Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

I can’t believe it’s October. What happened to summer? Perhaps on the upside, if time continues to race at its current pace, it also means this year will be over soon and we’re into 2021, which will hopefully bring better times. While it remains uncertain when live concerts can safely resume and some artists have delayed releasing new material, it’s great to see decent new music continues to come out.

As more frequent visitors of the blog know, my favorite music decades are the ’60s and the ’70s. As such, I’ve generally given up on what’s in the mainstream charts these days. Yet, in March this year, rather than continuing to complain about generic and soulless music populating the charts, I decided to pay more attention to new music that’s not in the charts, even if it’s not by artists I usually listen to, and to start the weekly recurring feature Best of What’s New. While finding new music I dig forces me to do some detective work, it’s been pretty rewarding, so I have every intention to continue this quest.

This brings me to the latest slate of songs. It’s a diverse set, featuring great music by an African American singer-songwriter reminiscent of a ’60s folk protest song, rich soul by a dynamite husband and wife duo, a delicious Louisiana music gumbo by a New Orleans-based singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, and folk rock by a prolific Canadian artist. Like is oftentimes the case in this series, I had not heard of any of these artists before. Let’s get to it!

Tré Burt/Under the Devil’s Knee (featuring Leyla McCalla, Allison Russell and Sunny War)

Tré Burt is a Sacramento-based singer-songwriter. According to his website, Burt was drawn to music from an early age. He was raised with his grandfather’s passion for soul music, like the Temptations, Nina Simone, Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye. A school project on Woody Guthrie opened his eyes to the power of folk songwriting. And he discovered one of his songwriting heroes, Neil Young, through his older brother, Joey. In 2018…[he] self-released his debut album, Caught It From the Rye. The album, which showcases Burt’s literary songwriting and lo-fi, rootsy aesthetic, landed him a handful tour dates and some positive press, but Burt had no idea just how far it would get him: to a spot on the roster at John Prine’s Oh Boy Records. Burt’s first work appearing on Oh Boy is the single Under the Devil’s Knee. Released on September 22, it’s a powerful tune about the senseless deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Eric Garner and the Black Lives Matter movement. To me it has a ’60s protest song vibe. It almost feels like looking at a modern day Richie Havens. Check it out!

The War and Treaty/Little Boy Blue

The War and Treaty is a husband and wife duo of Michael Trotter, Jr. and Tanya Blount. Apple Music describes their style as impassioned soul music that draws on traditional folk, country, R&B, and spirituals, often combining them all. Initially known as Trotter & Blount, they released their debut album Love Affair under that name in 2016. This was followed by the EP Down to the River in July 2017, their first music appearing as The War and Treaty. Healing Tide, the first full-fledged studio album under the current moniker, came out in August 2018. The record, which featured a guest appearance of Emmylou Harris, was well received and reached no. 11 on the Billboard Top Heatseekers Albums and no. 26 on the Independent Albums charts. Blount first became prominent in 1993, when she performed a duet with Lauryn Hill in the comedy picture Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit. The following year, she released her solo debut album Natural Thing. Little Boy Blue is a terrific soul song from Hearts Town, the second full-length album by The War and Treaty that appeared on September 25.

Ric Robertson/Louisiana Love Thing

Ric Robertson is a New Orleans-based songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, who according to his website synthesizes the full canon of American music—New Orleans jazz, classic American pop songsmiths, country, modern funk, swampy blues, and R&B to name a few—and births it into something out of this worldRobertson conjures this musical pedigree into a cohesive potion, a finely-tuned sonic concoction with just enough rock n’ roll to kill, just enough blues to keep you alive, and just enough country to make you hold on to love. It’s stirred by Robertson’s distinct voice: sweet, enticing, and contoured with the finely subtle grit of Mississippi River silt and the warmth of vintage vinyl. Robertson’s debut album The Fool, The Friend was released in June 2018. A review in The Big Takeover characterized it as “a fresh and authentic blend of swampy blues, rock and country” and called Robertson “a force to be reckoned with.” While I haven’t listened to that album yet, I agree based on Robertson’s new tune Louisiana Love Thing. It’s from his new EP Strange World that came out on September 25. That’s one delicious gumbo!

Daniel Romano/Joys Too Often Hollow

Wikipedia describes Daniel Romano (born Daniel Travis Romano in 1985) as a Canadian musician, poet and visual artist based out of his hometown of Welland, Ontario. He is primarily known as a solo artist, though he is also a member of [Canadian indie rock band] Attack in Black and has collaborated with [fellow Canadian music artists] Julie Doiron and Frederick Squire. He has also produced and performed with City and Colour, the recording project of Dallas Green [another Canadian music artist]…and is a partner in his own independent record label, You’ve Changed Records. Romano is a prolific artist. His solo debut Workin’ for the Music Man appeared in 2010. He has since released 11 additional solo records, nine collaboration albums and two EPs. An incredible 10 of these releases all appeared this year, including How Ill Thy World Is Ordered, his fourth 2020 album with his backing band Outfit. Here’s Joys Too Often Hollow, a nice folk rocker from that album released on September 18.

Sources: Wikipedia; Tré Burt website; Apple Music; Ric Robertson website; The Big Takeover; YouTube

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

I suppose by now folks who frequently check out my blog won’t be surprised that another Friday brings another installment of Best of What’s New. For first-time visitors, the weekly recurring feature highlights new music I dig, which was released over the past two to three months. Since most of my blog focuses on the ’60s and ’70s, I try to include as many young artists in these posts as I can find. In most cases, it ends up being a mix of young and established acts.

This week’s batch includes a nice solo debut by a young female African-American artist you may know as the drummer of a great band from Memphis, as well as songs by my favorite German-singing rock band, one of “Nova Scotia’s busiest singer-songwriters” and somebody you may still remember from the ’80s, though he was performing under a different name back then. Let’s get cooking!

Tikyra Jackson/No More Fear

If you follow my blog, chances are you’ve seen some of my posts about Southern Avenue, a great band from Memphis, Tenn., blending traditional blues and soul with elements of contemporary R&B. Tikyra Jackson is the band’s drummer and backing vocalist. It turns out she’s also a pretty talented multi-instrumentalist who just released her solo debut single No More Fear on August 12. Apparently, the effort was driven by Jackson’s reflections on the recent murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Southern Avenue’s current pause from touring due to COVID-19. “I have a responsibility as a young, African-American and also as a woman to use my voice and platform to amplify the message that we are not going to tolerate inequality,” Jackson told American Songwriter. “I had a moment to breathe and be with myself,” she added. “Before Quarantine, it was just the road. But to be able to take a break and feel my emotions and cry has been a beautiful thing.” No word yet whether Jackon’s ultimate ambitions are an entire album. For now, here’s her funky debut single.

Niedeckens BAP/Volle Kraft voraus

Volle Kraft voraus (full steam ahead) is the fourth and latest upfront single from Alles Fliesst (everything is groovy), the new album by German rock band Niedeckens BAP’s, scheduled for September 18. Since about 1980, the group from Cologne around singer-songwriter Wolfgang Niedecken, founded in 1976 and for many years simply known as BAP, has been my favorite band singing in German. More specifically, they perform their songs in Kölsch, the regional dialect spoken in the area of Cologne. Not surprisingly, I’ve covered them here and on various other previous occasions. Released August 13, Volle Kraft voraus was written by the band’s guitarist Ulrich Rode with lyrics by Niedecken. The tune could work as a picker upper that’s badly needed in these corona times, writes Niedecken on the band’s website: “Try to remember what happiness feels like!” No nostalgia but more something like self-therapy.

Guy Paul Thibault/Shipwrecked

According to his website, Guy Paul Thibault is one of Nova Scotia’s busiest singer songwriters. He is loved by audiences for his marathon shows, his stories and his knowledge of the history behind the songs he performs. He performs both his originals and fan favourites from every genre and era…Guy Paul is proud to be able to write, record, mix, master and produce all his music from his hometown of Cole Harbour Nova Scotia. His album “The Road Between” was awarded International Album of the Year 2019 from the International Singer Songwriters Association (ISSA)…Guy Paul has continued his busy pace as a recording songwriter, releasing a continuous stream of singles and new songs in 2020. His most recent one is Shipwrecked, a nice ballad that came out on July 15.

Sananda Maitreya/The MadHouse

When I listened to The MadHouse for the first time earlier today, I immediately thought the voice of Sananda Maitreya sounds very similar to Terence Trent D’Arby whose 1987 debut album Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby was a huge success in Germany and many other countries. That’s because Maitreya and D’Arby are one and the same person! Following his successful debut, D’Arby released three additional records that each performed poorer than their predecessor. By time his fifth album appeared in 2001, he had changed his stage name to Sananda Maitreya, though the record appeared under the name Terence Trent D’Arby/Sananda Maitreya – probably a deliberate transition move. Since 2005, all of his albums have been released under the name Sananda Maitreya. “Terence Trent D’Arby was dead,” Maitreya explained to The New Yorker in June 2013. “He watched his suffering as he died a noble death. After intense pain I meditated for a new spirit, a new will, a new identity.” This new identity continues to this day and his latest single The MadHouse, which came out on July 3. Frankly, D’Arby had completely fallen off my radar screen many moons ago, and I’ve no idea about any of his music he released between his debut and this latest song. But I know one thing: Maitreya’s voice still sounds pretty soulful and that tune’s got a nice funky groove!

Sources: Wikipedia; American Songwriter; BAP website; Guy Paul Thibault website; The New Yorker; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: Paul McCartney/Tug of War

As a huge fan of The Beatles and Paul McCartney, I was really excited when Tug of War was released in April 1982. Catching Take It Away on the radio yesterday prompted me to revisit McCartney’s third solo album, which I had not listened to for many years. It turned out I still dig it, though not for the primary reason that initially attracted me back then: Ebony and Ivory, a smash hit in Germany, as well as many other countries.

While McCartney’s duet with Stevie Wonder isn’t a bad tune, I think it’s fair to say both artists have written better songs. One also must remember the ’80s were a time period when high profile duets were very much en vogue. I still like the ballad’s message, as well as the idea to use the black and white keys on a keyboard as a metaphor for perfect harmony – sadly a state of affairs that nowadays seems to be more elusive than ever.

No matter how you feel about it, Ebony and Ivory was the big hit single from Tug of War, which came out about a month prior to the album. I have to say I wasn’t particular impressed with McCartney II and that record’s hit single Coming Up, even though both had impressive chart success as well. I thought Tug of War was a far superior album. I think I still do but like to caveat the statement by adding that I haven’t listened to McCartney II in a long time.

Tug of War was McCartney’s first album after the breakup of Wings. It also was his first record following the murder of John Lennon on December 8, 1980, which not only impacted the record’s timing but also its content. Initially, McCartney’s plan was to make another album with Wings, but then things changed.

While apparently he had grown weary about continuing his band, McCartney started rehearsing songs with them in October 1980. He brought in George Martin as producer, but they both felt McCartney’s latest compositions weren’t a good fit for Wings and decided to pursue a record without the band.

The project was paused for two months after Lennon had been killed. In February 1981, work on the album resumed. Between February 3rd and March 2nd, recording sessions took place in the Caribbean at AIR Studios in Montserrat, which included Wonder, bassist Stanley Clarke, Carl Perkins and Ringo Starr.

During Tug of War recording sessions at AIR Studios in Montserrat: Paul McCartney with Ringo Starr and I believe Eric Stewart.

Additional sessions at Martin’s AIR Studios in London followed over the summer. They also yielded songs McCartney would use for Pipes of Peace, the follow on to Tug of War from October 1983. Apparently, McCartney and Martin weren’t in a huge hurry and used the remainder of 1981 to put the finishing touches on the record. Time for some music!

I’d like to kick things off with the above noted Take It Away. Like all other tracks on the album except for one tune, it was written by McCartney. In June 1982, Take It Away also was released separately as Tug of War’s second single. While it charted in many countries, including the UK and the U.S. where it climbed to no. 15 and 10, respectively, the power pop tune didn’t match the success of Ebony and Ivory. It features Ringo Starr on drums, George Martin on piano and 10cc’s Eric Stewart on backing vocals. Take it away, boys!

In addition to Ebony and Ivory, Tug of War included a second duet with Stevie Wonder: What’s That You’re Doing. Apart from providing vocals, Wonder also co-wrote the funky tune with McCartney. In fact, to me it sounds more like a Stevie Wonder song. Stewart made another appearance on backing vocals.

Here Today is a moving tribute to John Lennon, which can still make me emotional. It may not be quite as compelling as Elton John’s Empty Garden, but I still find it beautiful. When I saw McCartney live last time in July 2016, he performed the tune solo with just his acoustic guitar – a quite powerful moment!

Next up: Ballroom Dancing, a nice pop rocker. Guests on this tune include Starr (drums), Stewart (backing vocals) and former Wings band mate Denny Laine (electric guitar).

The last track I’d like to call out is McCartney’s great duet with Carl Perkins, Get It. I love the tune’s rockabilly retro vibe and Perkins’s electric guitar work, which he provided in addition to vocals. You can also literally feel the fun they had when recording the track, and it’s not only because of Perkins’ laughter at the end.

The final words of this post shall belong to Paul McCartney. “I think, you know, with my songs, I have my own approach,” he told Andy Mackay in an in-depth interview about the album in August 1982, which is transcribed on fan website The Paul McCartney Project. “I’ll tell you the way I see it: the thing I like about my stuff, when I like it, is that the listener can take it the wrong way, it may apply to them, you know.”

Sources: Wikipedia; The Paul McCartney Project; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: Sheila E./Iconic: Message 4 America

Last week, I watched Ringo Starr’s Big Birthday Party and thought the highlight of the one-hour virtual event was Sheila E. and her sizzling performance of Come TogetherRevolution. It turned out E. had previously recorded the medley for her most recent eighth studio album Iconic: Message 4 America released in August 2017. A couple of nights ago, I found myself listening to this covers album and liked what I heard – a lot!

For E.’s background, I’m borrowing from a previous August 2017 post about my favorite drummers. Born Sheila Escovedo, E. was influenced and inspired by her musical family. Since the late 60s, her Mexican-American father Pete Escovedo, a percussionist, was influential in the Latin music scene, touring with Santana from 1967 to 1970. Her uncles were musicians as well, and her godfather was none other than Tito Puente.

At the age of 5, E. gave her first live performance. By her early 20s, she had already played with the likes of George DukeMarvin Gaye and Herbie Hancock. In 1978, she met Prince who became an important mentor and with whom she worked various times. In 1984, E. started a solo career. She also worked with many other artists, including Ringo Starr, performing with his All-Starr Band in 2001, 2003 and 2006.

As reported by Rolling Stone, it was Donald Trump’s denunciation of Mexicans as “murderers and rapists” during his official campaign launch announcement in 2015, along with the death of Prince in April 2016, which prompted E. to record Iconic, an album featuring remakes of social justice anthems. In addition to selecting songs by the likes of Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder and James Brown, E. got help from multiple guests, most notably Starr and Freddie Stone, co-founder, guitarist and vocalist of Sly and the Family Stone. Her father and two other family members were among the other guests.

“So for the Iconic project, you know, the state that the country is in… I’m doing these songs based on the lyrical content, which, when I grew up in the ’60s and the ’70s, these songs were pretty amazing,” E. told Billboard. “They’re relevant. So I wanted to do “Come Together,” The Beatles song with Ringo Starr, which we did, and the only one that wasn’t written [that long] ago was “America.” But it means something…So it was just important to what’s happening in our country.” America is a tune about the state of the U.S. during the Reagan Administration, which Prince had written for his 1985 studio album Around the World in a Day.

Let’s get to some music. Since I previously featured Come TogetherRevolution here, I’m skipping it and go directly to Everyday People. Written by Sly Stone, the tune was originally released as a single by Sly and the Family Stone in November 1968. It was also included on the band’s fourth studio album Stand! from May 1969. As noted above, Freddie Stone joins E. on vocals. He also plays guitar.

Inner City BluesTrouble Man is a cool medley of two songs Marvin Gaye performed. Inner City Blues, co-written by Gaye and James Nyx, Jr., appeared on What’s Going On, Gaye’s 11th studio album from May 1971. Trouble Man is the title track of Gaye’s follow-on studio record that came out in December 1972. It was written by him. On the album’s recording, E. is joined on vocals by saxophonist Eddie Mininfield.

With so many great covers on Iconic, it’s hard to select which ones to call out. One of the funkiest undoubtedly is the James Brown Medley, which melds together five tunes: Talkin’ Loud And Sayin’ Nothing, co-written by Brown and Bobby Bird (There It Is, June 1972); Mama Don’t Take No Mess, co-written by Brown, John Starks and Fred Wesley (Hell, June 1974); Soul Power, written by Brown (single, March 1971); Get Involved, co-written by Brown, Bird and Ron Lenhoff (Revolution of the Mind: Live at the Apollo, Volume III, December 1971); and Super Bad, written by Brown (Super Bad, 1971). For this recording, E. is joined by Bootsy Collins on vocals, who also provides bass and guitar. Collins played with Brown in the early ’70s and later with Parliament-Funkadelic. Let’s hit it!

Next up: A beautiful version of Blackbird. Per Songfacts, Paul McCartney wrote the song about the civil rights struggle for African Americans after he had read the U.S. federal courts had forced racial desegregation in the school system of Little Rock, Ark. Blackbird was first recorded for The White Album that appeared in November 1968. E.’s rendition transforms the acoustic guitar tune to a mellow piano-driven ballad. The lovely cello part is played by studio musician Jodi Burnett.

The last tune I’d like to call out is the Curtis Mayfield classic Pusherman. It appeared on Mayfield’s third solo album Super Fly from July 1972. The great guitar part on E.’s version is played by Mychael Gabriel, a musician, songwriter, performer, audio engineer, mixer, producer, who began his career as a 16-year-old, doing record engineering for E.

Iconic: Message 4 America may “only” be a covers album, but I think the excellent song selection and E.’s renditions make listening to it worthwhile.

Sources: Wikipedia; Rolling Stone; Billboard; Songfacts; Discogs; YouTube

Ural Thomas May be the Greatest Soul Artist You Didn’t Know

This is just an incredible story I wanted to share right away. Until earlier today, I had never heard of Ural Thomas. It’s safe to assume many other fans of soul music are in the same boat. Then I caught a performance of the now 80-plus-year-old Thomas with his band called The Pain at the 2019 Waterfront Blues Festival in Portland, Ore. that was streamed earlier today on local listener-funded radio station KBOO-FM. And I can assure you, it was everything else but painful!

Before we get to some sweet soul music, here’s some background on Thomas from his website. Obviously written a few years ago, this text captures the story better than I could ever do, especially given than other than this website, there appears to be little publicly available information on Thomas out there. Therefore, I decided to do something I rarely do: Copy and paste, except for the images.

If life was at all fair Ural Thomas would be a household name, his music slotted into countless sweet, seductive mixtapes between James Brown, Otis Redding, and Stevie Wonder (all of whom Thomas has performed with.) Straddling the line between hot soul shouter and velvety-smooth crooner, Thomas released a few singles in the late 60’s and early 70’s; most notably “Can You Dig It”, which featured backing vocals from soul luminaries Merry Clayton, Mary Wells and Brenda Holloway. Thomas played over forty shows at the legendary Apollo Theater before turning his back on an unkind business and heading home to Portland, OR.

It goes without saying that a man practically built out of rhythm would never stop playing music. Thomas began hosting a regular Sunday night jam session at his home that ran for nearly twenty years. A de facto mentor to many of the younger players, Thomas reminds us all that “If you care about what you’re doing, you need to build those muscles and do the work. Don’t get discouraged, do it for love. Even if you’re digging ditches, do it with passion.”

In 2014, local soul DJ Scott Magee sat in on drums. The two became fast friends and at Magee’s urging Thomas decided to give his musical career another shot. Magee became the musical director, they put together a band, and in 2016 released a self-titled album on Mississippi Records.

In 2017 Thomas signed with Tender Loving Empire and began work on what, in many respects, will be his debut full length. Diving deep into lifetime of melodic creativity, Thomas and his band got to work. Recorded in Magee’s studio Arthur’s Attic, The Right Time features the air-tight work of Magee on drums, percussion, and backing vocals, Bruce Withycombe (The Decemberists) on baritone sax, Portland jazz scene fixture Brent Martens on guitars and vibraphone, Arcellus Sykes on bass, Steve Aman (Lady Rizo) on piano and organ, Dave Monnie on trumpet, Willie Matheis (Cherry Poppin’ Daddies) on tenor sax, and Jasine Rimmel, Joy Pearson, Sarah King, Rebecca Marie Miller on backing vocals. The Arco Quartet performed the strings, and the record was engineered and mixed by Jeff Stuart Saltzman (Blitzen Trapper) and mastered by JJ Golden (Sharon Jones, Ty Segall).  

One might think after a sizeable taste of early success Thomas would be more than a touch bitter – yet the opposite is true. “We have to be positive if we want the world to get better” Thomas advises. “We’ve come a long way, but if you carry a grudge with the whole world you’ll stop your growth. We’re a family, all just brothers and sisters, descendants of Adam. You can’t get anywhere without an open heart.”

A developing artist at nearly eighty years old, for Thomas music has always been about bringing people together. “If we play for twenty people we cook it like it’s twenty thousand” says Thomas. “If we make someone smile we’re satisfied. They’re ain’t no difference between us. It’s all love and brotherhood. If folks listen to my record and feel that I’ll feel very blessed.”

Standing in bold defiance of the idea that aging is a reason to slow down and stop living, for Thomas the right time to get down is the next time someone plugs in a guitar or puts on a record. Ural is ready – are you?

Well, that’s a perfect segue into some music. Let’s kick it off with the above noted Can You Dig It? Co-written by Russ Regan and producer Jerry Goldstein, Thomas released this funky soul tune in 1967. And, yes, I sure as heck dig it!

Following are a few tracks from the above noted debut album by Ural Thomas and The Pain. It’s titled The Right Time and appeared in 2018. Here’s No Distance (Between You and Me).

Next up: Smoldering Fire. Oh, man, I just love this tune! How come pretty much nobody knows about it? It’s just incredible!

Here’s the album’s funky title track!

Let’s do one more tune from this great album: Show Ya.

I’ll leave you with one more song I found on YouTube: A 2015 live performance of a tune called Deep Soul. Holy moly. It’s a got a dose of a James Brown vibe!

As for the 2019 Waterfront Blues Festival, it’s still streaming today and tomorrow at https://kboo.fm/media/81471-blues-fest-air. I’m currently listening to Southern Avenue, a great band from Memphis, Tenn. I’ve covered on numerous previous occasions. Coming up later today:  Christone ‘Kingfish’ Ingram and Bettye Lavette with Texas Horns, among others. Tomorrow’s line-up looks great as well!

Sources: Ural Thomas website; Discogs; YouTube

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

I can’t believe this already is the 15th weekly post in a row in my recurring feature about newly/recently released music. Frankly, I did not expect that when I started the endeavor 15 weeks ago! This installment includes three singer-songwriters, a jazz funk outfit and a rock & roll band. I had not heard of any of these artists before and surely plan to further explore their music. Let’s get to it!

Sarah Jarosz/Johnny

Sarah Jarosz is a 29-year-old singer-songwriter hailing from Austin, Texas. Wikipedia characterizes her music as Americana, country folk and bluegrass. Jarosz who is of Polish ancestry learned how to the play the mandolin as a 10-year-old and later added guitar, claw-hammer banjo and octave mandolin. While still being a senior in high school, she signed with Sugar Hill Records and released her debut album Song Up in Her Head in June 2009. Written by Jarosz, Johnny is a great tune from her new album World on the Ground, her fifth studio release that appeared on June 5. The record was produced by John Leventhal, who has also worked in that capacity with an impressive array of other artists, such as Michelle Branch, Shawn Colvin and Joan Osborne. I hear some Sheryl Crow in here.

Tim Burgess/Empathy For the Devil

While Tim Burgess has been active since 1989 and apparently is best known as the lead vocalist of alternative rock band The Charlatans, I had not heard of the English musician, singer-songwriter and record label owner before. I generally don’t listen a lot to alternative rock, which at least in part may explain my ignorance. After recording seven albums with The Charlatans, Burgess launched a solo career in parallel and came out with his debut I Believe in September 2003. Empathy For the Devil, which Burgess wrote, is a track from his fifth solo album I Love the New Sky that was released on May 22. There’s just something about this tune that attracted me right away. Check it out.

Jess Williamson/Infinite Scroll

According to her website, Jess Williamson is a Los Angeles based singer-songwriter who makes deeply felt songs that orbit around her powerful voice, a voice that’s strong and vulnerable, big room flawless, quietly ecstatic, and next-to-you intimate...Williamson grew up in the suburbs of Dallas. An only child, she was raised by music-loving parents on a healthy diet of Bonnie Raitt, Van Morrison, and K.T. Oslin…In her last year of school [at the University of Texas where she was a photography major], following an impulse after seeing Austin’s Ralph White play the banjo at a house show in her friends’ basement, Williamson took up banjo lessons at South Austin Music, and soon after was writing songs and making home recordings. In 2011, the young artist self-released her debut EP Medicine Wheel/Death Songs. Following her relocation to L.A. in 2016, Williamson started work on what would become her first album released with a record label: The 2018 Cosmic Wink. Infinite Scroll is a song she wrote for her latest album Sorceress that came out on May 15. Here’s the official video.

Lettuce/Blaze

Lettuce is something I generally like as a side to a steak or other piece of meat or fish. It also happens to be the name of an American jazz and funk band initially formed in Boston in the summer of 1992 when all of its founding members attended Berklee College of Music as teenagers. It was a short-lived venture that lasted just this one summer, but the members reunited in 1994 when all them had become undergraduate students at Berklee. In 2002, their debut album Outta There appeared. And ever since the band has been, well, out there! Blaze is the opener of their new studio album Resonate that was released on May 8, their seventh studio record. Today, Lettuce are a six-piece, with four of their members remaining from the original lineup. Ready for some cool groove? Wait a moment, no vocals? Jeez, indeed! I don’t know who specifically wrote the track but I just dig when they play that funky music!

Low Cut Connie/Private Lives

“If an alien landed and asked what rock ‘n’ roll is, you could start here.” This is what Low Cut Connie confidently proclaim on their Facebook page. Wikipedia apparently agrees, describing them as an American rock & roll band based in Philadelphia. And I love rock & roll, so put another dime in the jukebox, baby, to creatively borrow from rock dynamo Joan Jett! Low Cut Connie were formed in 2010. I’m afraid I hadn’t noticed! They self-released their debut album Get Out the Lotion in 2011. After their sophomore, another self-release, the band got a deal with Contender Records that issued their first label release in 2015. Private Lives is a single and the title track of Connie’s forthcoming double LP, which is scheduled for October 13. The cool rocker was written by frontman, pianist and songwriter Adam Weiner, who appears to be the band’s driving force. While it’s the only song I currently know, Low Cut Connie sound very promising to me. Here’s the official video.

Sources: Wikipedia; Jess Williamson website; Lettuce Facebook page; YouTube

Clips & Pix: Southern Avenue/80 Miles From Memphis

Prompted by a clip of Southern Avenue on Facebook, I spontaneously decided to do another post on 80 Miles From Memphis. I’ve dug this band and this song since I listened to their eponymous debut album about three years ago, which was released on the re-activated Stax Records label.

Southern Avenue from Memphis, Tenn. blend elements of traditional blues and Stax-style soul with contemporary R&B. The band’s first album and this tune have a more traditional sound, while their sophomore release Keep On from May 2019 is more funk and R&B-oriented. I can highly recommend both records!

80 Miles From Memphis was written by the band’s guitarist Ori Naftaly, who originally is a blues guitarist from Israel. In 2015, he decided to relocate to Memphis where he formed Southern Avenue with vocalist Tierinii Jackson and her sister Tikyra Jackson (drums, backing vocals). You can read more about the band’s remarkable background story and a great concert I attended in New York in August 2018 here.

I saw Southern Avenue a second time in Asbury Park, N.J. in July 2019 and posted about it here. Both gigs proved the band is a strong live act. I’m definitely planning to see them again when the opportunity arises and the time is right.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: Stevie Wonder/Innervisions

“Innervisions gives my own perspective of what’s happening in my world, to my people, to all people. That’s why it took me seven months to get together – I did all the lyrics – and that’s why I think it is my most personal album. I don’t care if it only sells five copies – this is the way I feel.” (Stevie Wonder, The New York Times, July 20, 1973)

On May 13, Stevie Wonder turned 70 years old. Yesterday, I came across his moving acceptance speech at the 1989 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Both of these events prompted me to post about one of my longtime favorite artists. Instead of a playlist, which I’m sure I’m going to do at some point, I decided to write about Innervisions. This album from August 1973 may well be Wonder’s equivalent to Carole King’s Tapestry or Steely Dan’s Aja, i.e., a career-defining true masterpiece.

Stevie Wonder at Madison Square Garden in March 1974

The comment from Wonder in the lead paragraph appeared in a New York Times story that reported about an interesting PR tactic to create some buzz among journalists two weeks ahead of the album’s official release. A group of blindfolded journalists boarded a bus in New York City’s Times Square and was brought to a nearby recording study. Upon arrival, each member – still blindfolded – was assigned an individual guide, allowed to taste various foods, touch various musical instruments and dance to the music of Innervisions, which was playing in the background.

And, yes, Wonder was there as well. Though he was delayed coming in from Texas, but thanks to a police escort from the airport, he just made it in time to receive the group of journalists at the studio for this unusual album preview listening party. “The idea of the blindfolds was to try to give people an idea of what’s happening in my mind,” Wonder explained. “When you look at something, your hearing is distracted by your eye.” While doubt the temporary blindfolds allowed the participants to enter the mind of a musical genius, Wonder and his PR folks certainly deserve credit for coming up with a creative tactic.

Which brings me to Innervisions, Wonder’s 16th studio album. Rightfully, it’s widely considered to be a landmark. According to Wikipedia, it made Wonder “the first artist to experiment with the ARP synthesizer on a large scale”, adding this had a huge impact on the future of commercial black music. Based on this apparently well researched post by The Music Aficionado, it sounds like it would be more accurate to describe Wonder as one of a number of artists who were experimenting with ARP synthesizers in the early ’70s. But I don’t think this context diminishes the significance of the record!

Innervisions also marked an important step in Wonder’s transition away from primarily romantic tunes to musically and lyrically more mature songs. Arguably, that journey began with Music of My Mind, Wonder’s 14th studio album released in March 1972, which some consider the first record of his “classic period” that culminated in Songs in the Key of Life from September 1976.

Stevie Wonder in 1973

Innervisions tackles a broad range of issues, including drugs, racism and religion, and only includes three love songs. In fact, there’s a quote from Wonder I read somewhere and now can no longer find (I hate when that happens!), where he essentially said people no longer want to hear love songs. Looking at this comment today, I think it’s important to keep in mind the context of 1973 America, a country that was struggling with racism, poverty, and a rampant drug epidemic, not to mention a crook in the White House – sound familiar?

Okay, time to get to some music. Let’s kick it off with the album’s opener Too High. Like all of the other eight tracks, the tune was written, arranged and produced by Wonder. It’s also one of four songs, on which he played all instruments, in this case a Fender Rhodes electric piano, harmonica, drums and Moog (synthesizer) bass. I’m too high/I’m too high/I can’t ever touch the sky/ I’m too high/I’m so high/I feel like I’m about to die, Wonder sings, leaving no doubt this ain’t some romantic ballad. BTW, just to be clear, I’m with Paul McCartney here: Nothing wrong with a silly love song!

Next up is what to me is the stand-out track on the album: Living for the City, the cinematic tale of a poor young African American man from Mississippi who innocently ends up in a rotten jail in New York City just after he had arrived to what he had thought would be his big city dream. The tune was also released separately as a single in November 1973, reaching no. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 and topping what was then called the Hot Soul Singles chart (now known as Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs). Songfacts quotes Wonder: “I think the deepest I really got into how I feel about the way things are was in ‘Living For The City.’ I was able to show the hurt and the anger. You still have that same mother that scrubs the floors for many, she’s still doing it. Now what is that about? And that father who works some days for 14 hours. That’s still happening.”

Higher Ground is the first track on the (vinyl) album’s B-side. According to a track-by-track review in Billboard, it’s a call to action (maybe the grooviest ever?), where he encourages people to “keep on learnin’,” outs politicians that talk while their “people keep on dyin’,” and those doing nothing to “stop sleepin’.” Adds Songfacts: Guided by a mix of Christian morality and astrological mysticism, Wonder believed he was writing a “special song” whose lyrics suggested a coming day of judgment. “I did the whole thing in three hours” he told Q magazine. It was almost as if I had to get it done. I felt something was going to happen. I didn’t know what or when, but I felt something.” One thing’s for sure: That song, which also became the album’s lead single in July 1973, grooves like hell! Evidently, people noticed. The tune climbed to no. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was another chart-topper on the Hot Soul Singles.

One of the “lighter” tunes is Don’t You Worry ’bout a Thing, which has an upbeat Latin vibe. According to Songfacts, Stevie Wonder encourages his lady to be fearless in exploring all life has to offer because he’ll always be by her side. Although he claims to speak fluent Spanish in the intro, saying “Todo está bien chévere” (“Everything’s really great” or “Everything’s cool”), Wonder didn’t really know the language…The Spanish lyric was inspired by a Puerto Rican woman that Wonder met in a record store. He recalled: “I remember the night I was going to do this song. And I just so happened to meet this girl named Rain. And she was beautiful. And she worked at this record shop – this record store. And I’m like saying to her, hey, you know, it’s amazing. You know, she sings. You know, she’s Puerto Rican. I say, yeah, OK, well, you know, I’m doing a little thing and like a little something called ‘Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing.’ What can I – I mean, give me something, something. I’ll let you come to the studio if you have anything to say. I’ll say some things, and it will be a wonderful day. And she said, ‘todo esta bien chevere.’ And that’s how I got that in a song. And, you know, we fell in love, and it was a beautiful thing.”

The final tune I’d like to highlight is the album’s closer He’s Misstra Know-It-All. He’s a man/With a plan/Got a counterfeit dollar in his hand/He’s Misstra Know-It-All, Wonder sings. Playing hard/Talking fast/Making sure that he won’t be the last/He’s Misstra Know-It-All, he carries on. Makes a deal/With a smile/Knowing all the time that his lie’s a mile/He’s Misstra Know-It-All…The above Billboard review calls the song “a cautionary tale about a hustler.” According to Wikipedia, It has been alleged has been alleged that this is a reference to United States’ President Richard Nixon. Considering the album’s context and other songs, this looks like a safe bet to me.

Three days after the release of Innervisions, Wonder was involved in a bad car accident that nearly killed him when he was hit by a log into his forehead. He was hospitalized with a severe brain contusion that caused him to be in a coma for four days. It took Wonder more than a year to completely recover from his injuries. Kind of creepy, especially if you consider his above quote about Higher Ground.

And, yes, Innervisions sold more than five copies. While I didn’t come across specific sales figures in the U.S. and elsewhere, the album reached Gold status in Canada and the U.K. It peaked at no. 4 on the Billboard 200 and hit no. 1 on the Top R&B Albums chart, which since 1999 has been called Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums. At the 1974 Grammy Awards, the record won Album of the Year and Best Engineered Non-Classical Recording. Living for the City captured Best R&B Song. Innervisions is ranked at no. 24 on the 2012 edition of Rolling Stone’s list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

Sources: Wikipedia; The New York Times; The Music Aficionado; Songfacts; YouTube

On This Day in Rock & Roll History: April 12

For those of you who celebrate, Happy Easter, and I hope everybody is doing well! I decided to do another installment of my long-running music history feature, which hit 50 with the previous post. It turns out April 12 was a pretty eventful date, so let’s get to it.

1968: Pink Floyd released their fourth single in the UK, It Would Be So Nice. The tune, which was written by keyboarder Richard Wright, had a rather uplifting, almost pop-like sound unlike many other Floyd songs at the time. It was the band’s first release after the exit of Syd Barrett. Idiotically, the BBC is said to have banned the initial version of the song due to a passing reference of the London newspaper The Evening Standard, which violated their strict no-advertising policy. Apparently, this prompted the band to record an alternate, BBC friendly version. It didn’t help from a popularity perspective, and the song failed to chart in the UK or elsewhere. Apparently, Roger Waters and Nick Mason didn’t like the tune either. Waters called it a “lousy record.” Mason was even more outspoken: “Fucking awful, that record, wasn’t it? At that period we had no direction. We were being hustled about to make hit singles.” Ouch!

1973: The American children’s TV series Sesame Street has seen many celebrities over its 50-plus-year history. One of the coolest and funkiest guests ever must have been Stevie Wonder who appeared on the program 47 years ago. Then 23 years old, Wonder performed Superstition, the lead single from his latest album at the time Talking Book. I always loved that funky tune. Check out the apparent joy Wonder got out of this and his kickass backing band – priceless!

1976: Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band released the excellent live album Live Bullet. The material came from a 1975 gig at Cobo Hall in Detroit. Interestingly, Seger was still a largely regional act at the time. This would change with the band’s next studio album Night Moves that came out in October of the same year and finally put them on the map nationally. Over the years, tracks from Live Bullet became staples on rock radio. Undoubtedly, the best known is the road tale Turn the Page, which was written by Seger. Check out the official video I came across on YouTube. Love that tune!

1976: That evening, Paul McCartney with his wife Linda visited John Lennon at his apartment in the Dakota. Lennon was watching the late-night NBC comedy show Saturday Night, the predecessor to Saturday Night Live. During this particular episode, co-creator and producer Lorne Michaels invited The Beatles to reunite on the show for the deliberately measly offer of $3,000 (approximately the equivalent of $13,900 today). Michaels had no idea Lennon and McCartney were watching the whole thing – and actually considered showing up at the show’s studio that night just for fun. The Beatles Bible quotes Lennon from his final major interview he gave to book author David Sheff in 1980: “Paul and I were together watching that show. He was visiting us at our place in the Dakota. We were watching it and almost went down to the studio, just as a gag. We nearly got into a cab, but we were actually too tired.” Now, that would have been something!

1983: R.E.M. released their debut album Murmur. Shockingly, the music critics got it right for once and gave it a warm reception. It also peaked at no. 36 on the Billboard 200, not shabby for a debut. A re-recorded version of Radio Free Europe appeared separately as a single and reached no. 78 on the Billboard Hot 100. In spite of the critical acclaim, Murmur only sold approximately 200,000 copies by the end of the year, which back then wasn’t considered special – wow, how the times have changed! Eventually, the album reached Gold certification (500,000 units sold) in 1991. Peter Buck’s jangly Rickenbacker guitar sound, Mike Mills’ melodic basslines and Michael Stipes’ vocals are right up my alley. Here’s Radio Free Europe. Like all other songs except for one, the tune was credited to all four members of the band, which in addition to Buck, Mills and Stipes also included drummer Bill Berry.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfact Music History Calendar; Ultimate Classic Rock; The Beatles Bible; YouTube

L.A. Funk Rock Band Cohort Releases Eponymous Studio Album

With Cohort being the second contemporary band I “discovered” in one day, it starts to feel a bit like I’m on a roll with stepping out of my ’60s and ’70s zone. At this time, it’s mostly some music from their new eponymous album I can offer, since there hardly seems to be any public information on this funk-oriented rock band. Cohort don’t even have a Facebook page, which I find somewhat puzzling. The following insights are based on Soundcloud and this YouTube clip.

Weirdly, just like my previous discovery Dustbowl Revival, Cohort hail from Venice, Los Angeles. What’s up with that? This beachfront neighborhood seems to be a hotbed for music! Cohort’s members include Tula Jussen (guitar, vocals), Josh Lipp (guitar), Miles Tobel (keyboards, saxophone), Jack Ross (bass) and Emilio Anamos (drums). They all seem to be quite young. The above YouTube clip, which was posted in July 2017, introduced them as a “teenage rock band.” But here’s the thing. No matter their age, they sound pretty mature on what seems to be their first full-fledged album.

Check out the following clips. Let’s kick things off with the funky opener Et, which features nice bass, guitar and sax work. This doesn’t exactly sound like some high school band!

Here’s another cool groovy tune: Oddball. Certainly nothing odd about this song.

Okay, do I have your attention? How about a softer tune? It still has a funky sound. Here’s Waiting (Return of the Relaxation).

Let’s do one more track. Here’s the nice closer Santa Ana. It’s another tune with a great groove. I also like the sax intro. Overall, I can hear a bit of a Santana vibe in here, especially if you imagine some congas and other percussion.

What else can I tell you about Cohort? In the above video, Jussen said, “We take a lot of influence from everywhere, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix.” That’s perhaps more obvious for the music they play in the clip than the tracks on this album.  I think this talented young band is on a promising path!

Sources: Soundcloud; YouTube