The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random songs at a time

Welcome to another installment of The Sunday Six. To those who follow my blog I no longer need to explain the idea behind the weekly recurring feature. For first time visitors, basically, these posts celebrate music in many different flavors from different periods of time, spanning the past 60 to 70 years or so. Ready?

Fleetwood Mac/Albatross

Let’s start off our little musical excursion with one of the most beautiful guitar-driven instrumentals I know: Albatross by Fleetwood Mac. This track goes all the way back to the Mac’s beginning when they were a blues rock band led by amazing British guitarist, vocalist and co-founder Peter Green who also wrote Albatross. At the time this dreamy track was released as a non-album single in November 1968, Fleetwood Mac also featured co-founders Jeremy Spencer (guitar, backing vocals), Mick Fleetwood (drums) and John McVie (bass), as well as Danny Kirwan (guitar, vocals) who had just joined two months earlier. In fact, it was Kirwan who helped Green complete Albatross, which was recorded without Spencer. The tune was subsequently included on the U.S. and British compilation albums English Rose (January 1969) and The Pious Bird of Good Omen (August 1969), respectively. Green’s guitar tone is just unbelievable.

Supertramp/Take the Long Way Home

The other day, I found myself listening to Breakfast in America, the sixth studio album by English prog-rock-turned-pop band Supertramp. I got it on vinyl shortly after its release in March 1979 and own that copy to this day. While I played the record over and over again at the time, it’s still in fairly good shape. It also turns out I continue to enjoy the songs – something I certainly cannot say for a good deal of other music I listened to back then as a 13-year-old in Germany. Breakfast in America, which spawned various hit singles, was hugely popular in Germany where it topped the charts, just like in many other countries in Europe and beyond. Take the Long Way Home remains one of my favorite tracks from the album. Written by the band’s co-frontman and principal songwriter Roger Hodgson, the tune also became the record’s fourth single in October 1979. BTW, you also gotta love the cover art, which won the 1980 Grammy Award for Best Recording Package.

John Prine/Angel From Montgomery

I still know very little about John Prine, who is widely viewed as one of the most influential singer-songwriters of his generation. But I’ve finally started listening to his music. According to Wikipedia, Prine has been called the “Mark Twain of songwriting.” The likes of Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and Roger Waters have called out Prine. He mentored younger artists, such as Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires, Brandi Carlile and Margo Price. In fact, I first listened to at least one John Prine song a long time before I even knew his name: Bonnie Raitt’s great cover of Angel From Montgomery, which she recorded for her fourth studio album Streetlights that appeared in September 1974. Here’s the original from John Prine’s eponymous debut album released in 1971. I’m starting to like it as much as Raitt’s rendition.

Peter Frampton/Avalon

If you read my Best of What’s New installment from a week ago, you probably recall it featured a great instrumental cover of George Harrison’s Isn’t It a Pity from Peter Frampton’s new album Peter Frampton Forgets the Words. Since my recent “discovery” of the all-instrumental record, I’ve enjoyed listening to it. Here’s another beautiful track that’s perfect for a Sunday morning: Avalon, the title song of the eighth and final studio album by English outfit Roxy Music, released in May 1982. Written by frontman Bryan Ferry, the tune also became the album’s second single in June 1982. I was a bit surprised to see it “only” reached no. 13 in England, while it didn’t chart at all in the U.S. – unlike the record that topped the charts in the UK and climbed to no. 53 in the U.S. and became Roxy Music’s best-selling album. In 1983, Ferry dissolved the band to focus on his solo career. In 2001, Roxy Music reformed for a 30th anniversary tour and was active on and off until they disbanded for good in 2011. Check out this great clip of Frampton and his band. Not only does he sound great, but you can clearly see how he and his fellow musicians enjoyed recording the tune. I don’t think you can fake this!

Traffic/Dear Mr. Fantasy

Time for some more ’60s music, don’t you agree? While I hate traffic when I’m in my car, I love it when it refers to the British rock band. Undoubtedly, much of my affection has to do with Steve Winwood, one of my long-time favorite artists. I get excited to this day when I hear the man sing and play his growling Hammond B-3. But amid all my love for Winwood, let’s not ignore excellent fellow musicians Jim Capaldi (drums, vocals), Dave Mason (guitar, bass, multiple other instruments, vocals) and Chris Wood (flute, saxophone, Hammond, percussion, vocals), who founded Traffic with Winwood in April 1967. It’s quite amazing that at that time, 18-year-old Winwood already had had a successful four-year career under his belly with The Spencer Davis Group. Dear Mr. Fantasy, co-written by Capaldi, Winwood and Wood, is from Traffic’s debut album Mr. Fantasy released in December 1967. When I saw Winwood live in March 2018, he played guitar on that tune, demonstrating his impressive fretboard chops.

Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band/Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out

For the last tune in this Sunday Six installment, let’s have a true rock and soul party. In this context, I can’t think of anything better than this live clip of Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, captured in June 2000 at New York City’s Madison Square Garden at the end of the band’s triumphant 1999-2000 reunion tour. In this 19-minute-plus version of Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, the Boss is literally taking his audience to rock & soul church. Yes, it’s long and perhaps somewhat over the top, but I believe Springsteen was authentic when at some point he noted, “I’m not bull-shittin’ back here.” Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, written by Springsteen and first appearing on his legendary breakthrough album Born to Run from August 1975, tells the story about the band’s formation. Watching this amazing footage, I get a bit emotional when seeing the big man Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici, who sadly passed away in 2011 and 2008, respectively. Though at the end of the day, it’s a beautiful celebration of their lives. If you haven’t seen this, I encourage you to watch it. And even if it’s not your first time, it’s worthwhile watching again. Live music doesn’t get much better!

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

It’s Saturday and the new music show must go on! This installment of Best of What’s New includes two familiar names and two artists who are completely new to me, featuring Celtic punk, instrumental rock, pop and country rock. Nuff said – let’s get to some music!

Dropkick Murphys/Turn Up That Dial

Dropkick Murphys are a Celtic punk rock band formed in the Boston area in 1996. They are named after former pro wrestler Dr. John “Dropkick” Murphy, who also operated an rehab facility for alcoholics in Action, Mass. The band gained first attention when fellow Bostonian ska punk group The Mighty Mighty Bosstones invited them as opening act for their 1997 tour. Later that year, Dropkick Murphys got a deal with Hellcat Records, which was followed by their debut studio album Do or Die in January 1998. Fast-forward 23 years. The band’s present line-up, which has been together since 2008, consists of original co-founder Ken Casey (bass, lead vocals), along with Al Barr (lead vocals), Tim Brennan (lead guitar, accordion, mandolin, bouzouki, keyboards, piano, tin whistle, backing vocals), James Lynch (rhythm guitar, backing vocals), Jeff DaRosa (banjo, mandolin, bouzouki, guitar, keyboards, piano, harmonica, tin whistle, backing vocals) and Matt Kelly (drums, bodhran, backing vocals). Dropkick Murphys first entered my radar screen in 2013 when they teamed up with Bruce Springsteen to record a new version of their song Rose Tattoo. The single appeared in May that year in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing – hard to believe it’s been eight years! Turn Up That Dial is the title track from Dropkick Murphys’ new album released yesterday (April 30).

Peter Frampton/Isn’t It a Pity

I trust Peter Frampton doesn’t need much of an introduction. The self-taught guitarist has been playing in bands since the age of 12. He first gained prominence in 1966 as a 16-year-old lead vocalist and guitarist in English rock band The Herd. In 1969, he co-founded Humble Pie together with Steve Marriott, frontman and guitarist of Small Faces. Frampton left Humble Pie in 1971 and launched a solo career. After four largely unnoticed studio albums, he got his big breakthrough with Frampton Comes Alive! The huge success led to an infamous shirtless photo on the cover of Rolling Stone, which turned Frampton into a teen idol and diminished his credibility as an artist. He continued to release albums but was unable to repeat the success of Frampton Comes Alive! In early 2019, Frampton announced his retirement from touring due to a progressive autoimmune disease causing muscle inflammation, weakness and atrophy, which eventually is going to impact his ability to play guitar. He launched a farewell tour in June that year. The UK leg, which had been slated for May 2020, was canceled because of you know what! Isn’t it a Pity is a track from Frampton’s new album of instrumental covers ingeniously titled Peter Frampton Forgets the Words and released on April 23. “This album is a collection of ten of my favorite pieces of music,” he stated on his website. My guitar is also a voice and I have always enjoyed playing my favorite vocal lines that we all know and love.” This is certainly a beautiful rendition of the George Harrison tune that originally appeared on his 1970 solo debut All Things Must Pass.

Parker Millsap/The Real Thing

Parker Millsap is an American singer-songwriter from Purcell, OK. According to his profile on Apple Music, As a youth, Millsap alternately spent time singing hymns at his local Pentecostal church and saturating himself in old blues albums, which influenced his unique style along with folk, country, and vintage Elvis-flavored rock & roll. While still in his late teens, Millsap recorded his mostly acoustic debut, Palisade, with childhood friend Michael Rose accompanying him on double bass. Two years later in 2014, his self-titled second LP introduced his signature sound, bringing him national acclaim and leading to support slots with heavy-hitting roots acts like Jason Isbell, Old Crow Medicine Show, and Lake Street Dive. Millsap’s new album Be Here Instead, which is his fifth, came out on April 9. As is the case for most artists I feature in Best of What’s New, I’m completely new to his music. The Real Thing grabbed me right away. To me, it’s got a bit of a Paul McCartney vibe!

The Pink Stones/Put Me On

The last tune I’d like to call out here is Put Me On, a song by The Pink Stones, a country rock band from Athens, Ga. According to their website, the group revolves around Hunter Pinkston, a former punk rocker who discovered country in 2015 when listening to the B-side of the The Lemonheads’ rendition of Brass Buttons, which featured the original by Gram Parsons. This led him not only to explore Parsons’ catalog but also listen to similar other artists. In 2016, Pinkston who is from Albany, Ga. transferred to the University of Georgia in Athens for their music business program. He immersed himself into the local music scene and eventually met what became the core of The Pink Stones: Will Anderson (organ, piano, vocals), Logan Brammer (guitar, vocals), Adam Wayton (guitar, vocals) and Jack Colclough (drums). John Neff (pedal steel guitar), a founding member of Drive-By Truckers, is also part of the band’s current line-up. Put Me On, written by Pinkston, is a track from their debut album Introducing… the Pink Stones released on April 9. Check out this beautiful warm sound!

Sources: Wikipedia; Peter Frampton website; Apple Music; The Pink Stones website; AllMusic; YouTube

Bee Gees – Part 4: Downfall, Comeback and Last Man Standing

“We didn’t categorize our songs as disco, but then we weren’t thinking that way at all. We were just thinking about writing songs based on the discovery of this falsetto voice and how well that seemed to work.” (Barry Gibb, The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart)

By the end of the ’70s, the Bee Gees had become ubiquitous. Saturday Night Fever won Album of the Year at the 1979 Grammy Awards, one of four music awards they scored related to the film. At one point, the Bee Gees and their younger brother Andy Gibb held five of the top 10 spots on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100. Perhaps not surprisingly, what goes up, must come down. Or crashing down in this case.

The Bee Gees Are Disco Icons, but Robin Gibb Was Pure Pop - The Atlantic
Bee Gees in 1979 (from left): Robin Gibb, Barry Gibb and Maurice Gibb

Apart from ubiquity, whether they liked it or not, it was the Bee Gees’ close association with disco that triggered their precipitous downfall when disco rapidly declined in popularity by the end of the ’70s and became the subject of outright backlash. More and more radio stations refused to play disco and Bee Gees music. And it got even worse. In the Broken Heart documentary, Maurice Gibb noted, “We had FBI and Secret Service around the airplane every time we landed in a certain place because of the bomb threats. It was scary stuff.”

Essentially, the situation forced the Bee Gees to stop performing as a group. While for their 1981 album Living Eyes, they stylistically turned away from their ’70s albums that had brought them past fame, it only sold 750,000 copies worldwide – not too shabby on the surface but measly compared to 16 million predecessor Spirits Having Flown had generated. Living Eyes stalled at no. 41 in the U.S. and at no. 73 in the UK. Here’s the title track, a co-write by the three brothers.

For the next six years, the Bee Gees largely focused on writing songs for other artists. Barry Gibb worked with Barbara Streisand on her hugely successful 1980 studio album Guilty, which he co-produced and for which he wrote or co-wrote all songs. This included the ballad Woman in Love, which like the album topped the charts in the U.S., UK and many other countries. The title track, written by the three Gibb brothers, also became a hit. Interestingly, the album cover showed a picture of Streisand and Barry Gibb who also sang backing vocals on Guilty.

Additional examples of Bee Gees songs performed by other artists in the 80s include Heartbreaker (Dionne Warwick), Islands in the Stream (Dolly Parton & Kenny Rodgers) and the Diana Ross album Eaten Alive. The Gibb brothers also did some solo work during that period. Robin Gibb enjoyed some success with his solo music in Germany.

In 1987, the Bee Gees decided to record a new album, E.S.P., six years after their last unsuccessful studio release. For the first time in 12 years, they also worked again with Arif Mardin, who had produced their mid-’70s album Main Course, the career-defining record that previously revived the group, introducing their R&B-driven dance pop and Barry’s falsetto.

While I’m not sure Mardin had a comparable influence on E.S.P., the album launched another comeback for the Bee Gees. It performed particularly well in Europe, reaching no. 1 in Germany and Switzerland, no. 2 in Austria and no. 5 in the UK. In the U.S., it barely cracked the top 100, stalling at no. 96 on the Billboard 200. Here’s the lead single You Win Again, co-written by all three Gibb brothers like all other tracks on the album.

Then fate hit again. Andy Gibb, who like his older brothers was a music artist and had enjoyed some success in the late ’70s, passed away on March 10, 1988 from myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle caused by years of cocaine abuse that had fatally weakened his heart. He was only 30 years old. In addition to drug addiction, Andy had struggled with depression.

Andy’s death delayed the Bee Gees’ next album One. After taking an eight-month break, Barry, Maurice and Robin returned to the studio to finish the album. It appeared in April 1989 and was dedicated to Andy. Here’s the moving tribute Wish You Were Here.

The Bee Gees went on to release four additional studio albums between March 1991 and April 2001. Still Waters, which appeared in March 1997, marked their last triumph. In spite of lukewarm reviews, it became their best-selling album in almost 20 years. Here’s opener Alone, co-written by Barry, Maurice and Robin, which also became the lead single.

The remaining story of the Bee Gees is sad. On January 12, 2003, Maurice Gibb unexpectedly died at the age of 53 due to complications from a twisted intestine, which caused cardiac arrest. While Barry and Robin occasionally performed together thereafter, Maurice’s death ended the Bee Gees. In November 2011, it was announced Robin had been diagnosed with liver cancer. Six months later on May 20, 2012, he passed away. Robin was only 62 years old. Barry Gibb had lost all of his brothers.

In February 2013, Barry kicked off his first solo tour in Australia “in honour of his brothers and a lifetime of music,” as he told British newspaper Express in April 2013. Performing without any of his brothers was extremely challenging, as he noted in the aforementioned article. In the end, things worked out well. “The Australian leg of this tour was a great test of my self-doubt because even though I’ve done solo performances before it wasn’t going to be the same without Robin and Mo,” Barry said. “The opening night in Sydney was incredible. That’s where we grew up so to go back and see people that we knew was therapeutic.”

HOROSCOPE: Sept. 1, 2020
Barry Gibb, September 2020

Gibb has continued to tour over the years. In October 2016, he released his second solo album In the Now, together with his sons Stephen Gibb and Ashley Gibb. Last month, he announced a new solo album Greenfields: The Gibb Brothers Songbook, Vol 1, which is scheduled to appear on January 8, 2021, as reported by JamBase. It includes new recordings of Bee Gees songs like I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You, Lonely Days and Jive Talkin’, featuring many guests, such as Jason Isbell, Alison Krauss and Cheryl Crow.

“I think everything we set out to do, we did against all odds. I can’t honestly come to terms with the fact they’re not here anymore. Never been able to do that. I’m always reliving it. It’s always, ‘what would Robin think’, ‘what would Maurice think’ – and Andy. It never goes away. And, what I wanted to say earlier is that I’ve rather have them all back here and no hits at all.” (Barry Gibb, The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart)

Sources: Wikipedia; The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heartdocumentary directed by Frank Marshall; Express; JamBase; YouTube

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

Since the sudden death of my beloved mother-in-law Carmen Anaya Acevedo last week, I essentially took a break from blogging, including Best of What’s New. It just didn’t feel right. Meanwhile, new music didn’t pause, which is good news. This week’s installment could have easily been longer, but I’d like to keep these posts to four to six songs.

I’m particularly excited about new music by Stevie Wonder, one of my favorite artists, who last July announced he needed a kidney transplant. The surgery happened in December, and apparently Wonder, who turned 70 in May, is doing well. There’s also new music by Tom Petty, Americana rockers Cordovas, as well as three additional artists including a German alternative rock band. Let’s get to it!

Tom Petty/Leave Virginia Alone

Leave Virginia Alone is a tune from Wildflowers & All the Rest, the substantially enhanced reissue of Tom Petty’s second solo album, which came out on October 16. Written in 1995, the song was first recorded by Rod Stewart for his 17th studio album A Spanner in the Works from May that year. While Stewart’s version, which I hadn’t heard before until now, isn’t bad, I much prefer Petty’s take. The track also appeared separately as a single on October 1. I really miss Tom Petty, and it’s great to hear his voice.

Cordovas/Destiny

Cordovas are an Americana rock band from Memphis, Tenn. formed in 2011. The members are vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Joe Firstman, Sevans Henderson (keyboards), Lucca Soria (guitar, vocals) and Toby Weaver, another vocalist and multi-instrumentalist. Destiny is a track and the lead single of the band’s new album Destiny Hotel released on October 16. According to the band’s website, the album expands on the harmony-soaked roots rock of Cordovas’ ATO Records debut That Santa Fe Channel, a 2018 release that earned abundant praise from outlets like Rolling Stone and NPR Music. I covered it here at the time.

Stevie Wonder/Can’t Put It in the Hands of Fate (feat. Rapsody, Cordae, Chika & Busta Rhymes)

Can’t Put It in the Hands of Fate is one of two new tunes Stevie Wonder released on October 13, coinciding with the 36th birthday of his oldest son Mumtaz Morris. He is joined by hip hop artists Rapsody, Cordae, Chika & Busta Rhymes, which definitely makes this a song that’s outside my core wheelhouse. But I actually love it! Lyrically, it’s almost a present day version of You Haven’t Done Nothin’ or Living For the City, both tunes Wonder recorded in the ’70s. “In these times, we are hearing the most poignant wake-up calls and cries for this nation and the world to, please, heed our need for love, peace and unity,” he stated, as reported by Jambase. According to Billboard, Wonder will also release a new full-length album to be titled Through the Eyes Of Wonder. His last such album A Time to Love dates back to September 2005.

Jeremy Ivey/Hands Down in Your Pocket

Jeremy Ivey is a Nashville-based singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. According to Apple Music, he established himself in the early 2010s as a member of the country-soul band Buffalo Clover alongside his wife, singer/songwriter Margo Price. When Price’s career took off in 2016, Ivey served as her guitarist and sideman before signing a deal with Anti- and launching a solo career of his own with 2019’s The Dream and the Dreamer. Hands Down in Your Pocket is a tune from Ivey’s sophomore solo album Waiting Out the Storm, which was produced by Price and came out on October 9. “I think that having the opportunity to put out my own records, I’ve got a lot of pent-up inspiration,” Ivey told Apple Music. “Because there are just certain freedoms that I can take when I’m singing the song that I can’t take when I’m writing it for someone else to sing.”

Yola/Hold On (feat. Sheryl Crow, Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby & Jason Isbell)

Yola, born Yolanda Quartey, is an English singer-songwriter from Bristol, England. She was the lead vocalist of English country and soul band Phantom Limb and recorded two albums with them in 2008 and 2012. In February 2016, she released her solo EP Orphan Offering. A full-length debut album Walk Through Fire followed in February 2019. Yola has also sung backing vocals for numerous artists, including Massive Attack, The Chemical Brothers and Iggy Azalea. In addition, she was a guest on the 2019 eponymous debut album by country super group The Highwomen, together with Sheryl Crow. Yola’s latest single Hold On, released October 9, features Crow on piano, Jason Isbell on guitar, as well as The Highwomen’s Brandi Carlile and Natalie Hemby on backing vocals. As reported by Pitchfork, a portion of the tune’s proceeds will benefit MusiCares and the National Bailout Collective.

Die Happy/Story of Our Life (feat. Daniel Wirtz)

I’d like to wrap up this post with new music by alternative rock band Die Happy, formed by Czech singer Marta Jandová and guitarist Thorsten Mewes in 1993 in Ulm, Germany. The current line-up also includes Ralph Rieker (bass) and Jürgen Stiehle (drums). Die Happy’s debut album Better Than Nothing appeared in 1994. They have since released 13 additional albums including their most recent Guess What from April this year. Story of Our Life featuring Daniel Wirtz, a German rock singer-songwriter, is on the bonus version of the album and was released as a single on September 18.

Sources: Wikipedia; Cordovas website; Jambase; Billboard; Apple Music; Pitchfork; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: Mick Hayes/My Claim to Fame

If you’re a frequent visitor of the blog, the name Mick Hayes may ring a bill. I included him and a tune from his fantastic new album My Claim to Fame in the last installment of my Best of What’s New feature. On his website, Hayes gave the record the tagline “Southern Soul Music with a California Finish.” I’m not sure I understand the California finish, but folks who are aware of my music taste know that I’m all ears when it comes to southern soul.

One of the truly remarkable things about this album is that Hayes recorded it at FAME Studio in Muscle Shoals, Ala. on vintage equipment, together with musicians who backed artists like Ray CharlesEtta James and B.B. King during their recording sessions at the legendary studio. I’m mean, think about this for a moment, how friggin’ cool is that!

As I complained in my previous Best of What’s New post, Hayes doesn’t do a great job to put out some information on his background, such as a bio. Why still beats me! But at least his website has links to some reviews, and the folks who wrote them apparently got some insights from him.

Additionally, when you google Hayes, his birthday pops up as June 17, 1978, which means he’s 42 years old. Apparently, he was born in Buffalo, N.Y. A review by American Blues Scene notes Hayes became interested in the Muscle Shoals scene while browsing record stores as a young man and seeing albums by the likes of Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Duane Allman and Wilson Pickett, who were recorded at FAME. So using different sources, one can kind of get at least a blurry picture of him.

The American Blues Scene review also reveals some of the above studio musicians and artists they backed: Bassist Bob Wray (Ray Charles, The Marshall Tucker Band), electric piano and organ player Clayton Ivey (Etta James, B.B. King), trumpet and flugelhorn player Vinnie Ciesielski (Gladys Knight, Lyle Lovett), saxophonist and flute player Brad Guin (Jason Isbell) and rhythm guitarist Will McFarlane (Bonnie Raitt, Levon Helm). I mean, damn, let’s face it, Hayes isn’t exactly Stevie Wonder, so having gotten all these musicians is really something!

And the list continues. Also on the record are backing vocalists Marie Lewey and Cindy Walker, aka The Muscle Shoals Singers. Moreover, Hayes secured some impressive “outsiders”: Trombone player Billy Bargetzi (The Temptations, The Four Tops, The O’Jays, Bobby Vinton) and trumpet player Ken Watters (Natalie Cole, W.C. Handy Jazz All-Stars). Hayes provides lead guitar and vocals. And, as I stated in my last Best of What’s New, he co-produced My Claim to Fame with John Gifford III, who assisted with engineering Gregg Allman’s final studio album Southern Blood. Okay, on to the real fun part!

Here’s opener Sweet to Me. Like all tunes on the album, it was written by Hayes. He’s definitely got soul. I also think his voice isn’t bad.

Parking Lot Romance is another great tune. It openly pays homage to Ray Charles, undoubtedly one of Hayes’ musical heroes.

Want a bit of funky soul with a message? Ask and you shall receive! Hey, hey, hey, hey, here’s Political Funk.

Next up: No Second Chances. Frankly, I could have picked any other tune. They all sound great, in my opinion!

The last song I’d like to highlight is the album’s closer Saddest Picture of Me.

You might say, ‘Hayes isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel on this record.’ That’s certainly true, but it doesn’t bother me at all. In fact, I feel these recordings are beautifully executed, making My Claim to Fame a joyful listening experience. I’m curious to see what Hayes is going to come up with next. I feel with this album he set a high bar for himself.

Sources: Mick Hayes website; American Blues Scene; 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