Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

With this country going through unprecedented times, it’s reassuring to see some things that don’t change, such as new music releases. This week’s Best of What’s New installment features four artists I had not heard of before. Between them, there’s a nice variety in music styles, including pop rock, southern rock-oriented country, blues rock and progressive metal. Frankly, I had not been aware of the last genre, but I suppose when it comes to blending music styles, there really aren’t any boundaries except imagination. Let’s get to it!

Babe Club/Future Talks

There’s limited information on Babe Club. This review in the Charleston City Paper, identifies the act as a songwriting duo and couple consisting of Jenna Desmond and Corey Campbell. Both are former members of SUSTO and started working together in 2018 after leaving the alternative rock band around singer-songwriter Justin Osborne, which I previously covered here. Babe Club’s profile on Bandcamp describes their music as follows: Capturing Blondie’s mid 70’s new wave era, and the 90’s alt-pop group The Cardigans- Babe Club’s sound is marked by raw guitars, textural synths, & lustrous drum beats. A clever songwriting style reminiscent of Aimee Mann, their alluring melodies are fused with powerfully evocative and existential lyrics, yielding songs that explore self-realization, honest emotions, friendship and themes of loveFuture Talks is the opener of what appears to be Babe Club’s debut EP Remember This Feeling, which came out today. More than Blondie, I can hear some Cheryl Crow in here.

Fates Warning/The Destination Onward

Fates Warning formed in Hartford, Conn. in 1982. According to Wikipedia, they are considered pioneers of progressive metal, together with Queensrÿche and Dream Theatre. The band’s founding members included John Arch (vocals), Jim Matheos (guitar), Victor Arduini (guitar), Joe DiBiase (bass) and Steve Zimmerman (drums). Fates Warning have since seen many changes, with Matheos remaining as the only original member. The current line-up also features Ray Alder (lead vocals), Joey Vera (bass) and Bobby Jarzombek (drums). Fates Warning released their debut album Night on Bröcken in September 1984. The Destination Onward is the opener to the band’s 13th studio album Long Day Good Night, released today (November 6). According to the band’s website, the album was written by Matheos in close collaboration with Alder who has been the band’s lead vocalist since 1987. While in general, it’s fair to say metal isn’t my preferred type of music, the tune’s relatively melodic vocals and sound sufficiently drew me in, so I decided to feature it here.

Brad Cox/Drinking Season

Brad Cox is a country artist from Australia. Drinking Season is a tune from his new album My Mind’s Projection, which according to Apple Music is his sophomore release. It came out today as well. Apple Music also notes Cox writes relatable, melodic tracks that balance the good and the bad, the social and the internal, the partying and the heartbreak. My Mind’s Projection has plenty of fun, boozy sing-alongs, but there are just as many tender reflections on a relationship that didn’t work out. I guess Drinking Season, a nice country rocker with a southern flair, would be an example of a boozy sing-along. “For me, the first day [of drinking season] is Christmas Eve,” Cox told Apple Music. “I used to work the harvest down in the Riverina before Christmas, and with Australia Day being 26th of January, I used to just find myself drunk for that entire time and set myself up for a hangover February.” Well, remember boys and girls, everything in moderation! 🙂

Jeremiah Johnson/Daddy’s Going Out Tonight

Let’s wrap things up with some blues rock by Jeremiah Johnson. According to his website, Born and raised in St. Louis, Jeremiah Johnson is the voice of Mississippi River blues blending with the struggles of everyday life.  He began learning guitar at age 6, drawing inspiration from his rich St. Louis blues heritage and legendary guitarists, like Alvin Lee, Eric Clapton and Hank Williams Sr. and Jr.  With these influences, Johnson began building his musical foundation. After relocating to Houston, TX, in 1999, Johnson finished in first place for three consecutive years at the Houston Regional Blues Challenges, sponsored by the Houston Blues Society.  Johnson returned to St. Louis in 2009, and merged Texas style with STL blues to create the unique sound you hear today. His debut album 9th & Russell was released in 2010 under The Jeremiah Johnson Band with the Sliders. Written by Johnson, Daddy’s Going Out Tonight is from his new album Unemployed Highly Annoyed. Released October 30, Johnson’s seventh album comes on the heels of Heavens to Betsy, which appeared in February this year.

Sources: Wikipedia; Charleston City Paper; Bandcamp; Fates Warning website; Apple Music; Jeremiah Johnson website; YouTube

Phil Ochs, Brilliant Yet Widely Obscure Troubador

What do Robert Allen Zimmerman and Philip David Ochs have in common? Both wrote brilliant protest songs in the ’60s. The difference? Robert changed his name to Bob Dylan and became one of the most famous music artists of our time. Philip chose to perform as Phil Ochs and remained largely obscure outside singer-songwriter circles.

Until recently, I had never heard of Phil Ochs myself. Then I saw somebody ranting on Facebook that Bob Dylan undeservedly gets all the credit for being this brilliant protest singer when the recognition should really go to Ochs. The truth is while both artists at some point were important protest singer-songwriters, none of them invented the genre. According to Wikipedia, the tradition of protest songs in the U.S. long predates the births of Dylan and Ochs – in fact going all the way back to the 18th century.

One of the important forerunners to the 1950s and 1960s protest singer-singwriters were the Hutchinson Family Singers, who starting from 1839 became well known for singing about social issues, such as abolition, war and women’s suffrage. And let’s not forget Woody Guthrie, who was born in 1912 and started learning folk and blues songs during his early teens. Over a 26-year-period as an active music artist, Guthrie wrote hundreds of political, folk and children’s songs. He was a major influence on numerous other songwriters who in addition to Dylan and Ochs included Johnny Cash, Pete Seeger, Harry Chapin, Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp and many other former and contemporary artists.

Hutchinson Family Singers
Hutchinson Family Singers in 1845 painting by an unkown artist

‘I get it,’ you might think, ‘but who the hell is Phil Ochs?’ Sadly, it’s a pretty rough story, and it doesn’t have a Hollywood happy ending.

Ochs was born on December 19, 1940 in El Paso, Texas. His dad Jakob “Jack” Ochs was a physician from New York, and his mom Gertrude Finn Ochs hailed from Scotland. The two met there and got married in Edinburgh where Jack was attending medical school at the time. After their wedding, they moved to the U.S. Jack joined the army as a doctor and was sent overseas close to the end of World War II. He returned as a sick man with bipolar disorder and depression.

Jack’s health conditions prevented him from establishing a successful medical practice. Instead, he ended up working at a series of hospitals around the country and frequently moving his family. As a result, Phil Ochs grew up in different places, along with an older sister (Sonia, known as Sonny) and a younger brother (Michael). His father was distant from the family, eventually got hospitalized for depression, and passed away from a brain bleeding in April 1963. Phil’s mother died in March 1994.

Phil Ochs as teen with clarinet
Phil Ochs as a teenager playing the clarinet

During his teenage years, Ochs became a talented clarinet player. Prior to the age of 16, he was principal soloist with the orchestra at the Capital University Conservatory of Music in Columbus, Ohio. Although Ochs had become an accomplished classical instrumentalist, he soon discovered the radio and started listening to the likes of Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash.

Initially, Ochs wanted to become a journalist. Well, he of sort did, combining his interest in writing about politics with music. During his journalism studies at Ohio State University, he met fellow student, activist and future folk singer Jim Glover in the fall of 1960, who introduced him to the music of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and The Weavers, and taught him how to play guitar. It wouldn’t take long before Ochs merged his interest of politics and music and started writing his own songs. He preferred to characterize himself as a topical rather than a protest singer.

Glover and Ochs started performing as a duo called The Singing Socialists and later The Sundowners but broke up before their first professional gig. Glover went to New York, while Ochs started performing professionally at a local fok club in Cleveland. In 1962, he went to the Big Apple as well and soon established himself in the Greenwich Village folk music scence. Ochs described himself as a “singing journalist,” explaining his songs were inspired by stories he saw in Newsweek. By the summer of 1963, he had developed a sufficiently high profile and was invited to perform at the Newport Folk Festival, along the likes of Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul & Mary.

Ochs’ debut album All The News That’s Fit To Sing, an allusion to The New York Times‘ slogan “All the news that’s fit to print,” appeared in 1964. Here is Ballad of William Worthy. The tune tells the story about an American journalist who traveled to Cuba despite the U.S. embargo and was forbidden to return to the U.S. Check out the brilliant lyrics of this tune – safe to assume Ochs’ words didn’t endear him to the Johnson Administration.

In 1965, Ochs’ sophomore album I Ain’t Marching Anymore came out. Here’s the excellent satirical anti-war tune Draft Dodger Rag, which quickly became an anthem of the anti-Vietnam war movement.

After Ochs’ first three albums with Electra Records had gone nowhere commercially speaking, he signed with A&M Records and in October 1967 released his fourth studio record Pleasures Of The Harbor. Unlike his first three folk music-oriented records, the album went beyond folk, featuring elements of classical, rock & roll, Dixieland and even experiental synthesized music. Apparently, the idea was to produce a folk-pop crossover. While the album included great tunes, it’s safe to say it didn’t bring Ochs commercial success. Here is Outside Of A Small Circle Of Friends, which became one of Ochs’ most popular songs. The tune was inspired by the case of a 28-old woman who was stabbed to death in front of her home in Queens, New York, while dozens of her neighbors reportedly ignored her cries for help.

Tape From California is Ochs’ fifth album. Released in July 1968 on A&M Records, it continued his shift away from straight folk-oriented protest songwriting, though he was far from abandoning topical songs. The War Is Over is a tune that was inspired by poet Allen Ginsberg who in 1966 declared the Vietnam war was over. Ochs decided to adopt the idea and organize an anti-war rally in Los Angeles, for which he wrote the song.

Phil Ochs’ final studio album came out in February 1970. Weirdly, it was called Greatest Hits, even though it was not a compilation but a collection of 10 new tracks. Most of the record was produced by Van Dyke Parks, who previously had appeared on Tape From California, contributing piano and keyboards to the title track. Greatest Hits featured an impressive array of guest artists, including Clarence White and Gene Parsons, both from The Byrds; Ry Cooder; Jim Glover; and members of Elvis Presley’s backing band, among others. The album cover was an homage to Elvis, showing Ochs in a gold lamé suit reminiscent of the outfit Elvis wore for the cover of his 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong greatest hits compilation. Here is Jim Dean Of Indiana, a tune about the actor James Dean, who like Elvis was one of Ochs’ idols.

Greatest Hits was Ochs’ final attempt to connect with average Americans, who he was convinced weren’t listening to topical songs. Disillusioned by key events of 1968, including the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the police riot in Chicago around the Democratic National Convention and the election of Richard Nixon, Ochs felt he needed to be “part Elvis Presley and part Che Guevara,” as Wikipedia puts it. Ochs supported the album with a tour, performing in the Elivs-like suit and being backed by a rock band, singing his own songs, along with tunes by Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley and Merle Haggard. But his fans weren’t sure what to make of the “new Phil Ochs.”

Pretty much from there, things went downhill for Ochs. He developed writer’s block and slipped into depression and alcoholism. He did not release any additional records. On April 9, 1976, Ochs committed suicide by hanging himself in the home of his sister Sonny. He was only 35 years old.

I’d like to conclude this post with a few quotes I found on Life of a Rebel, a blog dedicated to Ochs. “As a lyricist, there was nobody like Phil before and there has not been anybody since,” said fellow folk singer Dave Van Ronk. “He had a touch that was so distinctive that it just could not be anybody else. He had been a journalism student before he became a singer, and he would never sacrifice what he felt to be the truth for a good line.” In a note to Ochs in 1963, Pete Seeger wrote, “I wish I had one tenth your talent as a songwriter.” And what did the mighty Bob Dylan tell Broadside magazine in 1964? “I just can’t keep up with Phil. And he’s getting better and better and better.”

Sources: Wikipedia; Life of a Rebel; YouTube