Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

When I started Best of What’s New in March 2020, I really didn’t know whether there would be enough newly released music I sufficiently like to make this a frequently recurring feature. After all, while one occasionally encounters new artists who embrace aspects of the ’60s and ’70s, I’m under no illusion that the kind of music from my two favorite decades won’t come back. And yet, except for one occasion due to a family matter, I’ve been posting new installments weekly.

After more than a year it’s very clear to me some decent new music continues to come out. Since it’s not as easy as simply checking the charts, this can take some time. And, yes, it also requires me to be open-minded and occasionally push beyond my comfort zone. I think my selections for this week, which all appeared yesterday (May 28), illustrate the point, especially when it comes to a young artist from Canada who is of Sudanese heritage.

Jane Lee Hooker/Drive

If you’re a more frequent visitor of the blog, you may recall some of my previous posts about this blues rock-oriented band from New York. Jane Lee Hooker have been around since 2015. Their current line-up features founding members Dana “Danger” Athens (vocals), Tracy Hightop  (guitar), Tina “T-Bone” Gorin (guitar) and Hail Mary Z (bass), along with ‘Lightnin’ Ron Salvo who joined as the band’s new drummer last year. To date, Jane Lee Hooker have released two full-length albums, No B! (April 2016) and Spiritus (November 2017), which I covered here and here. Drive is their latest single, following Jericho from February. Both tunes will be on the band’s next album that’s slated for later this year. The new track is a departure from their hard-charging blues rock sound. A statement explained due to COVID-19 restrictions Jane Lee Hooker “found themselves locked out of their Brooklyn rehearsal room – the creative space where they write and rehearse with amps cranked up at maximum volume. Out of necessity, band catch-ups were moved to the grapevine-filled backyard of singer Dana Athens’ family home in Brooklyn – with tiny practice amps, acoustic guitars and drummer Ron Salvo keeping the beat on upturned plastic garbage cans and recycling bins.” Well, whatever impact the new setting may have had, I dig the outcome, which is more like a rock ballad with a nice soul vibe.

Lou Barlow/In My Arms

Lou Barlow is an alternative rock singer-songwriter who has been active since the early 1980s. Viewed as a pioneer of low-fi rock, Barlow has been a founding member of various bands, including Dinosaur Jr., Sebadoh and The Folk Implosion. Just five weeks ago, Dinosaur Jr. released their latest album Sweep It Into Space, from which I featured a track in a previous Best of What’s New installment. After 25 years, Barlow remains involved with indie rock band Sebadoh as well. In addition to his group engagements, he has also released various solo albums including his latest, Reason to Live. Here’s the opener In My Arms. I like the laid back vibe and also find this tune quite catchy.

Mustafa/Stay Alive

Mustafa Ahmed, aka Mustafa the Poet and Mustafa, is a Canadian poet, singer-songwriter and filmmaker from Toronto, who is of Sudanese heritage. According to his Apple Music profile, Mustava became known for socially conscious poetry during his youth. When he was 18, in 2014, he made his first recorded appearance as Mustafa the Poet on Lorraine Segato’s “Rize Time.” Shortly thereafter, he gained more notice when a poem he wrote was shared by Drake on social media. In 2016, Mustafa was named to the Prime Minister’s Youth Council by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and, in addition to contributing to “Feel” by Halal Gang partner SAFE, he also gained his first major songwriting credit on the Weeknd’s “Attention,” contained on the chart-topping Starboy. Over the next few years, he continued to write poetry and collaborate with other artists, and, following the murder of friend and Halal member Smoke Dawg, he made Remember Me, Toronto, a short documentary addressing gun violence and its root causes (with Drake among those whom he filmed for it). Fast-forward to the present and When Smoke Rises, Mustava’s solo debut. Here’s the album’s opener Stay Alive, co-written by him, Frank Dukes, Mohammed Omar and Simon Hessmann. Don’t let the tune’s soft acoustic sound and lovely melody distract you from the serious lyrics. Here’s an excerpt: A bottle of lean, a gun in your jeans/And a little faith in me/A plane in the sky, the only starlight/On this never-ending street/The cameras and cops, we could’ve been stars/On our mothers news screens…It’s almost a Marvin Gaye/What’s Going On approach.

Blackberry Smoke/Ain’t the Same

The last track I’d like to highlight in this Best of What’s New is a great song by Blackberry Smoke, a southern rock band formed in Atlanta, Ga. in 2000. Their line-up includes Charlie Starr (vocals, guitar), Paul Jackson (guitar, vocals), Brandon Still (keyboards), Richard Turner (bass, vocals) and Brit Turner (drums). Blackberry Smoke released their debut album Bad Luck Ain’t No Crime in 2003. The third album The Whippoorwill from August 2012 brought the band their first chart success in the U.S. and the UK. They have performed throughout the U.S. as headliner and supporting acts for the likes of Zac Brown Band, Eric Church, ZZ Top and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Ain’t the Same, co-written by Starr and Keith Nelson, is a track from Blackberry Smoke’s new album You Hear Georgia, their seventh studio release. I’ll be sure to check it out more closely!

Sources: Wikipedia; Apple Music; YouTube

The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random songs at a time

Is it really Sunday again? It is. Crazy how time seems to be flying. On the upside, Sunday is fun day and time for my favorite recurring feature. I think I’ve put together another set of six tunes that celebrates the beauty of music in its different flavors. Hope you enjoy it!

Henry Mancini/The Pink Panther Theme

Long before I had ever heard of Peter Sellers, Inspector Jacques Closeau and The Pink Panther movies, I was familiar with The Pink Panther Theme. That’s because I watched the cartoon series as a child growing up in Germany. I always loved the instrumental theme, which was composed by Henry Mancini in 1963 for the first movie in the series titled The Pink Panther. When that track came to my mind the other day, I figured it would be great to feature one of the coolest jazz instrumentals I know in a Sunday Six installment. Apart from being included in the film’s soundtrack album, The Pink Panther Theme also became a top 10 single in the U.S. on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart, then known as Middle Road Singles. And it won three Grammy Awards. Undoubtedly, the standout is the tenor saxophone solo played by American soul-jazz and hard bop tenor saxophonist Plas Johnson who is still alive at 89 years.

Solomon Burke/A Change Is Gonna Come

Solomon Burke may not have enjoyed the chart success of peers like James Brown, Wilson Pickett or Otis Redding, but he still is considered to be one of the founding fathers of soul music in the ’60s. Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler called him “the greatest male soul singer of all time.” Burke was also known as “King Solomon”, the “King of Rock ‘n’ Soul”, “Bishop of Soul” and the “Muhammad Ali of Soul”. No matter what you want to call him, there’s no doubt that Burke was an amazing vocalist, and I got a powerful example to illustrate my point: His amazing rendition of A Change Is Gonna Come, which has literally brought me to tears. The tune was written by Sam Cooke and first appeared on his final studio album Ain’t That Good News from February 1966, 10 months prior to his mysterious death from a gun shot at a Los Angeles motel in December 1964. Burke who passed away in October 2010 recorded A Change Is Gonna Come as the title track of a studio album that appeared 1986. If you haven’t heard this cover, you need to check it out. It’s incredibly moving!

Curtis Mayfield/Move On Up

At the time I decided to feature the previous Solomon Burke tune, I also thought of Move On Up by Curtis Mayfield. Then I saw fellow blogger Music Enthusiast featured the same song earlier this week in one of his posts and considered scrapping it. When I told him, Music Enthusiast encouraged me to keep it, saying “It’s a great song that shouldn’t be forgotten and deserves the widest audience possible.” He’s right. Move On Up is the title track of Mayfield’s debut solo album Curtis, which came out in September 1970. Addressing challenges faced by many African Americans, the album was somewhat comparable to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, except it predated Gaye’s seminal record by eight months. Move On Up, which like all other tracks on the record was written by Mayfield, appeals to listeners not to let obstacles get in the way to pursue dreams and make the best of life. As such, the tune has a more upbeat message than some of the other darker tracks on the album. Sometimes, I can get a bit impatient when it comes to long songs. Not so in this case where I love each and every second of the 8:49 minutes: The horns, the congas, the cool bass line, Mayfield’s falsetto vocals – it’s just perfect!

Jean-Michel Jarre/Oxygène (Part IV)

Let’s continue with the idea of moving up. Way up. All the way to outer space. To those who have followed my blog for a long time and have witnessed my occasional criticism of “artificial music” that is “generated by computers,” the selection of Jean-Michel Jarre may come as a bit of a surprise. After all, we’re talking electronic music that’s entirely generated by synthesizers. Not even the drums are real. So what’s up with that seemingly contradictory pick? Well, perhaps Jarre is the exception that proves my rule! 🙂 It’s simple. I’ve always had a thing for space music and Oxygène, Jarre’s third studio album released in December 1976, is exactly that. The best way to listen to this album is with headphones. The sound effects are just amazing, and before you know it, you feel like floating in space. I’ve listened to this music countless times to fall asleep. Here’s the best known track from the album, Oxygène (Part IV). It also appeared separately and became the most successful single of Jarre’s still-ongoing recording career, topping the charts in Spain and reaching the top 10 in various other European countries and in New Zealand. Happy floating!

Héroes del Silencio/Entre dos tierras

Héroes del Silencio were a Spanish rock band from Zaragoza. They were formed as Zumo de Vidrio in 1984 by guitarist Juan Valdivia and vocalist Enrique Bunbury. Bassist Joaquín Cardiel and drummer Pedro Andreu completed the line-up of the band, which in 1985 changed their name to Héroes del Silencio. The group’s debut EP Héroe de Leyenda from 1987 was followed by full-length debut album El Mar No Cesa, which came out in October 1988. The breakthrough came with sophomore studio release Senderos de traición from May 1990. It topped the charts in Spain and reached no. 17 in Germany. Altogether, Héroes del Silencio recorded four studio and various live and compilation albums before they disbanded in 1996. In 2007, as part of a 20th anniversary celebration, the band organized a 10-concert world tour. Entre dos tierras, credited to all members of the group, is the opener to their aforementioned sophomore album. While it’s the only Héroes del Silencio tune I know, I’ve always liked its amazing sound.

The Who/Success Story

I guess we’ve already reached the point again when it’s time to wrap up. Let’s do so with another rocker: Success Story by The Who. The track from their seventh studio album The Who by Numbers from October 1975 may not be the most popular or best tune by The Who. But when I coincidentally stumbled across the song the other day, I immediately earmarked it for a Sunday Six. Notably, it’s one of the few tunes written by John Entwistle. I also dig the lyrics, which Songfacts calls “a cynical autobiography of The Who.” Songfacts further notes, The line, “I’m your fairy manager” is an allusion to The Who’s gay manager Kit Lambert, who they were in the process of suing. Referring to a preacher becoming a rock musician, Entwistle also poked fun at Pete Townshend who followed Indian spiritual master Meher Baba and included spirituality in his songs. Perhaps most importantly, this song simply rocks and is bloody catchy!

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube

Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” Turns 50

Seminal album transformed Motown’s most successful artist to a social observer

Mother, mother/There’s too many of you crying/Brother, brother, brother/ There’s far too many of you dying/You know we’ve got to find a way/To bring some lovin’ here today – Ya

Father, father/We don’t need to escalate/You see, war is not the answer/For only love can conquer hate/You know we’ve got to find a way/To bring some lovin’ here today

It’s incredible to realize these music lyrics that could have come out today instead appeared exactly 50 years ago on May 21, 1971 when Marvin Gaye released What’s Going On. Earlier this month, I was reminded of this seminal studio album when I caught the CNN documentary What’s Going On: Marvin Gaye’s Anthem for the Ages. With Gaye being one of my all-time favorite soul vocalists, it wasn’t a difficult decision to dedicate a post to the 50th anniversary of this remarkable record.

Photo of Marvin GAYE

The following lightly edited background on What’s Going On comes from a previous post I published about the album in April 2017. I thought it’s a perfect fit for this 50-year anniversary commemoration.

In the spring of 1970, Marvin Gaye found himself in a deep depression. Singer Tammi Terrell, his duet partner on songs like Ain’t No Mountain High EnoughYour Precious Love and Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing, had passed away from brain cancer at the age of 24. His marriage with Anna Gordy, an older sister of Motown founder Berry Gordy, was failing. And Gaye’s younger brother, Frances “Frankie” Gaye, had returned from Vietnam, sharing with Marvin the horrors of war he had seen firsthand.

Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell

Then Obie Benson from The Four Tops handed Gaye a protest song, What’s Going On, after his band and Joan Baez had passed on it. The lyrics had been inspired by police brutality against young anti-war protesters in Berkeley, Calif., which Benson had witnessed during a tour with his band. Gaye liked the song and initially had in mind to record it with Motown quartet The Originals. But Benson insisted that Gaye sing the song himself. It would prove to be the catalyst Gaye needed to express what was going through his mind and plant the seed for an entire album.

When Berry Gordy heard the tune for the first time, he reportedly called it “the worst thing I ever heard in my life.” As a business man, he was concerned a song with such political lyrics would not sell. But Gaye didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer and refused to record anything else for Motown unless Gordy would change his mind. With the support of Motown executive Harry Balk and company sales executive Barney Ales, the song was released as as single without Gordy’s knowledge – a gutsy move!

Marvin Gaye PBS Documentary

What’s Going On became an overnight sensation and Motown’s fastest-selling single at the time. Only during the first week, more than 100,000 copies were flying off the shelves. The song also climbed to no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and hit no. 1 on the R&B Chart. A stunned Gordy told Gaye he could record whatever music he wanted, as long as he’d finish an album within 30 days. Gaye did not need any further encouragement and returned to the studio.

In only 10 days, between March 1 and March 10, 1971, Gaye recorded eight additional tracks for what would become a concept album. Kicking off with the title track, most songs lead into the next and have a similar laid back groove that is in marked contrast to the lyrics. Gaye covered a broad range of “heavy” topics, such as social unrest (What’s Going On), disillusioned Vietnam war veterans (What’s Happening Brother) – a song about his brother Frankie; environmental degradation (Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)); and the bleak socioeconomic situation of inner-city America (Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).

Marvin Gaye PBS Documentary 2

Reflecting on What’s Going On, Gaye told Rolling Stone, “In 1969 or 1970, I began to reevaluate my whole concept of what I wanted my music to say. I was very much affected by letters my brother was sending me from Vietnam, as well as the social situation here at home. I realized I had to put my own fantasies behind me if I wanted to write songs that would reach the souls of people. I wanted them to take a look at what was happening in the world.”

Gaye dedicated the album to Marvin Gaye Sr., his strict father and a baptist minister, who had introduced him to singing through church music but also abused him as a child. Throughout his life, Marvin would seek his father’s approval, but whatever he did wasn’t good enough. During an excellent PBS documentary Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On, Motown road manager Joe Schaffner explained: “Marvin went to buy his dad a Cadillac. He would send him all kinds of gifts…His father would accept them…But he would never come to grips and say, ‘thank you,’ or smile, or none of that!” Instead, he would tragically become the man who would shoot his own son Marvin Gaye to death during a physical argument on April 1, 1984 with a gun Marvin had previously given to him for protection.

Time for some music! And what better tune to start than the album’s marvelous title track. The tune ended up being credited to Benson, Gaye and Al Cleveland. The Originals provided backing vocals along with Gaye. Gaye also played piano and box drum. The remaining instrumentation was provided by Motown session musicians The Funk Brothers and Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

Save the Children is a haunting track about the failure of current generations to preserve the world for their children. The song was co-written by Cleveland, Gaye and Renaldo Benson. Motown female session group The Andantes sang backing vocals, with instrumentation provided by The Funk Brothers. An excerpt of the lyrics:…When I look at the world/(When I look at the world)/Oh, it fills me with sorrow/(It fills me with sorrow)/Little children today/(Children today)/Really gonna suffer tomorrow/(Really suffer tomorrow)…

Next up: Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology), the album’s only track that Gaye wrote all by himself. Apart from singing lead and backing vocals, Gaye played piano and Mellotron. The Andantes and The Funk Brothers were also featured in this tune. I had not realized what an accomplished musician Gaye was and that he started out as a session drummer. In the CNN documentary, Smokey Robinson noted Gaye backed The Miracles on drums. …Woah, ah, mercy, mercy me/Ah, things ain’t what they used to be (ain’t what they used to be)/Where did all the blue skies go?/Poison is the wind that blows/From the north and south and east…

Let’s do one more track: Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler), the album’s powerful closer. The song about the bleak situation in certain inner cities in America was co-written by Gaye and James Nyx, Jr. In addition to lead and backing vocals, Gaye played piano. The distinct bongos were provided by percussionist Bobbye Jean Hall. Once again, the tune also featured The Funk Brothers and Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Check out this lyrical excerpt, which sounds like it could be from a present day song about Black Lives Matter: …Crime is increasing/Trigger happy policing/Panic is spreading/God know where we’re heading/Oh, make me wanna holler/They don’t understand…

Despite the charged topics it addresses, What’s Going On doesn’t come across as rabble-rousing or preachy. Undoubtedly, much of it has to do with Gaye’s soft and beautiful vocals. I think this quote from Sheila E., which was taken from the CNN film and included in this accompanying story, sums it up nicely: “His melodies were like a voice of cry…(He) talked about the ghetto, talked about injustice, talked about the war. But he wasn’t yelling and protesting.”

Somebody else in the CNN documentary made another observation I found interesting. What’s Going On sounded like a Motown production without following the traditional formula. During the ’60s and early ’70s, that formula generated the Motown sound and one hit after the other.

What’s Going On was Marvin Gaye’s first top 10 album on the Billboard 200. It climbed to no. 6 and stayed on the mainstream chart for almost one year. It also topped Billboard’s Top R&B Chart, then known as the Soul Chart. The album became Motown’s and Gaye’s best-selling record until his 1973 release Let’s Get It On.

What’s Going On was broadly hailed by music critics. It also received numerous accolades, including a no. 6 ranking on Rolling Stone’s 2003 list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. In the list’s most recent revision from September 2020, the album moved up all the way to no. 1 – a clear sign how relevant the lyrics remain in present-day America! In the UK, the record also topped the 1985 list of NME Writers All Time 100 Albums. What’s Going On was also one of 50 recordings selected by the Library of Congress that same year to be added to the National Recording Registry.

In January, Universal Music Enterprises released three new digital collections to commemorate the 50th anniversary, as reported by uDiscoverMusic: What’s Going On: Deluxe Edition/50th Anniversary features the original album, plus 12 bonus tracks, including each of the LP’s original mono single versions and their B-sides. What’s Going On: The Detroit Mix is the album’s original mix, which Gaye cancelled at the last minute to have it redone in Los Angeles. The third release is Funky Nation: The Detroit Instrumentals, which includes 14 tracks Gaye recorded in the late summer and fall of 1971 after What’s Going On had come out.

Sources: Wikipedia; Rolling Stone; “Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On”, PBS “American Masters” documentary, May 2008; Variety; CNN; uDiscoverMusic; YouTube

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

It’s that time of the week again to take another look at newly released music. This latest Best of What’s New installment turned out to be pretty rock-oriented. All songs are on albums that came out yesterday (April 16).

Greta Van Fleet/Built By Nations

Kicking things off is some great blistering rock by Greta Van Fleet, a rock band from Frankenmuth, Mich. They were formed in 2012 by twin brothers Josh Kiszka (vocals) and Jake Kiszka (guitar) and their younger brother Sam Kiszka (bass), along with Kyle Hauck (drums). Hauck left in 2013 and was replaced by Danny Wagner who remains the band’s drummer to this day. Greta Van Fleet have attracted plenty of attention for embracing ’70s classic rock and some criticism from certain music reviewers who accused them of ripping off early Led Zeppelin. While there’s no denying some of the Michigan rockers’ early tunes have a Led Zeppelin I vibe, I always found the criticism overblown. Plus, I dig Zep, so selfishly I didn’t mind in the first place. Greta Van Fleet have since evolved their sound, as illustrated by their latest album The Battle at Garden’s Gate. Some tracks had been released as singles ahead of what is the band’s second full-length studio album, including My Way, Soon and Age of Machine. I previously featured them here and here. Following is Built By Nations. Like all other tracks on the album, it is credited to the entire band.

Eric Church/Heart on Fire

Eric Church is a country singer-songwriter from Nashville, Tenn. According to his artist profile on Apple Music, Church is a gifted storyteller, delivering relatable, regular-guy sing-alongs with a warm, reedy drawl. The North Carolina native started early—he was writing songs at 13 and taught himself to play guitar soon after, eventually getting a taste of touring with his college band, Mountain Boys. But his sharp lyrical observations and sly humor helped him find footing in Nashville’s songwriter circuit and land a solo record deal. His debut album Sinners Like Me appeared in July 2006. The third album Chief from July 2011 brought the big breakthrough, topping both the Billboard Top Country Albums and the Billboard 200 mainstream charts. Heart on Fire, written by Church, is the opener of Heart, the first part of an ambitious triple album titled Heart & Soul that features 25 tracks. Parts 2 and 3, & and Soul, are slated to be released on April 20 and April 23, respectively.

The Offspring/Let the Bad Times Roll

The Offspring were formed in 1984 as Manic Subsidal in Garden Grove, Calif. The band, which changed their name to The Offspring in 1986, has been credited for reviving mainstream interest in punk rock, together with fellow Californian outfits Green Day and Rancid. The current line-up includes founding member Bryan “Dexter” Holland (lead vocals, guitar), along with Kevin “Noodles” Wasserman (guitar), Todd Morse (bass) and Pete Parada (drums). The band released their eponymous debut album in June 1989. Their international breakthrough, appropriately titled Smash, appeared in April 1994. Fueled by hit singles Come Out and Play, Self Esteem and Gotta Get Away, the album surged to no. 4 in the U.S. on the Billboard 200, peaked at no. 3 in Canada, topped the charts in Australia, and reached the top 5 in various European countries. Altogether, The Offspring have released 10 studio albums, 4 EPs, two compilations and multiple singles over their now 37-year career. Let the Bad Times Roll, written by Holland, is the catchy title track of their new album.

Paul McCartney & Joshua Homme/Lavatory Lil

Wrapping up this Best of What’s New installment is Paul McCartney who has been on a remarkable roll. Following the release of his 18th solo album McCartney III last December, which I reviewed here, he is back with an encore titled McCartney III Imagined. According to an announcement on his website, the album features an A-List assortment of friends, fans and brand new  acquaintances, each covering and/or reimagining their favorite  McCartney III  moments in their own signature stylesMcCartney III Imagined continues the tradition of the biggest and most diverse names in music covering Paul’s songs — an ever-expanding  lineup that ranges from more recent versions by Billie Eilish, Harry Styles, Dave  Grohl, Coldplay and The Cure, to interpretations over the years from the likes of U2, Guns N’ Roses, Earth Wind & Fire, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Marvin Gaye, Bill Withers, Joe Cocker, Stevie Wonder, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles and so many more.  McCartney III Imagined is a testament of Paul’s enduring and unmatched influence, a legacy that stretches from “Yesterday” being the most covered song in contemporary musical history to the inspiration his current work continues to hold for generations of artists and fans. What I find remarkable is the apparent open-mindedness of McCartney who is turning 79 in June to work with a broad group of contemporary artists, such as Dominic Fike, Khruangbin, Blood Orange, St. Vincent, Phoebe Bridgers and Beck. Frankly, except for the last two, these are all new names to me! Here’s Lavatory Lil, imagined together with Joshua Homme who is best known as the main songwriter, lead vocalist and guitarist of American rock band Queens of the Stone Age.

Sources: Wikipedia; Apple Music; Paul McCartney website; YouTube

The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random songs at a time

It’s another Sunday morning in good ole’ New Jersey. The weather looks decent with temperatures supposed to hit the ’60s – perfect for an Easter egg hunt, if you’re into it! In case you prefer music or perhaps combine Easter egg hunting with some great tunes, I encourage you to read on. I think I’ve put together another nice and diverse set of six random tunes: Some instrumental rock, bluegrass, alternative rock, soul and blues rock.

The Shadows/Apache

I’m a huge fan of Hank Marvin, the lead guitarist of The Shadows, whose combination of his Fender Stratocaster and a Vox amplifier created a cool signature sound. Initially founded in 1958 under the name of The Drifters as the backing group for Cliff Richard, the instrumental band became The Shadows in July 1959, after the U.S. vocal group of the same name had threatened legal action. The Shadows soon stepped out of – well – Richards’ shadow and gained popularity on their own. Apache, released in July 1960, became their first no. 1 hit in the UK. It also topped the charts in France, Ireland, New Zealand and South Africa. Written by English composer Jerry Lordan, the tune was first recorded by English guitarist Bert Weedon. But Lordan didn’t like it. I have to agree the version by The Shadows sounds much more dynamic. Still, Weedon’s recording of the track, which came out at the same time, made it to no. 24 on the British charts.

Alison Krauss & Union Station/My Opening Farewell

I’ve yet to more fully explore American bluegrass and country artist Alison Krauss, who I primarily know because of her 2007 collaboration album with Robert Plant. When I came across My Opening Farewell the other day, I immediately liked the tune, so it wasn’t a hard decision to feature it a Sunday Six installment. Written by Jackson Browne, Opening Farewell is the closer of Krauss’ 14th studio album Paper Airplane from April 2011, which she recorded together with her longtime backing band Union Station. While Krauss has continued to perform with Union Station, Paper Airplane is her most recent album with the band. In February 2017, Krauss released Windy City, her fifth and latest solo album. Hope you enjoy Opening Farewell as much as I do!

Counting Crows/Round Here

When I heard Mr. Jones for the first time, I fell in love immediately with American alternative rock band Counting Crows and immediately got their debut album August and Everything After from September 1993. While Mr. Jones, which also became the lead single, is the obvious hit, there are many other great tunes on that record as well. One of them is the opener Round Here. Co-written by lead vocalist Adam Duritz and the band’s guitarist David Bryson, together with Dave Janusko, Dan Jewett and Chris Roldan, the tune also became the album’s second single in 1994. Counting Crows remain active to this day and have released six additional studio albums to date, with Somewhere Under Wonderland from September 2014 being the most recent. Some new music may be on the way. In February 2020, Duritz revealed the band was working in the studio on a suite of songs that could be released as a series of EPs. I guess we have to stay tuned. In the meantime, here’s the excellent Round Here.

Marvin Gaye/Mercy Mercy Me

I trust Marvin Gaye doesn’t need an introduction. In my book, he was one of the greatest soul vocalists of all time. After gaining initial fame with a string of hits at Motown and helping shape the Detroit label’s infectious sound, Gaye emancipated himself from Berry Gordy’s production machine in the 1970s and recorded and produced a series of highly regarded albums. The first one was What’s Going On from May 1971, a true ’70s soul gem. Don’t be fooled by the beautiful music and Gaye’s smooth singing. The concept album explored themes like drug abuse, poverty, environmental degradation and the Vietnam War. Just because Gaye didn’t believe in “shouting,” this doesn’t mean his social commentary wasn’t biting. Here’s the amazing Mercy Mercy Me, expressing Gaye’s sadness about ecological decay.

Southern Avenue/80 Miles From Memphis

As we start approaching the end of this Sunday Six installment, it’s time to speed things up, don’t you agree? More frequent visitors of the blog have probably noticed my deep affection for Southern Avenue, a band from Memphis, Tenn., which blends blues and soul with flavors of contemporary R&B. I think these guys are dynamite and are one of the best contemporary bands. I also love the racial diversity they represent. Southern Avenue are Israeli blues guitarist Ori Naftaly; two amazing African American ladies, lead vocalist Tierinii Jackson and her sister Tikyra Jackson who plays the drums and sings backing vocals; white bassist Evan Sarver; and African American keyboarder Jeremy Powell. Here’s 80 Miles From Memphis, a tune written by Naftaly from the band’s eponymous debut album released in February 2017. BTW, in 2016, Southern Avenue became the first new act signed to Stax Records in many years. How cool is that?

ZZ Top/Tush

Okay, with this last tune, let’s push the pedal to the metal. In my book, Tush by ZZ Top is perhaps the ultimate blues rocker. I just love the guitar riff, the bottleneck action, and how tight the band sounds. Formed in 1969 in Houston, the trio of Billy Gibbons (guitar, vocals), Dusty Hill (bass, vocals) and Frank Beard (drums) is rocking to this day. Fun fact: Beard is the only member of the band without a beard! ZZ Top have released 15 studio albums, four live albums, seven compilations and more than 40 singles to date. Looks like their most recent release was a compilation from 2019 titled Goin’ 50. Tush, credited to all members of the band, is the closer of ZZ Top’s fourth studio album Fandango!, which appeared in April 1975. Take it away, boys!

Last but not least, to those who celebrate it, I’d like to wish you a Happy Easter. To those who don’t, have a great Sunday anyway!

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

Another week has flown by, which means it’s time again to take a look at newly released music. After some digging, I think I’ve found a decent and diverse set of tunes. This installment of Best of What’s New features a great Hammond B-3 jazzy rendition of a popular Donovan song, melodic indie rock, pop folk-oriented alternative country and soulful Americana. All tunes appear on albums that came out yesterday (March 26). Sounds intriguing? Let’s get to it!

Dr. Lonnie Smith/Sunshine Superman (feat. Iggy Pop)

An artist calling himself Dr. Lonnie Smith who teams up with the godfather of punk Iggy Pop to cover a great Donovan tune was sure to get my attention. Born in Buffalo, N.Y. in July 1942, Smith is a jazz Hammond B3 organist who first came to prominence in the mid-60s when he joined the quartet of jazz guitarist George Benson. After recording two albums with Benson, Smith released his solo debut Finger Lickin’ Good Soul Organ in 1967. Twenty-six additional records have since appeared under his name. According to his website, Smith has recorded everything from covers of the Beatles, the Stylistics and the Eurythmics, to tribute albums of Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane and Beck-all by employing ensembles ranging from a trio to a fifteen-piece big band. He also appeared on close to 80 albums by other artists, such as Lou Donaldson, Marvin Gaye, Jimmy Ponder, Ron Holloway, Eric Gale and Nora Jones. His artist profile on Apple Music notes Smith at some point became Dr. Lonnie Smith (for “no particular reason,” the same reason he gives for why he always wears a traditional Sikh turban). His rendition of Sunshine Superman, the title track of Donovan’s third studio album from August 1966, is the closer of the doctor’s new album Breathe. Iggy Pop provides vocals on this tune, as well as album opener Why Can’t We Live Together. This is just cool stuff!

Real Estate/Half a Human

Real Estate are an indie rock band from Ridgewood, N.J. According to their artist profile on Apple Music, Real Estate’s core members were childhood friends, but the band didn’t take shape until 2008, after they’d all completed college and returned to their hometown of Ridgewood, New Jersey. Arriving in 2009, the group’s self-titled debut album earned a Best New Music tag from Pitchfork—a distinction that was also given to their next two LPs. Days, their 2011 sophomore LP, hit No. 11 on  Billboard’s Alternative Albums chart, and 2014’s Atlas did even better, reaching No. 7. Following the departure of guitarist Matthew Mondanile in 2016, lo-fi pop specialist Julian Lynch—another childhood friend from New Jersey—took his place in the band. In addition to Lynch, Real Estate’s current lineup includes co-founders Martin Courtney (vocals, guitar) and Alex Bleeker (bass, vocals), along with Matt Kallman (keyboards) and Sammi Niss (drums). Half a Human, co-written by Bleeker, Lynch, Courtney, Kallman and the band’s former drummer Jackson Pollis, is the title track of their sixth and new album. The melodic and laid back sound of this tune drew me in right away.

Esther Rose/Songs Remain

Esther Rose is a country artist from New Orleans, La. She began her career by collaborating with her then-husband and guitarist Luke Winslow-King. In 2017, Rose released her solo debut album This Time Last Night. Songs Remain is a track from her third and latest album How Many Times. On this record, Rose expands her alt-country sound into a blossoming world of folk pop and tender harmonies, notes her website. A collection of complete takes recorded live to tape with rich instrumentation, soul-tugging hooks, and resonating vocal melodies, How Many Times carries you into the room in which it was made. There to help realize this was co-producer Ross Farbe of synthpop band Video Age, who Rose also credits for bringing a stereo pop glow to these new songs. I like what I’m hearing here!

Miko Marks & The Resurrectors/Ancestors

Let’s wrap up things with African American country singer Miko Marks who was born in Flint, Mich. In 2005, she released her debut single Freeway Bound, which also was the title track of her first studio album that appeared in September that year. The sophomore It Feels Good followed in August 2007. In 2006, Marks was named Best New Country Artist by U.S. trade magazine New Music Weekly. She also won various awards at the Independent Music Awards in 2006, 2007 and 2008. After a pretty successful looking early career, it appears things slowed down for Marks. Ancestors is the opener of Our Country, her first album since It Feels Good. She’s backed by The Resurrectors, the impressive sounding house band of Redtone Records. Well, it may have been more than 13 years since Marks’ last release, but it surely looks like the wait was worth it. I just love the soulful southern rock sound of Ancestors, which first appeared as a single in December 2020.

Sources: Wikipedia; Dr. Lonnie Smith website; Apple Music; YouTube

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

Usually, I keep my forays into newly released music to four tunes. This installment includes two more tracks. Why? Easy, ‘coz I can! On a more serious note, unlike other weeks where I feel more challenged to find music that sufficiently speaks to me, I discovered these tracks fairly quickly. And since I couldn’t quite decide on four, I ended up taking all six. Except for the final song, all tunes are included on releases that appeared yesterday (March 19).

Mason Lively/Love Ain’t Done a Damn Thing

Mason Lively is a country/Americana artist from Victoria, Texas. According to his website, he grew up in a country music atmosphere. His appreciation for the genre can be traced back to his childhood. Though he enjoyed and was exposed to many types of music, he would listen to artists like Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, and Ray Price to name a few. Growing up, while also being influenced by Blues and Classic Rock, Mason started to take interest and study the songwriting of artists from his home state’s music scene like Robert Earl Keen, Pat Green, Hayes Carll, and many more. As a result, when he started playing guitar at age 14, Mason claims that song-writing “sort of snuck up on him” not long after that. Lively’s debut album Stronger Ties appeared in April 2018. Love Ain’t Done a Damn Thing is a track from his new eponymous sophomore album.

Michigander/Let Down

Jason Singer, performing as Michigander, is a singer-songwriter hailing from Midland, Mich., who has been active since 2014. His artist profile on Apple Music describes Michigander’s music as a rich blend of hook-driven and radio-ready indie rock with electronic flourishes and earnest, big-hearted storytelling that invokes names like Lord Huron and Mumford & Sons. He is a self-taught multi-instrumentalist who spent his formative years building a sonic persona that looked to a wide array of influencers, including Coldplay, Rush, James Taylor, and the White Stripes. After honing his skills playing solo sets, Singer relocated to Kalamazoo in 2014 and began operating under the Michigander moniker. In 2016 he issued the nostalgia-driven single “Nineties,” which garnered over a million online streams. Looking to capitalize on the success of the single, Singer turned his one-man solo project into a fully-fledged rock & roll band and hit the road, sharing bills with contemporaries like Ra Ra Riot, Tokyo Police Club, and Twin Peaks, and released the group’s debut EP, Midland, in 2018. The following year saw the band ink a deal with C3 Records and issue a second EP, Where Do We Go from Here? Well, I suppose the answer is Everything Will Be Ok Eventually, Michigander’s latest EP. Here’s lead single Let Down. I have to say I find this tune quite catchy.

Alice Phoebe Lou/Dusk

South African singer-songwriter Alice Phoebe Lou first entered my radar screen in July 2020, when I covered her then-latest single Touch in a previous Best of What’s New installment. As noted there, Lou grew up on a mountainside in South Africa, attending a local Waldorf school that cultivated her innate love of music and the arts. She made her first visit to Europe at 16, a life-changing journey that first saw her taking her songs to the streets. Lou returned home to finish school but as soon as she was able made her way back to Europe, specifically Berlin. Armed with just her guitar, a small amp, a passel of distinctive original songs, and an utterly intoxicating voice and charm, she soon built a devoted fan following, not just in Berlin but around the world as tourists and passers-by from faraway places were so captivated by her music that they began sharing it amongst friends and social media. Lou self-released her debut EP, Momentum, in 2014, followed two years later by her acclaimed first full-length, Orbit. Dusk, written by Lou, is from her new album Glow. Just like I felt previously, her music falls outside my core wheelhouse but there’s just something about it.

Ringo Starr/Waiting For the Tide to Turn

Just like his ex-Beatles mate Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr kept busy during the pandemic. One of the results is a new EP titled Zoom In. A statement on his website notes it features 5 songs all of which were recorded at Starr’s home studio between April-October 2020...Joining Starr were musicians Nathan East (bass), Steve Lukather (guitar), Bruce Sugar (synth guitar), Benmont Tench (piano), Charlie Bisharat (violin), Jacob Braun (cello), and Jim Cox (string arrangements and synth strings). Dave Grohl, Ben Harper and Jenny Lewis also joined Starr in the home studio, and all contributed to the first single, Here’s To The NightsI previously covered it hereRingo co-wrote “Waiting For The Tide to Turn” with his engineer Bruce Sugar, adding Tony Chen and his extensive reggae roots; “This was something my engineer Bruce Sugar started, but it didn’t have a lot of words, so we wrote it together. I did my version of reggae and what was great was we had Tony Chen, who played with Bob Marley and lives here in LA, come over and play on it. He said, ‘hey Mon, that you on drums mon?’ and I said yes, and he said ‘great drums mon, very reggae!’ and my heart swelled! It was so great coming from him.” Ringo and reggae was something I didn’t expect, but I think it came out pretty well!

Joyce Wrice/Chandler

Joyce Wrice is an R&B and soul artist from Los Angeles. There isn’t any background on her website and Facebook page, so I’m relying on a news story by MTV. Chandler is the opener of Wrice’s debut album Overgrown. The release follows a series of EPs and publishing covers on YouTube for 10 years. Some of her influences include Missy Elliott, Aaliyah and Sade. Apparently, she is also influenced by her Japanese heritage and Buddhism. “One of the things that I’ve learned through my Buddhist practice is to create opportunities within the obstacle or the struggle,” Wrice pointed out to MTV News. “It’s actually helped me to dig deeper and not be swayed by the situation and keep pushing through.” This tune has a cool vibe. I can hear some early ’70s Marvin Gaye in here.

Tigers Jaw/New Detroit

American rock band Tigers Shaw were formed in Scranton, Pa. in 2005. The group was started in high school by Ben Walsh, who played drums at the time, and Adam McIlwee (guitar, vocals). A few months later, they were joined by Brianna Collins (keyboards, vocals). The band released their debut album Belongs to the Dead in October 2006. By the time of their eponymous sophomore album from September 2008, Tigers Shaw had grown to a five-piece and Walsh had switched to guitar and vocals. He and Collins remain part of the current formation that also includes Colin Gorman (bass, rhythm guitar) and Theodore Roberts (drums). According to their Apple Music profile, the band’s music evolved from pop punk to Emo to indie rock. New Detroit is from their sixth studio album I Won’t Care How You Remember Me, which appeared on March 5. I really like how melodic and catchy this song is!

Sources: Wikipedia; Mason Lively website; Apple Music; Ringo Starr website; MTV News; YouTube

The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random songs at a time

It’s Sunday morning again, which means yet another week has flown by. But here in the U.S. it also brings us one week closer to the start of daylight savings time and another step toward spring – take this, winter! I’m also really happy how this latest installment of The Sunday Six came out. With smooth saxophone jazz, electric guitar-driven roots rock, pop, soul and some kickass rock, I think it’s another selection illustrating great music comes in many flavors.

Grover Washington Jr./Take Me There

I’d like to kick off the set with some beautiful smooth saxophone playing by Grover Washington Jr. with a tune from his 11th album Winelight released in 1980. When I listened to the record for the first time, which I believe was shortly after it had come out, I feel in love with the music right away. Hard core jazz fans may dismiss it as too pop-oriented. To me as an infrequent listener of jazz, I find it very accessible. More importantly, I really dig Washington Jr.’s smooth tone. Winelight, his highest charting album in the U.S. on the Billboard 200 (no. 5), became best known for Just the Two of Us, featuring the amazing Bill Withers on vocals. Take Me There was written by Washington Jr., who released 24 albums over a nearly 30-year recording career. His 25th and final record Aria appeared in March 2000 after his untimely death in December 1999 from a massive heart attack at age 56. What a loss!

Mark Knopfler/The Fizzy and the Still

Let’s do some more relaxing music. How about some magic Stratocaster played by maestro Mark Knopfler? The Fizzy and the Still is from his fifth solo album Kill to Get Crimson released in September 2007. I’ve always been a fan of Knopfler’s melodic guitar-playing ever since I listened to Dire Straits’ eponymous debut from October 1978. Like on all except one of his solo albums, Knopfler’s backing musicians included multi-instrumentalist Guy Fletcher, who had served as keyboarder in Dire Straits from 1984 until the band’s dissolution in 1995.

Cindy Lauper/Time After Time

Yep, this is an ’80s pop song. I dug Time After Time from the very first moment I heard it on the radio when it came out in 1984. Unlike many other ’80s tunes I also liked back then, this one holds up well to me. Time After Time was co-written by Cindy Lauper and Bob Hyman who is best known to be among the founding members of American rock band The Hooters (there’s another blast from the past!). The tune appeared on Lauper’s October 1983 debut album aptly titled She’s So Unusual. And what a start it was! Fueled by multiple hit singles, which in addition to Time After Time included Girls Just Want to Have Fun, She Bop and All Through the Night, She’s So Unusual became Lauper’s best-selling album. It also topped the charts in Canada, and made the top 10 in the U.S. (no. 4), Austria (no.5), Switzerland (no. 8), Australia (no. 5) and Japan (no. 5). Since then, Lauper has released 10 additional studio albums, various compilations and Broadway cast album Kinky Boots (2013), which was produced by Lauper who also wrote the songs. Now 67, Lauper remains active to this day.

The Rolling Stones/Hitch Hike

Let’s kick up the speed by a notch with a great cover by the The Rolling Stones: Hitch Hike. Originally, this tune was recorded and first released as a single in December 1962 by Marvin Gaye, who also co-wrote it with Clarence Paul and producer William “Mickey” Stevenson. Hitch Hike was also included on Gaye’s second studio album That Stubborn Kinda Fellow from January 1963. The Stones recorded the song for their fourth U.S. and third UK studio album Out of Our Heads released in July and September 1965, respectively. It was one of six tracks that appeared on both versions of the album.

Little Feat/Teenage Nervous Breakdown

The Stones may be the greatest rock & roll band in the world, but that doesn’t mean other groups can’t match them. Here’s the fun Teenage Nervous Breakdown by Little Feat. Penned by the band’s primary original guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Lowell George, the tune is from Little Feat’s sophomore album Sailin’ Shoes that came out in May 1972. Sadly, George died from a heart attack in June 1979 shortly after he had declared Little Feat would disband. The group reformed in 1987 and has since continued with different lineups. Vocalist and keyboarder Bill Payne remains as the only founding member in the current formation. To date, Little Feat have released 12 studio albums, as well as numerous live records and compilations. One of my favorites I feel like revisiting is Waiting for Columbus, which I previously reviewed here. For now, let’s have some fun with Teenage Nervous Breakdown. Tell me this doesn’t rock!

Queen/Tie Your Mother Down

And that we’re on this accelerating rock & roll train, let’s wrap things up with yet another rock gem in my book: Tie Your Mother Down by Queen. But before getting to it, I need to credit Angie Moon from The Diversity of Classic Rock blog, who brought the tune back on my radar screen with her recent post about Queen. Written by guitarist and astrophysicist Brian May CBE, Tie Your Mother Down first appeared on Queen’s fifth studio album A Day at the Races that came out in December 1976. It was also released separately as the album’s second single in March 1977. I just can’t get enough of that main guitar riff – Status Quo simple, to borrow from Angie who also compared it to Rory Gallagher, but so good!

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

Masters of the High Register

A selection of great falsetto vocalists

In late December, I did a four-part series on the Bee Gees here (part 1), here (part 2), here (part 3) and here (part 4). One of the group’s distinct features was the frequent use of falsetto singing, starting with their 1975 studio album Main Course. My most recent Best of What’s New installment included Aaron Frazer, a young vocalist from Brooklyn, N.Y., who also happens to be a falsetto singer. In fact, while I’m not a voice expert, I think he’s incredible! These posts triggered the idea to write about music artists I like, who are masters of the falsetto.

Before getting to some great music and singing, I’d like to provide a little bit of background. I’ll keep it light! According to Wikipedia, falsetto “is the vocal register occupying the frequency range just above the modal voice register and overlapping with it by approximately one octave.” Essentially, modal voice generates the richest tone that unlike falsetto isn’t breathy. It’s the most frequently used vocal register in speech and singing in most languages.

I always thought falsetto and head voice are the same – not so! As this post on Ramsey Voice explains, “While falsetto and head voice have been used interchangeably in the past, falsetto is understood to be a breathy version of high notes and head voice produces a richer and more balanced tone on the high pitches in a singer’s voice. Falsetto and head voice are two different modes for singing the same notes in the upper registers of the voice.” Didn’t you always want to know that? 🙂

If you’re curious to learn more about different voice registers and singing modes, the above Ramsey Voice post goes into all the gory details, illustrated with video clips. The only thing I’d like to add is that females have falsetto as well, though I think it’s fair to say this singing mode is primarily associated with male singers, and the examples in this post are all male artists. But as Ramsey Voice notes, “plenty of studies have…shown that everyone’s vocal cords work in basically the same way, and everyone is capable of falsetto singing.” Time for some falsetto action!

Philip Bailey, of Earth, Wind & Fire/September

September, one of my favorite Earth, Wind & Fire songs, initially appeared as a single in November 1978. Co-written by Maurice White, Al McKay and Allee Willis, it became one of the group’s biggest hits. The song was also included on the compilation The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire, Vol. 1, which came out a few days after the single. The tune, on which Bailey shared lead vocals with White, is a great example of Bailey’s amazing falsetto.

Smokey Robinson, of The Miracles/OOO Baby Baby

OOO Baby Baby is one of the most beautiful examples of falsetto I can think of. Smokey Robinson’s voice sounds so sweet and gentle that it almost makes me want to cry! Robinson was also a co-writer of the ballad, together with Miracles bass vocalist Pete Moore. OOO Baby Baby became the lead singles of The Miracles’ studio album Going to a Go-Go in March 1965. The album came out in November that year.

Curtis Mayfield/Move On Up

When thinking of great falsetto vocalists, one of the first artists who came to my mind was Curtis Mayfield. While there are other tunes where his falsetto is more dominant, Move On Up is one of my absolute favorites, so I simply couldn’t skip it. Written by Mayfield, the song was first recorded for his debut solo album Curtis from September 1970. It also appeared separately as the record’s second single in June 1971. I just love that tune – the infectious groove, Mayfield’s singing and his effortless switching between modal voice and falsetto – it’s just perfect!

Marvin Gaye/Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)

Marvin Gaye is another exceptional vocalist, no matter what singing mode you’re talking about. On Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler), co-written by Gaye and James Nyx, Jr., the boundaries between Gaye’s head voice and falsetto are so fluid that to me it’s hard to tell, which is which. The tune was first recorded for his 11th studio album What’s Going On, a true gem released in May 1971. In September of the same year, it became the album’s third single.

Prince/Kiss

No post about falsetto vocalists would be complete without Prince. The funky Kiss was one of his biggest hits. Written by Prince, it became the lead single to his eighth studio album Parade, released in February 1986, just ahead of the album that followed in March. Frankly, the tune wasn’t love at first sight for me, but I’ve come to dig it.

The last two tracks shall belong to the artists who inspired the post. Here’s Nights on Broadway, the tune that started the frequent use of falsetto for the Bee Gees.

Co-written by Barry Gibb, Robin Gibb and Maurice Gibb, Nights on Broadway was recorded for the Bee Gees’ 13th studio album Main Course released in June 1975 in the U.S. and the following month in the U.K. The groovy track also became the album’s second single in September of the same year.

Aaron Frazer/Bad News

Bad News is another great tune from Aaron Frazer’s impressive debut album  Introducing…. The song was co-written by Frazer and producer Dan Auerbach. It actually reminds me a bit of Gaye’s Inner City Blues.

Sources: Wikipedia; Ramsey Voice; YouTube