started recording his own songs, Browne’s music was recorded by other artists such as Tom Rush, Gregg Allman, Eagles, Linda Ronstadt and of course the aforementioned Nico and Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

In 1971, Browne finally managed to get a deal with Asylum Records, and in January 1972, he released his eponymous debut album. Thirteen additional studio records have since appeared, as well as seven compilation and live albums and more than 40 singles. And this brings us to the most fun part of the post: Some of Browne’s music he has released during his close to 50-year recording career.

I’d like to kick things off with Song for Adam from Brown’s above noted eponymous debut album. The mournful memory of Adam Saylor, a friend of Browne who died in 1968 – possibly by suicide – was covered by various other artists, including Gregg Allman, who included a moving rendition with Browne singing harmony vocals on his final studio album Southern Blood from September 2017.

By the time Browne recorded Take It Easy for his sophomore album For Everyman, which appeared in October 1973, the Eagles had released the tune as their first single in May 1972. It gave them their first hit peaking at no. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 and one of their signature songs. Originally, Browne began writing the tune for his eponymous debut album. But he got stuck with it, so played it to his friend Glenn Frey, who ended up finishing it. When Browne finally recorded the song, he also released it as a single, but it didn’t chart – perhaps it sounds pretty similar to the Eagles‘ version.

Fountain of Sorrow is a great track from Browne’s third studio Late for the Sky. Released in September 1974, it was his first top 20 record in the U.S., climbing to no. 14 on the Billboard 200. Like Take It Easy, the tune also appeared separately as a single but did not chart either.

In November 1976, Browne released The Pretender, his fourth studio album. It was his first major album chart success, climbing to no. 5 on the Billboard 200, and marking his first record to chart in the U.K., where it reached no. 26. Here’s the title track, which also became the second single. It did moderately well, reaching no. 58 on the Billboard Hot 100 – love that tune!

Next is the album that started my Jackson Browne journey: The amazing Running on Empty from December 1977. Frankly, I could list each tune on that record, so let’s go with one that is a less obvious choice: The Road, written by American singer-songwriter Danny O’Keefe. Themed around life on the road as a touring musician, Running on Empty was an unusual record featuring live recordings on stage and in other locations associated with touring, such as hotel rooms, tour buses or backstage. The first 2:28 minutes of The Road were captured in a hotel room in Columbia, Md., while the remainder was recorded live at Garden State Arts Center in Holmdel, N.J., which nowadays is known as PNC Bank Arts Center and a venue where I’ve seen many great shows.

In June 1980, Browne released Hold Out, his sixth studio album. While the record received poor reviews from music critics, ironically, it became his only no. 1 album in the U.S. It also was Browne’s second record to chart in the U.K. Here’s Of Missing Persons, a beautiful tribute to Little Feat co-founder Lowell George, a collaborator and longtime friend of Browne’s who had passed away the year before. The tune was specifically written for George’s then six-year-old daughter Inara George who since became a music artist as well.

For many years, Jackson Browne has been a political activist, e.g., speaking up against the use of nuclear power and supporting environmental causes. But it wasn’t until the ’80s that political themes starting to play a more dominant role in Browne’s lyrics. The album that comes to my mind first in that context is Lives in the Balance, which came out in February 1986. Here’s the catchy opener For America. It also became the lead single and reached no. 30 on the Billboard Hot 100.

For the next tune, I’m jumping to the ’90s, specifically to February 1996 and Browne’s 11th studio album Looking East. Like many of his previous records, it featured various notable guests, such as Bonnie Raitt, David Crosby, Ry Cooder and Mike Campbell. Here is Baby How Long, for which Cooder provided a great slide guitar part and Raitt sang harmony vocals, together with Australian singer Renée Geyer.

Let’s do two more from the current millennium. First up: The title track from The Naked Ride Home, Browne’s 12th studio album from September 2002, which my streaming music provider served up as a listening suggestion that in turn triggered the idea to do this post.

The final song I’d like to highlight is from Browne’s most recent 14th studio album Standing in the Breach, which was released in October 2014. Here is the nice opener The Birds of St. Marks. Originally, Browne wrote that tune in 1967 after his breakup with Nico and return from New York to California. While first released on his 2005 live album Solo Acoustic, Vol. 1., it wasn’t until this 2014 studio album that Browne properly recorded the tune. “This is a song I always heard as a Byrds song, and that was even part of the writing of the song,” Brown told Rolling Stone in an August 2014 interview. Standing in the Breach became a remarkable late-stage career chart success, reaching no. 15 on the Billboard 200 and no. 31 in the U.K.

Earlier this year, in the wake of testing positive for COVID-19 (though luckily with relatively light symptoms), Browne released A Little Soon to Say, a song from his next studio album scheduled for October 9, which I featured in this previous Best of What’s New installment. To date Browne has sold more than 18 million albums in the U.S. alone. Apart from the above mentioned Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction, Browne has also been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in June 2007. He is ranked at no. 37 in Rolling Stone’s 2015 list of 100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time.

Sources: Wikipedia; Rolling Stone; YouTube

My Playlist: Melissa Etheridge

I still remember when I first heard Bring Me Some Water by Melissa Etheridge, which received lots of radio play in Germany when it came out in 1988. Her raspy vocals and the tune’s catchy melody grabbed my attention right away. Then except for occasional songs on the radio, she largely disappeared from my radar screen until 2016 when I came across her killer cover of Sam & Dave’s Hold On, I’m Coming. It was on a great album titled Memphis Rock and Soul, a compilation of classic Stax tunes.

Melissa Etheridge was born on May 29, 1961 in Leavenworth, Kan., which is in the Kansas City metropolitan area. During her teenage years, she started performing in local country bands. Following high school graduation in 1979, Etheridge went to Berklee College of Music in Boston. After three semesters, she decided to call it quits and moved to Los Angeles to start a career in music. Eventually, she was discovered by Chris Blackwell, the head of Island Records where in May 1988 her eponymous debut album appeared.

The record did pretty well, climbing to no. 22 on the Billboard 200. The lead single, the above noted Bring Me Some Water, peaked at no. 10 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart, but surprisingly missed the Hot 100 altogether. Etheridge has since released 14 additional studio albums, the most recent of which, The Medicine Show, came out in April 2019. Her best-selling record became Yes I Am from September 1993, which was certified six times Platinum in the U.S. Her highest charting record on the Billboard 200 was Your Little Secret from November 1995. Let’s get to some music.

Here’s Bring Me Some Water from Etheridge’s eponymous debut. Unless noted otherwise, all tracks in this playlist were written by her. In addition to singing vocals, Etheridge also plays acoustic guitar. It’s just a great tune!

In September 1989, Etheridge released her sophomore album Brave and Crazy. Here’s the You Used to Love to Dance.

I’m the Only One, a nice slow rocker, became Etheridge’s highest charting song on the Billboard Hot 100 where it climbed to no. 8. It topped the Adult Contemporary chart. The tune appeared on the above mentioned Yes I Am, which was her fourth studio album.

In November 1995, the follow-on album Your Little Secret appeared. I Want to Come Over became the second single. Here’s the official video for the tune.

Tuesday Morning is a moving tribute to the victims of 9/11, in particular Mark Bingham, a PR executive who was on United Airlines Flight 93 and one of the four passengers who attempted to retake control of the plane from the hijackers. This resulted in the tragic crash into a field near Shankville, Pa., preventing the plane from hitting its intended target in Washington, D.C. Co-written by Etheridge and Jonathan Taylor, the tune was included on Etheridge’s eighth studio album Lucky from February 2004.

At the 2005 Grammy Awards, Etheridge and Joss Stone performed a great tribute to Janis Joplin. Stone kicked it off with Cry Baby and was joined by Etheridge for a scorching rendition of Piece of My Heart. Etheridge, who appeared bold, had undergone chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer following her diagnosis shortly after the release of the Lucky album. The medley was subsequently made available as a download-only single. Here’s a clip of the Grammy performance. What a triumphant return for Etheridge to the stage!

Let’s do two more. I simply can’t skip the above noted cover of Hold On, I’m Coming. Co-written by Isaac Hayes and David Porter, the tune was first recorded by Sam & Dave and released in March 1966. It became one of their biggest hits that has been covered by countless other artists. Etheridge’s smoking hot rendition has to be one of the best. Check it out!

The last track I’d like to call out is from Etheridge’s most recent album, The Medicine Show, her fifteenth from April 2019. Here’s Faded By Design, which also appeared separately as a single.

I also want to acknowledge the recent news of the tragic death of Etheridge’s 21-year-old son Beckett Cypher from opioid addiction, as reported by CBS News. Etheridge’s former wife Julie Cypher had given birth to Beckett in 1998 after artificial insemination. Later the couple revealed the donor had been David Crosby.

Etheridge has won multiple music awards, including a 2007 Grammy in the category of Best Original Song for I Need to Wake Up, a tune from the 2006 film An Inconvenient Truth. Over the course of her 30-year-plus recording career, she has had five Platinum and two Gold certified albums and six top 40 hits on the Billboard Hot 100. Etheridge has given close to 60 daily live performances on Facebook throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. I think the bio on her website rightly calls her “one of rock music’s great female icons.”

Sources: Wikipedia; Melissa Etheridge website; CBS News; 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

Tangerine Trees and Marmalade Skies

A trip back to ’60s psychedelic music

While it’s quite possible that more than three weeks of social distancing are starting to have an impact, I can say without hesitation that my interest in psychedelic music predates COVID-19 – I would say by at least three decades. But it wasn’t exactly love at first sight.

I guess a good way to start would be to define what I’m writing about. According to Wikipedia, psychedelic music (sometimes called psychedelia) is a wide range of popular music styles and genres influenced by 1960s psychedelia, a subculture of people who used psychedelic drugs such as LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, mescaline and DMT to experience visual and auditory hallucinations, synesthesia and altered states of consciousness. Psychedelic music may also aim to enhance the experience of using these drugs.

To be clear, I don’t want to judge people using drugs but personally don’t take any and never had any particular interest to explore stuff. With the exception of alcohol, which I occasionally like to enjoy, I guess the furthest I ever took it was to try cigarettes during my early teenage years. Around the same time, I also smoked a cigar, cleverly thinking that just like with a cigarette, you’re supposed to inhale. As you can see, I was definitely young and stupid. And, yes, I did feel a bit funny afterwards! 🙂

Psychedelic Music Collage 2

Psychedelic music has some characteristic features. Again, Wikipedia does a nice job explaining them: Exotic instrumentation, with a particular fondness for the sitar and tabla are common. Songs often have more disjunctive song structures, key and time signature changes, modal melodies and drones than contemporary pop music. Surreal, whimsical, esoterically or literary-inspired, lyrics are often used. There is often a strong emphasis on extended instrumental segments or jams. There is a strong keyboard presence, in the 1960s especially, using electronic organs, harpsichords, or the Mellotron, an early tape-driven ‘sampler’ keyboard.

Elaborate studio effects are often used, such as backwards tapes, panning the music from one side to another of the stereo track, using the “swooshing” sound of electronic phasing, long delay loops and extreme reverb. In the 1960s there was a use of electronic instruments such as early synthesizers and the theremin. Later forms of electronic psychedelia also employed repetitive computer-generated beats.

Before getting to some examples, I should add that psychedelic music developed in the mid-’60s among folk and rock bands in the U.S. and the U.K. It included various subgenres, such as psychedelic folk, psychedelic rock, acid rock and psychedelic pop. The original psychedelic era, which is the focus of this post, ended in the late ’60s, though there have been successors like progressive rock and heavy metal and revivals, e.g., psychedelic funk, psychedelic hip hop and electronic music genres like acid house and trance music.

Apparently, the first use of the term psychedelic rock can be attributed to The 13th Floor Elevators, an American rock band formed in Austin, Texas in December 1965. Here’s their debut single You’re Gonna Miss Me. Written by guitarist and founding member Roky Erickson, the tune reached no. 55 on the Billboard Hot 100 and became their only charting song.

Eight Miles High by The Byrds is one of my favorite tunes from the psychedelic era. Written by co-founding members Roger McGuinn (lead guitar, vocals), Gene Clark (tambourine, vocals) and David Crosby (rhythm guitar, vocals), the song first appeared as a single in March 1966 and was also included on the band’s third studio album Fifth Dimension released in July of the same year. That jingle-jangle guitar sound and the brilliant harmony singing simply do it for me every time!

In May 1966, The Rolling Stones released Paint It Black. Credited to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, the song was also included on the U.S. edition of Aftermath, the band’s fourth British and sixth U.S. studio album. Not only did Paint It Black top the charts in the UK, U.S., The Netherlands, Australia and Canada, but it also had the distinction to become the first no. 1 hit to feature a sitar.

One of the hotspots for psychedelic music in the U.S. during the second half of the ’60s was San Francisco. Among the key bands based in the city by the bay were Jefferson Airplane. Here’s White Rabbit, a tune written by lead vocalist Grace Slick. Initially, it was recorded for the band’s sophomore album Surrealistic Pillow from February 1967. It also came out separately as a single in June that year.

After ten paragraphs into the post, it’s about time I get to the band that probably is one of the first that comes to mind when thinking about psychedelic rock: Pink Floyd, especially during their early phase with Syd Barrett. Here’s a tune I’ve always dug: Arnold Layne, their debut single from March 1967, written by Barrett. According to the credits, this video was directed by Derek Nice and filmed on the beach in East Wittering, West Sussex, England in late February 1967.

March 1967 also saw the release of Purple Haze, the second single by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and one of my favorite Jimi Hendrix tunes. The track features blues and Eastern modalities, along with novel recording techniques and sound effects like the Octavia pedal that doubled the frequency of the sound it was fed. The song also marked the first time Hendrix worked with sound engineer Eddie Kramer who would play a key role in his future recordings. Purple Haze climbed all the way to no. 3 in the UK; in the U.S., it only reached no. 65 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Two months later, in May 1967, The Beatles released their eighth studio album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It included the psychedelic gem Lucy In the Sky with Diamonds, the tune that inspired the headline of the post:

Picture yourself in a boat on a river
With tangerine trees and marmalade skies
Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly
A girl with kaleidoscope eyes

While credited to John Lennon and Paul McCartney as usual, the song was primarily written by Lennon.

After the break-up of The Animals, lead vocalist Eric Burdon formed Eric Burdon & The Animals in December 1966. The band subsequently relocated to San Francisco. In May 1968, they released their second album The Twain Shall Meet. Among the record’s tunes is the anti-war song Sky Pilot. Credited to Burdon and each of the other members of the band Vic Briggs (guitar), John Weider (guitar, violin), Barry Jenkins (drums) and Danny McCulloch (bass), the tune also appeared separately as a single. Due to its length, the track had to be split across the A and B sides. Remarkably, Sky Pilot reached no. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100, and no. 7 in Canada and Australia. Chart success in the UK was more moderate, where it peaked at no. 40.

In June 1968, Iron Butterfly released their sophomore album In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. The 17-minute title track, which occupied all of the record’s B-side, was written by the band’s keyboarder and vocalist Doug Ingle. Separately, a shortened version appeared as a single and became the band’s biggest hit reaching no. 30 in the U.S. In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida not only is psychedelic rock, but is also considered to be an early example of heavy metal. Here’s the single edit.

The last tune I’d like to highlight is Shotgun by Vanilla Fudge. It was included on their fourth studio album Near the Beginning from February 1969. “Near the End” perhaps would have been a more appropriate title, since by that time, the original psychedelic era was entering the twilight zone. Written by Autry DeWalt, the tune was first recorded by Junior Walker & the All Stars in 1965.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

 

What I’ve Been Listening To: David Crosby/Sky Trails

As somebody who considers Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young to be one of the best vocal harmony bands, you’d think I’d pay more attention to their individual members. With the exception of Neil Young, I guess I simply accepted that the sum is more than the parts. Even if that’s oftentimes true when it comes to top-notch bands, ignoring the parts can mean missing out on great music. Case in point: David Crosby and his album Sky Trails from September 2017, which is only his sixth solo record – pretty remarkable for an artist who released his solo debut in Feb 1971.

David Crosby

With David Crosby having been a founding member of The Byrds and Crosby, Still & Nash (CSN), and CSN having been active on and off between 1968 and 2015 – sometimes with, most of the time without Neil Young – I think it’s fair to say most people associate Crosby with the aforementioned bands. But, as noted above, he has released various solo albums. Sky Trails recently popped up as a listening suggestion in my streaming music platform. I’ve since listened a few times to the album and have to say I really dig it. I was also surprised how jazzy it is. I guess I had expected something more folk rock-oriented.

Let’s get to some music and kick it off with the opener She’s Got To Be Somewhere. This Steely Dan style tune is my favorite on the album. It was written by James Raymond, who produced the record, played keyboards, and, it turns out, is Crosby’s son – one of his four kids, not counting the two children born to Melissa Etheridge via artificial insemination.  Commenting on the tune, Crosby says on his website, “We didn’t consciously do that. We just naturally go to a place where Donald [Fagen] goes. I loved Steely Dan right from the first notes I heard.” Well, the man has good taste!

The album’s dreamy title track was co-written by Crosby with American singer-songwriter and guitarist Becca Stevens. The tune reminds me a bit of music I’ve heard by Clannad. Admittedly, it’s been a long time I’ve listened to the Irish folk band, and it would probably be worthwhile revisiting them. The saxophone fill-ins add a dose of jazz to the tune. “She’s a stunning, amazing singer and a great writer,” Crosby says of Stevens. “I’d rather be in a band with her than almost anybody.”

Here It’s Almost Sunset is a track co-written by Crosby and Mai Agan, an Estonian bass player and composer. It’s another tune on the quieter side. Most tracks on the album are. Again, there are nice saxophone accents. Wikipedia lists three saxophonists who supported the recording, Chris Bullock, Jeff Coffin and Steve Tavaglione, but unfortunately does not reveal who played on which song. Neither do the YouTube clips, which only list the aforementioned core musicians.

Capitol is a protest song co-written by Crosby and Raymond, expressing their less than flattering opinion about legislators: …And you think to yourself/This is where it happens/They run the whole damn thing from here/Money just burns, filling up their pockets/Where no one can see/And no can hear… Sadly, these words seem to ring true more than ever in this country these days.

The last tune I’d like to highlight is called Curved Air. It’s another co-write by Crosby and Raymond. The flamenco guitar sounded was created by Raymond using keyboards. “Hell no, I can’t play like that,” Crosby comments on the track that examines life’s contradictions.  “It’s James on keyboard. So is the bass. It’s the only time I’ve ever heard anybody write singer/songwriter music with flamenco playing.”

In addition to Raymond, Agan and Tavaglione, the core musicians on the album include Jeff Pevar (guitar), British-born, Canadian-raised singer-songwriter Michelle Willis (keyboards, vocals) and Steve DiStanislao (drums). “All the people in the Sky Trails band are much younger than me, so I have to paddle faster to keep up,” Crosby says with a laugh. This was not the first time he had played with them. Between 1996 and 2004, Crosby performed with Raymond and Prevar in the jazz rock band CPR, or Crosby, Prevar & Raymond. DiStanislao and Tavaglione played on CPR albums as well.

David Crosby, who turned 78 years in August, is still going strong. His most recent studio album Here If You Listen appeared in October last year. With four of his seven solo albums having been released since 2014, it appears Crosby is on some sort of late-career surge. He also continues to tour. In fact, he’s currently on the road in the U.S., with confirmed dates until September 17. The tour schedule is here.

There is also a new documentary, David Crosby: Remember My Name. Released on July 19, the film was directed by A.J. Eaton and produced by Cameron Crowe, who has known Crosby for many years. Based on the trailer, the film looks intriguing, and I’m going to watch it on Sunday evening at a movie theater in my area.

Sources: Wikipedia, David Crosby website, YouTube