Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

While McCartney III kept me busy yesterday, Paul McCartney’s new album wasn’t the only great new music. Ringo Starr also released a new single. I wonder how many times has it happened before that two ex-Beatles come out with new music during the same week! But wait, there’s more.

How about an indie rock band from LA and a young R&B artist and producer from South Korea? Or a prolific Australian rock band I had never heard of before, which apparently is considered to be one of the most genre-hopping bands of all time.

Last but not least, this latest Best of What’s New installment also features a longtime New Jersey singer-songwriter and musician, who is perhaps best known for having performed the music of Steely Dan for more than 26 years, faithfully capturing the vocals of Donald Fagen.

The Wrecks/Static

The Wrecks are a band from the Los Angeles area, which was formed in 2016. Apple Music’s profile describes their music as exuberant, melodic, emo- and punk-influenced indie rock. The group found early success with their 2016 breakout single, “Favorite Liar,” and after a pair of EPs signed to the Big Noise label for their 2020 full-length Infinitely Ordinary. Hailing from Thousand Oaks, California, singer/guitarist Nick Anderson, guitarist Nick Schmidt, guitarist Westen Weiss, bassist Aaron Kelley, and drummer Billy Nally had barely formed when they chanced on the opportunity for a few covert days in a local studio. In just three hectic days, they recorded their 2016 debut EP, We Are the Wrecks, which featured the catchy single “Favorite Liar.” The song picked up steam online and helped the Wrecks land some key gigs opening for Paramore and the Struts along with festival slots at Lollapalooza and BottleRock. A second EP, Panic Vertigo, arrived in 2018, followed in 2020 by the Wrecks’ first LP, Infinitely Ordinary, on the Big Noise imprint. Static, co-written by Anderson and Schmidt, is the title track of The Wrecks’ new EP, which appeared yesterday. Admittedly, it falls outside my core wheelhouse, but my pop ear can’t deny it’s catchy.

Mike Caputo/Maya Lee

Unless you’ve read my blog for a long time, you probably haven’t heard of New Jersey singer-songwriter and musician Mike Caputo. Mike has been active for over 50 years. According to a bio on his website, A vocalist who plays keyboards and drums, Mike was signed to ABC Dunhill records at 15 years old after playing the Cafe Wha? in NYC in 1967. From that point he performed as a lead vocalist and either drummer, or keyboardist in a variety of local bands in the club circuit. Performing 5 to 6 nights a week playing Pop, Progressive, Jazz, R&B, Funk and his own Original Compositions, led him to more studio experience at Private Stock Records in the 70’s...Mike is also a published writer who wrote lyrics and melody for “A Question Of  Time” by B.J. Thomas from the album “Once I Loved” and “Manhattan Blue” for Rich Cecere’e Big Band. For the past more than 26 years, he has performed the music of Steely Dan, faithfully capturing the voice of Donald Fagen. His current project Good Stuff also features music of Gino Vannelli, Stevie Wonder and Sting, all artists who influenced him. Mike’s also a dear friend, and I’ve been to many of his shows. This doesn’t mean I’m featuring Maya Lee, a song he recently wrote, to do him a favor. In fact, he has no idea what’s coming at him! 🙂 When I saw this tune on Facebook the other day, I immediately dug it. It’s got a great smooth pop jazzy sound – and, yes, I can definitely hear some Donald Fagen/Steely Dan in here. I also really like the bass and guitar work, provided by Scott Hogan and Don Regan, respectively, who are also members of Good Stuff.

Ringo Starr/Here’s to the Nights

It turns out Paul McCartney wasn’t the only ex-Beatle who was busy working on new music during the pandemic. His former band mate Ringo Starr released Here’s to the Nights on Wednesday (December 16), the lead single from his forthcoming EP Zoom In scheduled for March 19, 2021. An announcement on his website notes, As this crazy year comes to a close, Ringo is offering a song of peace, love and friendship – “Here’s To The Nights” available today as a single…Written by Diane Warren, Ringo is joined by his friends, some longtime and some new, including: Paul McCartney, Joe Walsh, Corinne Bailey Rae, Eric Burton (Black Pumas), Sheryl Crow, FINNEAS, Dave Grohl, Ben Harper, Lenny Kravitz, Jenny Lewis, Steve Lukather, Chris Stapleton and Yola. Of course, I can see cynics dismissing this as an aging pop star getting a little help from celebrity musician friends. While it’s coming out just prior to the holidays, I don’t think this is about making a quick buck. Instead, I fully buy Ringo’s statement: “This is the kind of song we all want to sing along to, and it was so great how many wonderful musicians joined in. I wanted it out in time for New Years because it feels like a good song to end a tough year on. So here’s to the nights we won’t remember and the friends we won’t forget – and I am wishing everyone peace and love for 2021.”

Miso/Let It Go

Here’s another selection that’s not the kind of music I usually listen to, but there’s just something about Miso, a 28-year-old R&B artist and producer from South Korea. According to a mini bio on last.fm, Miso lived in England during her childhood. Her songs are characterized by a very peculiar modern and soft beat. Her name has often been associated with artists like DEAN and she has worked with CRUSH too – no idea who these artists are. Let It Go, for which Miso wrote both the music and lyrics, is from her new EP Metanoia released December 14. I guess it’s mostly her voice that drew me in. And check out that cool bassline! This tune definitely has something.

King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard/If Not Now, Then When?

King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard (what a name!) are an Australian rock band founded in 2010 in Melbourne. Initially, they started as a group of friends jamming together until a mutual friend asked them to play at a show – sounds like the rest is history. The current line-up features Stu Mackenzie (vocals, guitar, bass, keyboards, flute), Ambrose Kenny-Smith (vocals, harmonica, keyboards), Cook Craig (guitar, bass, vocals), Joey Walker (guitar, bass, keyboards, vocals), Lucas Harwood (bass, keyboards) and Michael “Cavs” Cavanagh (drums, percussion). Their profile on Apple Music notes they have built a reputation as one of the most prolific and adventurous genre-hopping bands of all time. Their debut studio album 12 Bar Bruise appeared in September 2012. And, yes, this band has been pretty prolific indeed ever since, releasing 15 additional studio albums, six live albums, two EPs, one compilation and more than 40 singles. If Not Now, Then When? is their latest single that came out on December 10. This is just a cool tune. The groove and the falsetto vocals remind me a bit of Prince. Check it out!

Sources: Wikipedia; Apple Music; Ringo Starr website; last.fm; YouTube

Where the Blues Crosses Over

For more than 25 years, the independent German label Ruf Records has been a remarkable force for blues music

When blogging about music, it’s about the artists and their work first and foremost- seems obvious! Sometimes, I also like to get a bit nerdy and write about gear. What I rarely do is paying attention to music labels with a few exceptions like Stax or Motown. In fact, oftentimes, I don’t even bother to mention on which label an album was released.

One name that has kept popping up for contemporary blues is Ruf Records (pronounced “roof”). I noticed it again just yesterday while compiling my latest Best of What’s New installment that included blues rock artist Jeremiah Johnson whose latest album Unemployed Highly Annoyed appeared on Ruf Records.

Like the majority of Ruf’s roster of current artists, Johnson is an American musician. Yet Ruf isn’t located say in Chicago or anywhere else in the U.S. for that matter. London? Nope. Ruf is based in Lindewerra, a picturesque German village with a whopping 256 inhabitants (as of 2019) in the region of Thuringia, which used to be part of the former German Democratic Republic. I had to look that geographic location.

Lindewerra, location of Ruf Records

Germany and the blues? Not to mention a tiny village? That’s not the most obvious association, in my opinion. Or how about the fact the founding of this independent label in 1994 was connected to Luther Allison? Finally, Ruf got my attention.

This is how the label’s website describes how Ruf came about, from the perspective of founder Thomas Ruf. While they may have embellished it a bit, it’s just a wonderful story that would be perfect for a movie: It all started in the Black Forest, late at night, when it seems all great things begin. There in a small village bar, with the doors locked, window shades rolled down, an after- hours party was happening inside. Blues great, Luther Allison was jamming with a bunch of eighty-year old Black Forest folklore musicians.

I was young, lucky and overwhelmed by the communicating power of music. I left the farm to pay my dues as a concert promoter, agent and manager. Soon I collaborated with Allison, eventually becoming his representative on the European side of the world.

I was a student learning from a man who traveled the rocky blues road for more than thirty years. It became apparent that relationships between artists and record companies can be frustrating for the artists, with companies lacking enthusiasm and understanding of the music. So management had a baby and it was named Ruf Records. Born of the need and love to promote what we believe in… the communicating power of music.

Ruf Records founder Thomas Ruf with Cyril Neville

Based on this March 2012 post from the Blues.Gr, the above events happened in the late 1980s when Thomas Ruf started working in the music business as a European tour promoter. Ruf and Allison became friends and, eventually, Ruf started to represent the blues artist in Europe. In 1994, Allison who lived in Paris, France at the time, found himself without a label and a publisher. Apparently, that’s what triggered the formation of Ruf Records.

Fast-forward some 26 years and you’re looking at an independent label with an impressive roster of artists. Apart from Luther Allison and Jeremiah Johnson, the current and former line-up includes Canned Heat, Spooky Tooth, Walter Trout, Ana Popovic, Samantha Fish, Joanne Shaw Taylor and Jane Lee Hooker. Following, I’d like to highlight some music by some of the label’s current artists. Occasionally, the label ventures beyond the blues.

Ally Venable/White Flag

Ally Marie Venable is a 21-year-old blues rock guitarist and singer-songwriter from Kilgore, Texas. She released her debut EP Wise Man in 2013 at the age of 14. White Flag is from her third and most recent full-length album Texas Honey, which according to this Rock & Blues Muse review appeared in March 2019 and features Mike Zito and Eric Gales, among other guests.

Bette Smith/Fistful of Dollars

According to her website, Bette Smith is a rock and soul singer who grew up in Brooklyn, New York. Her 2017 debut Jetlagger received rave reviews from the likes of NPR, American Songwriter, MOJO and The New York Times. Fistful of Dollars is the tasteful, funky opener of Smith’s new album The Good, The Bad and the Bette released on September 25.

Ghalia/Release Me

Ghalia Volt, who hails from Brussels, Belgium, is a natural-born rock star with the leather jacket and wicked grin, leaning from her album sleeve to offer you a hit on her hip flask, her website confidently states. Six years ago, Ghalia was a best-kept secret, her days spent busking on the streets of the Belgium capital, her nights shaking the city’s blues clubs. But as a die-hard R&B and blues fan, the singer-songwriter found the siren call of America too strong to resist. Visiting Chicago, Memphis and Nashville, Ghalia’s livewire talent saw her embraced by the musical motherland and elevated to headliner status. Release Me is a track written by Ghalia, which appears on her sophomore album Mississippi Blend from September 2019. And, yes, that lady is a rock star!

Whitney Shay/Stand Up!

According to Apple Music’s artist profile, Whitney Shay is a blues, soul and jump R&B singer-songwriter from San Diego, Calif. Her debut album Soul Tonic came out in 2012. She has since released two additional albums and received four San Diego Music Awards including Artist of the Year for her sophomore release A Woman Rules the World from 2018. Stand Up!, co-written by Shay and Adam J. Eros, is the soulful funky title track of Shay’s third studio album released in February this year.

Bernard Allison/Crusin for a Bluesin

Bernard Allison, who is based in Paris, France, is a blues guitarist and the son of Luther Allison. Though you’d perhaps think otherwise, Bernard taught himself how to play guitar as a child while his father was touring all over the world. While his old man wisely demanded that Bernard remain in school, he supported his music ambitions. Eventually, Bernard became part of Luther’s band and a musical collaborator. His European solo debut The Next Generation appeared in 1990. His first U.S. album Keepin’ the Blues Alive was released in 1997. Cruisin for a Bluesin is the groovy opener of Allison’s most recent studio album Let It Go from February 2018.

Jeremiah Johnson/Burn Down the Garden

Since it was Johnson and his new album that triggered this post, it felt appropriate to include the St. Louis-based guitarist and singer-songwriter, who according to his website merged Texas style with STL blues to create the unique sound you hear today.  Here’s another great tune from his new album Unemployed Highly Annoyed: Opener Burn Down the Garden, written by Johnson, which sounds more like southern flavored country rock than blues.

Michael Lee/Praying for Rain

Michael Lee is a blues guitarist from Fort Worth, Texas. Here’s more from his his website: Raised around blues music his entire life, Michael spent the majority of his young life in blues clubs receiving an ivy league education from watching and playing with blues legends such as Andrew “Jr Boy” Jones (Freddie King), Buddy Whittington (John Mayall), Lucky Peterson (Willie Dixon). On nights he was not in the blues clubs he was down in the stockyards soaking in the Country sounds which emanated from those honky tonks. Like Delbert McClinton and many Fort Worth musicians before him, Michael’s style of music has the perfect blend of Blues and Country. Praying for Rain, written by Lee, is from his eponymous sophomore album released in June 2019.

Ryan Perry/Ain’t Afraid to Eat Alone

Let’s do one more. Ryan Perry, who hails from Mississippi, has established himself as leader of the award-winning Homemade Jamz Blues Band since 2007. According to his profile on Ruf, Although still in his twenties, Perry has the soul, scars and war stories to rival the most hard-bitten road dog. In March this year, Perry released his solo debut album High Risk, Low Reward. Here’s the tasty opener Ain’t Afraid to Eat Alone, which like most other tracks on the album was penned by Perry.

Ruf Records’ story looks impressive. Apart from its artist roster, some 300 albums have appeared on this independent label to date. In 2007, Ruf Records received the Keeping the Blues Alive Award from the Blues Foundation of Memphis, Tenn. According to Wikipedia, they also got nominations for two Grammy Awards and 10 Blues Music Awards, and that’s as of 2008.

In an undated interview on Ruf’s website, Thomas Ruf explained the label’s philosophy as follows: “It’s right there in our motto: ‘Where The Blues Crosses Over’. We want to produce the blues of tomorrow, not just re-record the blues of yesterday, and that’s why we work with some of the bravest and most visionary artists around. People often ask me why Ruf has such a devoted following, but really it’s our artists – the Ruf Records family – who create that. Our role is to help them. To succeed in this business, it’s about working hard and being honest all the time. Speak the truth. Strive for quality in everything you do.”

Sources: Wikipedia; Ruf Records website; Blues.Gr; Rock & Blues Muse; Bette Smith website; Apple Music; Michael Lee website; YouTube

California Roots Collective Dustbowl Revival Just Released Intriguing New Album

This year is still young, and I feel my journey to discover new music is off to a promising start. Is it coincidence or, dare I say it, am I more willing to step out of my all too comfortable ’60s and ’70s bubble? I suppose it’s a little bit of both, but no reason to start sounding like a shrink and go deeper into self-analysis. At the end of the day, all that matters is the music. And the music by Collective Dustbowl on their just-released new album Is It You, Is It Me sounds intriguing to my ears.

Until earlier today, I had never heard of this band that hails from Los Angeles beachfront neighborhood Venice and has been around for close to 12 years. Is It You, Is It Me, which came out yesterday, is their fourth full-fledged studio album. Their catalog also includes a “super EP” and a live album. So who are these guys?

According to their website, Dustbowl Revival has always been about pushing the boundaries of what American roots music can be. In many ways, they could have continued creating joyful, booty-shaking songs and cut-to-heart folk-rock ballads that lift up their transcendent live shows – and mining new energetic material from the place where folk music, funk and soul meet.

But the band’s newest album, Is It You, Is It Me, coming January 31 via their own Medium Expectations label and Nashville’s Thirty Tigers, is something different entirely. Produced by Sam Kassirer [Lake Street Dive, Josh Ritter, David Ramirez] and engineered by Brian Joseph [Bon Iver, Local Natives, Sufjan Stevens], it represents the latest stage in a band that never stops evolving and refuses to stand still.

Dustbowl Revival
Dustbowl Revival (from left): Connor Vance, Matt Rubin, Liz Beebe, Zachary (Zach) Lupetin, Ulf Bjorlin and Josh Heffernan

This is my first exposure to Dustbowl Revival, so I can’t tell how the new album is different from their previous releases. But as a semi-retired hobby musician and a music fan for more than 40 years, I’m confident enough to state I know good music when I hear it. And what I hear are catchy songs, nice harmony vocals and solid musician craftsmanship. Of course, I also realize assessing music is very subjective.

Dustbowl Revival’s core members are founder Zach Lupetin (lead vocals, acoustic guitar), Liz Beebe (lead vocals, ukulele), Josh Heffernan (drums), Connor Vance (violin), Ulf Bjorlin (trombone) and Matt Rubin (trumpet). So, how does a band with this interesting sound like? Let’s get to some music to find out!

While their website doesn’t make it clear who is writing their music, I found this document suggesting all tunes are credited to the entire band. But I’m not sure this is 100 percent accurate since all songs co-credit Daniel Mark, who according to the website was their long-time co-writer and mandolin player, who co-wrote “several” of the songs and recently left. Their bassist James Klopfleisch exited as well, but none of these departures appear to have prevented the band from recording a great album. For the recording sessions, he was replaced by Yosmel Montejo.

Take a listen to the opener Dreaming, apparently a tune about stage anxiety. I dig the harmony vocals, which sometimes remind me a bit of Fleetwood Mac (check out the lines, Well, I lost all control/and I don’t know how to get it back) and the horn work on that one in particular.

Enemy has a cool brass groove and features compelling vocals by Beebe. Yes, it’s pretty pop-oriented, but I don’t have a problem with it since it sounds great! Apparently, this track was the album’s lead single.

On Get Rid of You, things get political with school shootings that sadly seem to have become the new normal in America: Well it seems every week there’s another one on the TV/you change the channel, say it’s never happen to me/but just you wait and see ‘cause you can’t stop the kids from hearing that kind of blasting/Echoing down the hallway like a bell ringing out in hell… “The gun control debate and the stubbornness with which our country refuses to adapt and pass meaningful legislation has been one of those things that really rankles me,” Lupetin told Rolling Stone. “But the kids in Florida seemed to refuse to believe that that was OK anymore. That was really inspiring to me…A lot of our popular music now feels very nihilistic, consumer-driven, and empty. I feel like there was a way to write a song where it could have an almost punk-rock fun chorus but also be about kids standing up to their elders.”

The last tune I’d like to highlight is the album’s closer Let It Go, a quiet and reflective tune, featuring more of Lupetin’s and Beebe’s beautiful harmony vocals.

I’ve been trying so hard to be
a better version of me
I found that note I wrote
When I was twenty one years old
I thought I’d figured it out

And I still don’t know my fate
And maybe I’ll never escape
I’m trying to let it go
Let it go
Let it go
Let it go
Let it go
Let it go
Let it go…

“We’ve always tried to explore different sounds within Americana/roots music and never wanted to stay in one place, which maybe confuses some people but also intrigues other people who always want to see what’s happening next,” Lupetin commented on the album to Billboard. “We’re trying to bring our music to a bigger audience. I think at a certain point we never fit into just the folk and acoustic world, and I’ve always been a huge fan of rock ‘n’ roll and of artists that can transcend genre. I wanted to be able to tell a bigger story that could be heard by more people than just the group that supports folk music.”

The music press seems to be pretty upbeat about the album. “Is It You, Is It Me highlights the topical songwriting and eclectic sound of the L.A. collective,” noted Rolling Stone. “…like nothing Dustbowl Revival has ever created during its four-album run. And that’s just the way frontman Zach Lupetin and his bandmates wanted it,” asserts Billboard. Finally Glide Magazine: “Close your eyes – if one were to imagine the kind of music played in heaven, this may well be it…this is a stunning record with lush sonic layers, gorgeous vocal harmonies, and infectious tunes.” Okay, while “music played in heaven” might be a bit over the top, this is a fun album that prooves (note to myself) that not all new music is generic and soulless.

Sources: Dustbowl Revival website and Facebook page; All Eyes Media website; Rolling Stone; Billboard; Glide Magazine; YouTube