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

A lot of cool new music I came across this week made it tough what to include in this latest installment of my recurring feature. That’s actually a nice problem to have, at least in my book. While you may not be a Bon Jovi fan, have you ever heard the Jersey rocker do an outright protest song? I certainly had not. Or how about a cool Byrds-ey-sounding psychedelic garage band called The Reverberations? Or young and amazingly talented bluegrass and Americana artist Molly Tuttle? These are just three of the artists I’m featuring this week. Do I have your attention?

Bon Jovi/American Reckoning

While a band that has sold more than 100 million albums worldwide has probably done more than one thing right, I realize opinions about Bon Jovi are divided. On most of their 14 studio albums that have come out so far over some 37 years, I can at find at least one or two songs I enjoy. American Reckoning, released July 10, will be on the band’s next album Bon Jovi 2020, which has been pushed back until December 31, 2020 due to you know what. Both the single and the album have something in common that’s new for Bon Jovi: Political lyrics. Written by Jon Bon Jovi, American Reckoning is a protest song reflecting on the death of George Floyd caused by reckless police action. “I was moved to write American Reckoning as a witness to history,” Bon Jovi said in a statement on the band’s website, “I believe the greatest gift of an artist is the ability to use their voice to speak to issues that move us.” All net proceeds from downloads of the song will support the Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative through December 31, 2020. Kudos!

Gillian Welch & David Rawlings/Hello in There

For some 28 years, country, folk, bluegrass and Americana singer-songwriter Gillian Welch has been writing and performing with her musical partner David Rawlings. The two first met during a music audition at Berklee College of Music in Boston where Welch majored in songwriting. Following her graduation in 1992, she moved to Nashville. Rawlings soon followed and they started to perform as a duo. After getting a record deal with Almo Sounds, they met T-Bone Burnett who had seen them perform. Burnett produced their debut album Revival, which like most of their records appeared under Welch’s name in April 1996. Welch and Rawlings have since released five additional studio albums. Hello in There is from their most recent release All the Good Times Are Past & Gone, a covers album that came out on July 10. The tune was written by John Prine and included on his 1971 eponymous debut album.

Will Hoge/Midway Hotel

Will Hoge is a singer-songwriter from Nashville, Tenn. According to Wikipedia, which characterizes his music as Americana and southern rock, Hoge grew up in a musical family that influenced him. After enrolling in Western Kentucky University with plans to become a high school history teacher and basketball coach, Hoge realized music was his calling. In 1997, he released an EP with his band at the time Spoonful, but it wasn’t successful and the group disbanded. After self-releasing a live CD and his first studio album Carousel, Hoge managed to get a deal with Atlantic Records in early 2002. While it was short-lived, it resulted in his major label debut Blackbird on a Lonely Wire in March 2003. Hoge has since released seven additional studio records, as well as various EPs and live albums. Midway Motel, co-written by Hoge and Ricky Young, is the opener to Hoge’s most recent studio album Tiny Little Movies that appeared on June 26. I can hear some John Mellencamp in here.

Grace Potter/Eachother (feat. Jackson Browne, Marcus King & Lucius)

Grace Potter is a 37-year-old bluesy, roots rock-oriented singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and actress, hailing from Waitsfield, Vt., who has released various albums solo and with her former band Grace Potter and the Nocturnals since the early 2000s. While studying theater at St. Laurence University, she met drummer Matt Burr. Together with bassist Courtright Beard, they formed the initial lineup of indie rock band Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. In 2004, they self-released their debut album Original Soul. Four additional albums followed. In 2015, Potter’s solo album Midnight appeared. Potter left the band in 2017, shortly after announcing her divorce from Burr with whom she had been married since 2013. Another solo album, Daylight, appeared in October 2019. Eachother is Potter’s latest single released on May 22. Written by her during the early days of the pandemic, the ballad features Jackson Browne, blues artist Marcus King and indie pop band Lucius. Check it out!

Molly Tuttle/Helpless (feat. Old Crow Medicine Show)

Based on what I’ve read and heard, it seems Molly Tuttle is what you could call a wunderkind. It’s virtually impossible to do full justice here to the 27-year-old singer-songwriter, banjo player and guitarist, who is focused on bluegrass and Americana. Tuttle is noted for her outstanding guitar skills, and she can definitely sing as well. She grew up in the San Francisco Bay area in a musical family. Her father Jack Tuttle is a bluegrass multi-instrumentalist and teacher. Her siblings Sullivan and Michael play guitar and mandolin, respectively. Molly started playing guitar as an 8-year-old and three years later already performed on stage with her dad. At age 13, she recorded her first album with Jack. In 2015, she joined the family band The Tuttles with AJ Lee, featuring her father and siblings, along with mandolist AJ Lee. Her debut EP Rise appeared in October 2017, followed by her first full-fledged album When You’re Ready in April 2019, which climbed to no. 5 and no. 11 on the U.S. Billboard Top Heatseekers and Independent Albums charts. Her multiple accolades include Instrumentalist of the Year at the 2018 Americana Music Awards and Guitar Player of the Year from the International Bluegrass Association in 2017 and 2018. Molly who has lived in Nashville, Tenn. since 2015, has a new covers album scheduled for August 28, …but I’d rather be with you. It doesn’t include her beautiful rendition of Neil Young’s Helpless, which she released on May 22 and features Nashville-based Americana band Old Crow Medicine Show. The tune first appeared on Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Déjà Vu album from March 1970.

The Reverberations/Under Your Spell

Let’s wrap things up with some really cool rock. The Reverberations are a five-piece from Portland, Ore. Their Bandcamp profile characterizes their music as “’60s influenced psychedelic jangle.” Based on what I’m hearing on their latest single Under Your Spell, that description hits the nail on the head. Unfortunately, the band has hardly published any information about themselves. Neither their Bandcamp nor their Facebook page provide any background – I don’t get it! Discogs lists two albums, Mess Up Your Mind (2016) and Changes (2019, along with various EPs and singles, dating back as far as 2015. Based on their photos on Facebook and Bandcamp, these guys don’t exactly look like high school kids, and with their Byrds-ey guitars, they certainly don’t sound like it. Whoever is familiar with my music taste knows that’s a sound I never get tired of. On Under Your Spell, which is the B-side of the band’s most recent single Palm Reader, I also love the keyboard work. And check out the lovely psychedelic cover art. Damn, now I feel I’m literally under their spell!

Sources: Wikipedia; Bon Jovi website; Apple Music; Grace Potter website; Molly Tuttle website; The Reverberations Facebook and Bandcamp pages; 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

Clips & Pix: Tedeschi Trucks Band/Angel From Montgomery & Sugaree

I coincidentally came across the above excellent clip of Tedeschi Trucks Band and didn’t have to think twice about posting it here. Apparently, the footage captures the group at Sunshine Blues Festival in Boca Raton, Fla. in January 2013, playing a great medley of Angel From Montgomery and Sugaree.

Angel From Montgomery was written by John Prine and originally appeared on his eponymous debut album from 1971. It was covered by various other artists, most notably Bonnie Raitt who recorded it for her 1974 studio album Streetlights – the version that came to my mind immediately when hearing Susan Tedeschi’s amazing vocals. Another highlight is the flute work by Kofi Burbridge.

The song neatly blends into Sugaree, a Jerry Garcia song with lyrics by long-time Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. Garcia recorded it for his first solo album Garcia, which appeared in January 1972. The Tedeschi Trucks Band’s version features a blistering solo by Derek Trucks. What a kick-ass band. I definitely need to do more on them!

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

My Favorite Female Vocalists

It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of vocals. Oftentimes, this becomes clear to me when listening to instrumental music. After a while, something seems to be missing. So I thought it would be fun to think about my favorite vocalists and feature some of them in a post. And since much of the blog is focused on male artists, I decided to keep the list to females. While I can’t deny a certain bias for artists I generally dig for their music, this selection first and foremost is based on vocal ability that grabs me. And with that let’s roll.

I’d like to kick things off with Annie Lennox, who of course is best known for Eurythmics, her pop duo with Dave Stewart, which became a powerhouse during the ’80s. Following Eurythmics’ hiatus in 1990, Lennox launched a solo career. Here’s Why, a beautiful tune that nicely showcases her amazing voice. She wrote this song for her solo debut album Diva released in April 1992.

Alicia Keys is an artist I rarely listen to, but every time I do what typically stands out to me is her vocal performance. One of her most compelling songs I know in this context is called Fallin’. Written by Keys, it was included on her debut record Songs in A Minor from June 2001. Listening to this tune gives me goosebumps!

Carole King needs no further introduction. I’ve been a fan from the first time I heard her 1971 album Tapestry. Since my sister who had this record on vinyl was a young teenager then, I must have been eight years old or so. I didn’t understand a word of English. But King’s beautiful music and voice were more than enough to immediately attract me. From Tapestry here is Way Over Yonder.

Next, I’d like to highlight an artist I bet most readers don’t know, though frequent visitors of the blog may recall the name of the band she’s in: Tierinii Jackson, the powerful lead vocalist of Southern Avenue. This contemporary band from Memphis, Tenn. blends traditional blues and soul with modern R&B. I’ve covered them on various previous occasions, most recently here in connection with a concert I saw. That lady’s voice is something else, especially live! Check out Don’t Give Up, a great tune co-written by Jackson and Southern Avenue guitarist Ori Naftaly. It’s from their eponymous debut album that came out in February 2017.

Another artist I dig both as a guitarist and a vocalist is Bonnie Raitt. In fact, I have to admit, I’ve really come to love her over the years, so there could be a bit of bias at play. But I don’t care what you may think, Raitt does have a great voice. One of my favorite songs she recorded is Angel from Montgomery written by John Prine. It appeared on Raitt’s fourth studio album Streetlights from September 1974.

Perhaps the artist with the most distinctive voice in this playlist is Stevie Nicks. No other vocalist I know sounds like her. The first tune that came to mind was Landslide, a timeless gem she wrote and recorded with Fleetwood Mac on their second eponymous studio album released in July 1975, the tenth overall in their long catalog.

An artist who to me was both an amazing performer and a great vocalist is Tina Turner – I say was, since she retired from performing in 2009. I was going to feature a song from her 1984 Private Dancer album, but then I thought what could possibly be better than her killer version of John Fogerty’s Proud Mary. Her initial recording is from 1971 as part of Ike & Tina Turner. Instead, I decided to select this clip capturing an amazing and extended live performance. I’ve been fortunate to see Tina Turner twice, including this tune. It was mind-boggling! Every now and then, she liked to do things nice and easy. But somehow she never ever seemed to do nothing completely nice and easy. Why? Because she liked to do it nice and rough. Go, Tina!

No list of my favorite female vocalists would be complete without Linda Ronstadt. Here is her beautiful cover of When Will I Be Loved. Written by Phil Everly, this great tune was first released by The Everly Brothers in May 1960, giving them a top 10 hit. Ronstadt’s version, which was included on her fifth solo album Heart Like a Wheel from November 1974, became even more successful, peaking at no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. It’s not hard to see why!

The next artist in this playlist may be the biggest surprise, at least for folks who have read previous posts: Christina Aguilera. Yep, an artist I have never covered, since I generally don’t listen to her music. But I think she’s one of the best female vocalists I know. Beautiful is a powerful ballad written by Linda Perry, the former lead vocalist of 4 Non Blondes, who has a pretty decent voice herself. Aguilera recorded the track for her fourth studio album Stripped that appeared in October 2002. To me, singing doesn’t get much better!

This brings me to the final artist I’d like to highlight – Aretha Franklin. No playlist of female vocalists would be complete without the Queen of Soul either! In addition to being a songwriter, pianist and civil rights activist, Franklin was an incredible singer. Here’s her cover of the beautiful Sam Cooke song A Change Is Gonna Come from her 10th studio album I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, released in March 1967. I was reminded of this great record by hotfox63, who covered it the other day.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube