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

What I’ve Been Listening to: Sheila E./Iconic: Message 4 America

Last week, I watched Ringo Starr’s Big Birthday Party and thought the highlight of the one-hour virtual event was Sheila E. and her sizzling performance of Come TogetherRevolution. It turned out E. had previously recorded the medley for her most recent eighth studio album Iconic: Message 4 America released in August 2017. A couple of nights ago, I found myself listening to this covers album and liked what I heard – a lot!

For E.’s background, I’m borrowing from a previous August 2017 post about my favorite drummers. Born Sheila Escovedo, E. was influenced and inspired by her musical family. Since the late 60s, her Mexican-American father Pete Escovedo, a percussionist, was influential in the Latin music scene, touring with Santana from 1967 to 1970. Her uncles were musicians as well, and her godfather was none other than Tito Puente.

At the age of 5, E. gave her first live performance. By her early 20s, she had already played with the likes of George DukeMarvin Gaye and Herbie Hancock. In 1978, she met Prince who became an important mentor and with whom she worked various times. In 1984, E. started a solo career. She also worked with many other artists, including Ringo Starr, performing with his All-Starr Band in 2001, 2003 and 2006.

As reported by Rolling Stone, it was Donald Trump’s denunciation of Mexicans as “murderers and rapists” during his official campaign launch announcement in 2015, along with the death of Prince in April 2016, which prompted E. to record Iconic, an album featuring remakes of social justice anthems. In addition to selecting songs by the likes of Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder and James Brown, E. got help from multiple guests, most notably Starr and Freddie Stone, co-founder, guitarist and vocalist of Sly and the Family Stone. Her father and two other family members were among the other guests.

“So for the Iconic project, you know, the state that the country is in… I’m doing these songs based on the lyrical content, which, when I grew up in the ’60s and the ’70s, these songs were pretty amazing,” E. told Billboard. “They’re relevant. So I wanted to do “Come Together,” The Beatles song with Ringo Starr, which we did, and the only one that wasn’t written [that long] ago was “America.” But it means something…So it was just important to what’s happening in our country.” America is a tune about the state of the U.S. during the Reagan Administration, which Prince had written for his 1985 studio album Around the World in a Day.

Let’s get to some music. Since I previously featured Come TogetherRevolution here, I’m skipping it and go directly to Everyday People. Written by Sly Stone, the tune was originally released as a single by Sly and the Family Stone in November 1968. It was also included on the band’s fourth studio album Stand! from May 1969. As noted above, Freddie Stone joins E. on vocals. He also plays guitar.

Inner City BluesTrouble Man is a cool medley of two songs Marvin Gaye performed. Inner City Blues, co-written by Gaye and James Nyx, Jr., appeared on What’s Going On, Gaye’s 11th studio album from May 1971. Trouble Man is the title track of Gaye’s follow-on studio record that came out in December 1972. It was written by him. On the album’s recording, E. is joined on vocals by saxophonist Eddie Mininfield.

With so many great covers on Iconic, it’s hard to select which ones to call out. One of the funkiest undoubtedly is the James Brown Medley, which melds together five tunes: Talkin’ Loud And Sayin’ Nothing, co-written by Brown and Bobby Bird (There It Is, June 1972); Mama Don’t Take No Mess, co-written by Brown, John Starks and Fred Wesley (Hell, June 1974); Soul Power, written by Brown (single, March 1971); Get Involved, co-written by Brown, Bird and Ron Lenhoff (Revolution of the Mind: Live at the Apollo, Volume III, December 1971); and Super Bad, written by Brown (Super Bad, 1971). For this recording, E. is joined by Bootsy Collins on vocals, who also provides bass and guitar. Collins played with Brown in the early ’70s and later with Parliament-Funkadelic. Let’s hit it!

Next up: A beautiful version of Blackbird. Per Songfacts, Paul McCartney wrote the song about the civil rights struggle for African Americans after he had read the U.S. federal courts had forced racial desegregation in the school system of Little Rock, Ark. Blackbird was first recorded for The White Album that appeared in November 1968. E.’s rendition transforms the acoustic guitar tune to a mellow piano-driven ballad. The lovely cello part is played by studio musician Jodi Burnett.

The last tune I’d like to call out is the Curtis Mayfield classic Pusherman. It appeared on Mayfield’s third solo album Super Fly from July 1972. The great guitar part on E.’s version is played by Mychael Gabriel, a musician, songwriter, performer, audio engineer, mixer, producer, who began his career as a 16-year-old, doing record engineering for E.

Iconic: Message 4 America may “only” be a covers album, but I think the excellent song selection and E.’s renditions make listening to it worthwhile.

Sources: Wikipedia; Rolling Stone; Billboard; Songfacts; Discogs; YouTube

Clips & Pix: John Mayer/Waiting on the World to Change

I still remember initially I was in complete disbelief that this fantastic tune was written John Mayer. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve always thought of Mayer as a decent songwriter and a great guitarist. I just didn’t believe he had so much soul in him! You could easily imagine somebody like Marvin Gaye or Curtis Mayfield having performed this song.

Waiting on the World to Change, released in July 2006, became the lead single to Mayer’s third studio album Continuum that appeared in September of the same year. According to Songfacts, the reflective tune describes how most people deal with problems in the world. When Mayer sings, “Me and all my friends, we are all misunderstood, say we stand for nothing but there’s no way we ever could,” he’s talking about his generation and their lack of faith in the government – all we can do is wait, and it seems like everyone is waiting for the world to become a better place.

Songfacts further notes, In an interview with the Daily Mail December 21, 2007 Mayer explained why he wrote this song that makes a point without laboring matters: “I wanted to start a debate. Most of us are happy to wait for things to change.”

Waiting on the World to Change became one of Mayer’s most successful singles. In the U.S., it peaked at no. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100 and topped the Adult Contemporary chart. It also charted in Canada, New Zealand and a few European countries. Additionally, the tune won the Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance in February 2007.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube

My Playlist: Fab Four Covers

What do you do in music when you run out of ideas? Get “inspired” by the work of others and claim it as your own ingenious creation. And get good legal representation. Just ask Led Zeppelin!

For any first time visitors, I totally dig Zep and Stairway To Heaven. I’m glad they recorded that song, which probably is my most favorite rock tune. Messrs. Page and Plant just should have given credit where credit was due, even if ripping off Taurus by Spirit was a subconscious act. Okay, ’nuff going on a tangent, this is supposed to be a happy post. And guess what? It totally was my idea! 🙂

This morning, I watched a clip of a Paul McCartney appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. At some point, Colbert noted many other artists had done covers of Beatles songs, adding he believed Yesterday was the most covered tune. He then asked McCartney about his favorite version. Thinking about Yesterday, McCartney mentioned Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and his favorite, Marvin Gaye. Then I completely erased the clip from my memory.

Fast-forward 30 minutes. I’m sitting at my computer, and suddenly out of nowhere, a flash of ingenuity hit me. What if I did a playlist of Beatles songs covered by other artists? What a brilliant and original idea, I thought, so here it is!

Got To Get You Into My Life (Earth, Wind & Fire)

Essentially, this was an homage to Motown, which The Beatles recorded in 1966 for the Revolver album. In July 1978, Earth, Wind & Fire released a fantastic cover of the tune as a single. It also was part of the less than stellar feature film Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Feel free to snip along!

Yesterday (Marvin Gaye)

I trust this song needs no further introduction. What you may not have known is that none other than the fabulous Marvin Gaye recorded a take of the timeless ballad. And when Marvin sang, magic happened most of the time. He included his version of Yesterday on his tenth studio album That’s The Way Love Is from January 1970. Just listen to this – makes me feel like floating in space!

We Can Work It Out (Stevie Wonder)

We Can Work It Out is a non-album single The Beatles issued in December 1965 as a double A-side with Day Tripper. Stevie Wonder liked the song and decided to record a take for his August 1970 studio album Signed, Sealed & Delivered. Who can blame him? According to Wikipedia, Wonder performed the tune for McCartney on various occasions. Even if you’re Paul McCartney, it’s gotta be cool to witness Stevie Wonder playing one of your songs!

Eleanor Rigby (Ray Charles)

This is one of my all-time favorite Beatles tunes and another track from the Revolver album. I also dig this cover by Ray Charles, which he recorded as a single in 1968.

In My Life (Johnny Cash)

In My Life is one of the most beautiful and moving songs John Lennon has written and a standout on the Rubber Soul album, in my opinion. Gosh, I can’t deny this tune gets me every time! At first, I wanted to feature the cover by Bette Midler, a fantastic vocalist. Then I came across this take by Johnny Cash, which blew me away. There’s perhaps nobody better than the Man in Black when it comes to conveying raw emotion and vulnerability, especially during the later stages of his career. This take is from American IV: The Man Comes Around, a studio album released in November 2002, about 10 months before he passed away.

She’s A Woman (José Feliciano)

José Feliciano is an artist I’ve admired for many years, not only because of his outstanding guitar-playing, but also because of great covers he has done and how he has made them his own. Check out this amazing version of She’s A Woman, which The Beatles initially released as the B-side to their I Feel Fine single in November 1964. Feliciano’s take also first appeared as a single, in 1969. I love how he gave it a Latin jazz type groove.

If I Needed Someone (Roger McGuinn)

If I Needed Someone has become one of my favorite Beatles and George Harrison tunes. And who better to cover it than Roger McGuinn, the man who after seeing George playing a Rickenbacker guitar on TV knew that jingle-jangle sound was made for him and The Byrds. If I Needed Someone is another gem on Rubber Soul. McGuinn recorded his version for his seventh solo album Limited Edition that came out in April 2004. Every time I hear that distinct Rickenbacker sound, I’m getting the same sentiment than listening to a Hammond B3 – I want one. So badly!

I’m leaving you with one more cover, which perhaps is the ultimate rock remake of all time: With A Little Help From My Friends by Joe Cocker. Cocker has recorded strong versions of various Beatles tunes, but this one from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is the crown jewel. It became the title track of his debut album from May 1969.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

On This Day In Rock & Roll History: September 8

1952: Twenty-two-year-old Ray Charles, one of the greatest voices in jazz, R&B, blues and soul, recorded his first session for Atlantic Records. In June that year, the record company had bought out his contract from Swingtime for $2,500, the equivalent of approximately $23,700 today. With hits like I’ve Got A Woman, A Fool For You and What I’d Say Charles would release before he moved on to ABC-Paramount in November 1959, let’s just say Atlantic’s investment paid off handsomely. One of the four cuts Charles recorded during that first session with Atlantic was Roll With My Baby by Sam Sweet, which became his first single for the label backed by The Midnight Hour, another tune Sweet had written. Check out the great groove on this tune, which wants to make you snip along with your fingers!

1957: The infectious Reet Petite by Jackie Wilson was released for the first time. It gave “Mr. Excitement” his first solo hit, peaking at no. 6 on the U.K. Official Charts and climbing to no. 45 on the U.S. Cash Box chart, both in November that year. It would take another 29 years before the great tune, which was co-written by Berry Gordy, Gordy’s sister Gwen Gordy Fuqua, and Wilson’s cousin Roquel “Billy” Davis, would hit no. 1 in the U.K. in November 1986. Unfortunately, Wilson who passed away in January 1984, was not able to celebrate the tune’s late success. And, yes, feel free to sing along r-r-r-r-r-rolling that “r.”

1964: The Beatles performed two concerts that night at the Forum in Montreal, Canada before a crowd of 21,000 fans. At that time, Beatlemania was going on in full swing with its insanity, which for this particular event included death threats from French-Canadian separatists. The Fab Four never returned to Montreal thereafter. The two gigs that night included their standard 12-song set Twist And Shout, You Can’t Do That, All My Loving, She Loves You, Things We Said Today, Roll Over Beethoven, Can’t Buy Me Love, If I Fell, I Want To Hold Your Hand, Boys, A Hard Day’s Night and Long Tall Sally. Here’s an audio recording, which supposedly is from that show. It’s posted on The Beatles Bible, the source of the ultimate Fab Fab truth. The quality is mediocre, but hey, let’s not bitch here, it’s pop music history!

1973: Speaking of great voices, Marvin Gaye reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100 with the title track of his thirteenth studio album Let’s Get It On. Co-written by Gaye and Ed Townsend, the tune became his second no. 1 single in the U.S. after I Heard It Through The Grapevine from October 1968. Remarkably, Gaye would top the U.S. chart only one more time with Got To Give It Up released in March 1977. Let’s Get It On performed more moderately in the U.K., peaking at no. 31. Well, let’s get it on to a clip of the great tune!

1974: Eric Clapton topped the Billboard Hot 100 with his excellent cover of I Shot The Sheriff. Written by Bob Marley and first recorded for the sixth studio album by The Wailers Burnin’ from October 1973, the tune became Clapton’s only no. 1 single on the Hot 100. The song also appeared on his second solo album 461 Ocean Boulevard, which appeared in July 1972 and was his first record after beating a three-year heroin addiction.

Sources: Wikipedia, This Day In Music.com, This Day In Rock, The Beatles Bible, YouTube

Celebrating James Jamerson

Uncredited on countless Motown songs, Jamerson was one of the most influential bass guitar players in modern music history

If you had asked me as recently as a few weeks ago to name influential bass players in pop and rock, I might have mentioned Paul McCartney, John EntwistleJack Bruce and John Paul Jones. Then I read that McCartney, one of my all-time favorite artists, noted  James Jamerson and Brian Wilson as key influences for his bass playing. Admittedly, that was the first time I had heard about Jamerson.

While given my history as a hobby bassist I’m a bit embarrassed about my ignorance regarding Jamerson, I can point to one key difference between him and the other aforementioned bassists. Unlike them, Jamerson was kind of invisible for a long time – literally. While he played on countless Motown recordings in the ’60s and early ’70s, usually, he wasn’t credited, at least at the time. That’s even more unbelievable once you realize how revered this man was among other professional bass players.

According to Bass Player magazine, which named Jamerson no. 1 on its 2017 list of The 100 Greatest Bass Players of All Time, “The most important and influential bass guitarist in the 66-year history of the Fender Precision he played, South Carolina-born, Detroit-raised James Jamerson wrote the bible on bass line construction and development, feel, syncopation, tone, touch, and phrasing, while raising the artistry of improvised bass playing in popular music to zenith levels.” In addition to McCartney, many other prominent bassists have pointed to Jamerson as a primary influence, including Jones, Enwistle, Wilson, Randy Meisner, Bill Wyman, Chuck RaineyGeddy Lee and Pino Palladino, to name some.

Jamerson was born on January 29, 1936 on Edisto Island near Charleston, S.C. In 1954, he moved to Detroit with his mother. Soon, while still being in high school, he began playing in local blues and jazz clubs. After graduation, Jamerson started getting session engagements in local recording studios. In 1959, he found a steady job as a studio bassist at Motown where became part of The Funk Brothers, essentially the equivalent of Stax  houseband Booker T. & the M.G.s, except it was a much larger and more fluid group of musicians.

James Jamerson 2

During his earliest Motown sessions, Jamerson used a double bass. In the early ’60s, he switched to an electric Fender Precision Bass most of the time. Like him, most of The Funk Brothers originally were jazz musicians who had been hired by Motown founder Berry Gordy to back the label’s recording artists in the studio. For many years, the members of The Funk Brothers would do session work at the Motown studio during the day and play in local jazz clubs at night. Occasionally, they also backed Motown’s stars during tours.

Not only did the musicians make substantially less money than the label’s main artists, but they also did not receive any recording credits for most of their careers. It wasn’t until 1971 that Jamerson was acknowledged on a major Motown release: Somewhat ironically, that album was Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. Eventually, Motown put Jamerson on a weekly retainer of $1,000 (about $7,200 in 2018 dollars), which enabled him and his family to live comfortably. In 1973, Jamerson ended his relationship with Motown, which had since been relocated to Los Angeles. For the remainder of the ’70s, he worked with artists like Eddie Kendricks, Robert Palmer, Dennis Wilson, Smokey Robinson and Ben E. King.

But Jamerson did not embrace certain trends in bass playing that emerged during the ’70s, such as simpler and more repetitive bass lines and techniques like slapping. As a result, he fell out of favor with many producers, and by the 1980s, sadly, he essentially could not get any serious session work. Eventually, Jamerson’s long history with alcoholism caught up with him, and he died of complications from cirrhosis of the liver, heart failure and pneumonia on August 2, 1983. He was only 47 years old. Time for some music featuring this amazing musician!

I’d like to kick things off with an early recording that did not appear on Motown: Boom Boom by John Lee Hooker. Written by him, it became one of his signature tunes. According to Wikipedia, apparently it was Detroit pianist Joe Hunter, who brought in Jamerson and some other members from The Funk Brothers to the recording session.

Here’s one of the many Motown tunes on which Jamerson performed: For Once In My Life, the title track of Stevie Wonder’s album from December 1968. The song was co-written by Ron Miller and Orlando Murden.

Next up: The aforementioned What’s Going On, which I think is one of the most soulful Marvin Gaye songs. The title track of his 11th studio album released in May 1971 was co-written by Gaye, Motown songwriter Al Cleveland and Renaldo Benson, a founding member of The Four Tops.

I also like to touch on a couple of songs after Jamerson had parted with Motown. Here is Boogie Down by Eddie Kendricks, another title track. The fourth studio album by the former vocalist of The Temptations appeared in February 1973. The groovy tune was co-written by Anita Poree, Frank Wilson and Leonard Caston.

For the last track let’s jump to November 1975 when Robert Palmer released his second studio album Pressure Drop. Here’s the great opener Give Me An Inch, which was also written by Palmer.

James Jamerson received numerous accolades after his death. In 2000, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, one of the first inductees to be honored in the “sideman” category. In 2004, he received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award as part of The Funk Brothers. Along with the other members of the group, Jamerson was also inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tenn. in 2007.

I’d like to close with Paul McCartney, who during a 1994 interview with bass book author Tony Bacon said: “Mainly as time went on it was Motown, James Jamerson—who became just my hero, really. I didn’t actually know his name until quite recently. James was very melodic, and that got me more interested.”

Sources: Wikipedia, Bass Player magazine, Reverb.com, YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening To: Lenny Kravitz/Raise Vibration

Eleventh studio album illustrates that after 30 years Kravitz maintains his gift to combine retro with modern sounds and write catchy tunes

Somehow I completely missed Lenny Kravitz’s new album Raise Vibration when it was released on September 7. I guess I should perhaps subscribe to a music publication to better stay on top of new music, except of course I’m not into most music that’s coming out these days. Anyway, I “discovered” Raise Vibration earlier today after I had seen a related clip on Facebook. Most of the reviews I read were quick to point out Kravitz’s 11th studio release doesn’t break any new ground. I mostly agree and that’s just fine with me.

I feel many critics have given Kravitz a hard time since he emerged in September 1989 with Let Love Rule. Some have said his music too much reflects his ’60s influences like Jimi Hendrix or early Led Zeppelin. Last time I checked both were among the most outstanding artists on the planet. Some folks have maintained Kravitz doesn’t sound black enough, while others have found he sounded too white. All of this is complete and utter nonsense, in my opinion!

Lenny Kravitz

When I look at Kravitz, I see an incredibly talented artist who writes, sings and produces his own music. Oh, and apart from being a capable guitarist, he also plays most of the other instruments on his records. Most importantly, Kravitz has the gift to mix retro elements with modern sounds and write catchy tunes. All of these qualities are present on Raise Vibration, his first new album in four years since Strut from September 2014.

But evidently, Kravitz found himself in a very different place three years ago after he had finished his last world tour, he told Rolling Stone in April this year. “I really wasn’t sure where I was going musically,” Kravitz explained. “After doing this for 30 years, I wasn’t feeling it. I’d never felt that confused about what to do. And it was kind of a scary place. You don’t know when it’s going to come.” While there are techniques that can stimulate creativity, ultimately, you can’t force it.

Lenny Kravitz In Concert

Kravitz bravely rejected the advice from others to collaborate with producers and songwriters who know how to score hits. “I’ve never really worked that way, following trends or doing what people think you should do,” he further noted to Rolling Stone. “I’ve always made music that came naturally out of me.” And fortunately that’s exactly what happened when one night Kravitz woke up at 4:00 am in his house in the Bahamas with a song in his head, which would become Low, one of the standouts on the album. It proofed to be the catalyst he needed to spur his artistic creativity. “I learned you have to trust yourself and the artist in yourself. Always trust what you have.” Yes! And with that let’s get to some music.

I’d like to kick things off with the above mentioned Low. Like all other tunes on Raise Vibration except for two, it was written by Kravitz. The song also became the second single released ahead of the album on May 29. If the “oohs” in the track sound like Michael Jackson, that’s because it features posthumous, presumably sampled “guest vocals” from the King of Pop. This is one great funky tune!

Next up: The album’s title track. I just love the guitar sound and the cool breaks on that track. The native American chants and drums toward the end ad an unusual element. So much for not breaking any new ground!

Johnny Cash, a moving tribute to the country legend, is based on an encounter Kravitz had with the Man in Black and his wife June Carter Cash in 1995, when they were all staying at producer Rick Rubin’s apartment in Los Angeles. At the time his mother was receiving treatment for breast cancer. After getting a call from the hospital that this mom had passed away, Johnny and June consoled Kravitz. “…they decided at that moment (to) treat me like they would treat someone in their family,” Kravitz said during a BBC interview, as reported by Music-News.com. “It was a beautiful moment of humanity and love.”

Another gem on the album is Here To Love, a nice piano-driven ballad.

The last tune I’d like to call out is It’s Enough, which also became the album’s lead single released on May 11. It’s got a cool Marvin Gaye vibe that lyrically is reminiscent of  What’s Going On with a bass line that sounds like it could have been inspired by Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler). Also check out the horns that start at around 6 minutes into the song: nice touch of ’70s Temptations – super cool!

Like he usually does, Kravitz produced the album and plays most of the instruments. Other than string and horn players, the only other musicians are longtime collaborator and guitarist Craig Ross, who also co-wrote two of the tracks with Kravitz, as well as keyboardist and orchestrator David Baron. Kravitz is supporting the album with a world tour. The 2018 section started in April ahead of the record’s release and mostly focused on Europe. It also included 10 dates in the U.S., which wrapped up in Las Vegas in late October. According to the schedule, the tour will resume in March 2019 with a series of gigs in South America before traveling back to Europe. Currently, the last date is June 11, 2019 in London, U.K.

Sources: Wikipedia, Rolling Stone, Music-News.com, Lenny Kravitz website, YouTube

 

Aw, The ’80s (Part 1: 1980-1984)

A two-part feature looking back at music of the decade

I’ve mentioned my weak spot for ’80s music on a few previous occasions. My taste has since evolved, and I now find myself wondering more often than not how I could have liked certain songs as much as I did back then. Well, obviously, I was a lot younger (though of course, I’m still young at heart!), and that music was all around me. It also triggers memories of school, parties, the first vacations with friends (and without my parents or any adults for that matter), the first hangover…in other words, it really was the soundtrack of growing up – okay, call me a sentimental fool!

This morning, I rode the car with my wife and put on Duran Duran’s Rio album – she loves ’80s, so it was all her fault! 🙂 Anyway, listening to this 1982 record gave me the idea to reflect on music and some related events from that decade. Since it’s a big topic, I figured it would be best to divide my thoughts in two parts. Obviously, it’s still not possible to make this all-inclusive, so I’m going to be arbitrary and selective, focusing on things that are meaningful to me. Here’s part I spanning 1980 to 1984.

Prince_Purple Rain

Some of the first things that come to my mind when thinking about the ’80s are Madonna, Michael Jackson, Prince, the death of disco, new wave, the advent of the CD, hair metal bands and Live Aid. Of course, I could add many other buzz words, e.g., music videos. At the time, we didn’t have cable or satellite television at my house back in Germany, so I missed out on MTV and VH1. In fact, believe or not, it wasn’t until 1993 when I first came to the U.S. that I watched VH1 and kind of got hooked, especially on their Behind The Music documentaries. For some reason, I never warmed to MTV.

1980

Some of the events I’d like to call out are Paul McCartney’s arrest in Tokyo for marijuana possession, which resulted in the cancellation of the remaining Wings tour that year (Jan 16); launch of Pink Floyd’s The Wall tour in Los Angeles (Feb 7); release of Back In Black, AC/DC’s first album with Brian Johnson who had replaced original lead vocalist Bon Scott (Jul 25); death of Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham (Sep 25); and murder of John Lennon who was shot by deranged Mark David Chapman in front of his Manhattan residence after returning from the recording studio with Yoko Ono (Dec 8).

The biggest hit singles of the year were Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2) (Pink Floyd), Woman In Love (Barbara Streisand), (Just Like) Starting Over (John Lennon), Funkytown (Lipps) and Upside Down (Diana Ross). I dug all of these songs at the time. While from today’s perspective my favorite is the Lennon tune, the track I’d like to highlight in a clip is Call Me by Blondie. Co-written by Debbie Harry and producer Giorgio Moroder (remember that guy?), the song was released as a single in February that year and was also included on the soundtrack for the 1980 picture American Gigolo. It became the band’s biggest hit, topping the Billboard Hot 100, as well as the charts in the U.K. and Canada, and scoring in the top 20 in many other countries.

1981

Notable events include the release of Face Value, the first solo album by Phil Collins – like it or not, the Genesis drummer was just everywhere in the ’80s – with Genesis and solo! (Feb 9); first break-up of Yes (Apr 18) only to reunite less than two years later and release their biggest-selling album 90125; U2’s television debut in the U.S. on the NBC late night program The Tomorrow Show (Jun 4); official launch of MTV in New York (Aug 1); Simon & Garfunkel’s free reunion concert in the Big Apple’s Central Park, drawing more than 500,000 visitors – no disputes over crowd attendance here! (Sep 9 ); and Rod Stewart show at Los Angeles Forum, broadcast live via satellite and watched by an estimated 35 million people worldwide – the first such broadcast since Elvis Presley’s 1973 Aloha From Hawaii special.

The top 5 hit singles of the year were Bette Davis Eyes (Kim Carnes), Tainted Love (Soft Cell), In The Air Tonight (Phil Collins), Woman (John Lennon) and Stars On 45 Medley (Stars On 45). Again, to me the Lennon tune holds up the best, though I also still like Bette Davis Eyes and have to admit In The Air Tonight is kind of cool. Even though I feel I’ve been over-exposed to Collins, I admit he’s done some good songs. Here’s a clip of Down Under by Men At Work. Co-written by Colin Hay and Ron Strykert, and released in October, the song was the second single from the band’s debut album Business As Usual that appeared the following month. It was cool then, and I still dig this tune.

1982

Perhaps most notably, the year saw the debut of Madonna with Everybody (Oct 2), the lead single from her first eponymous 1983 studio record, as well as the release of Michael Jackson’s Thriller album (Nov 30), which remains the world’s best-selling record to date. Some of the other events include the death of comedian and Blues Brothers vocalist John Belushi (March 5); premiere of Pink Floyd – The Wall, a film adaptation of the band’s 1979 album with the same title, at the Cannes Film Festival in France; and start of CD mass production by Dutch technology company and disc co-inventor Philips in Langenhagen near Hanover, Germany (Aug 17).

Eye Of The Tiger (Survivor), Down Under (Men At Work), I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll (Joan Jett & The Blackhearts), Come On Eileen (Dexys Midnight Runners) and Ebony And Ivory (Paul McCartney & Michael Jackson) were the biggest hit singles that year. Below is a clip of Come On Eileen, which appeared as a single in June. Co-written by Kevin Rowland, Jim Paterson and Billy Adams, the song was also included on the band’s second studio album Too-Rye-Ay, released the following month. I always found it cool how the catchy tune blended elements of Celtic folk with pop music.

1983

On March 2, CDs started to go on sale in the U.S., following their initial release in Japan the previous October. Some of the year’s other events in music include the debut of Let’s Spend The Night Together in New York, a film documenting the 1981 North American tour of The Rolling Stones (Feb 11); release of U2’s third studio album War, which debuts at no. 1 in the U.K. and features their first international hit single New Year’s Day (Feb 28); release of David Bowie’s commercially most successful studio album Let’s Dance (Apr 14); unveiling of Kiss’s faces without their make-up for the first time on MTV (Sep 18) – yes, I do seem to recall that seeing their actual faces was a pretty big deal at the time!; and Quiet Riot’s Metal Health, the first heavy metal album to top the Billboard 200 (Nov 26).

The biggest hit singles of the year: Karma Chameleon (Culture Club); Billie Jean (Michael Jackson); Flashdance…What A Feeling (Irene Cara); Let’s Dance (David Bowie) and Every Breath You Take (The Police). Did I have all these songs? You betcha – in fact, I still do, mostly somewhere on music cassettes! Here’s Billie Jean, written by the King of Pop himself, and released as the second single from the Thriller album in January 1983.

1984

Some of the happenings in the music world that year: Announcement from BBC Radio 1 DJ Mike Read of this refusal to play Relax by Frankie Goes To Hollywood due to its suggestive lyrics (Jan 11), a ban that was put in place by the entire BBC around the same time – in a clear illustration that something forbidden oftentimes tends to make it more attractive, only 10 days later, the tune stood a no. 1 on the Official Singles Chart in the UK; death of one of the greatest soul artists, Marvin Gaye, who following an argument was killed by his own father with a gun he had given to him as a Christmas present the previous year (Apr 1); release of Prince’s sixth studio album Purple Rain (Jun 25), the soundtrack to the 1984 film of the same name – one of his most successful records and the third-best-selling soundtrack album of all time, exceeding more than 25 million copies sold worldwide; and the first annual MTV Music Awards held in New York, where Madonna raised some eyebrows with a racy performance of Like A Virgin (Sep 14) – Madonna being controversial?

The biggest hit singles of 1984 were Careless Whisper (George Michael), I Just Called To Say I Love You (Stevie Wonder), Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go (Wham!), Girls Just Want To Have Fun (Cyndi Lauper) and Relax (Frankie Goes To Hollywood). Since I was a good boy and never listened to Relax and Like A Virgin, here’s a clip of Borderline, a song from Madonna’s debut record. On a more serious note, the tune that was written by producer Reggie Lucas still is one of my favorite Madonna songs. It became the album’s fifth and last single released in February 1984, peaking at no. 2 in the U.K. and reaching no. 10 in the U.S., less successful than the scandalous Like A Virgin!

Stay tuned for part 2, which will cover the period from 1985 to 1989.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

My Playlist: Marvin Gaye

Marvin Gaye was one of the greatest soul and R&B artists, in my opinion. He became first known in the ’60s as part of the Motown sound. Gaye performed some of the Detroit record company’s biggest hits during that period, such as Pride And Joy, I’ll Be Doggone and I Heard It Through The Grapevine.

Starting from the early ’70s, Gaye started producing or co-producing his albums and, together with Stevie Wonder, became one of the first Motown stars to emancipate themselves artistically from the company. Among his ’70s releases were two concept albums, What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On.

In March 1982, Gaye left Motown and signed with CBS Records. In October that year, he released Midnight Love, his last studio record to appear prior his death. It included  Sexual Healing, which became one of his biggest hits, for which he won two Grammy Awards in 1983. On April 1, 1984, Gaye was shot to death by his father Marvin Gaye Sr. after a physical fight between the two men. He was only 44 years old.

Let’s Get It On with some music of Gaye’s great music.

Stubborn Kind Of Fellow was among the first Motown tunes I heard and remains one of my favorites. The song was co-written by Gaye, producer William “Mickey” Stevenson and George Gordy, the brother of Motown founder Barry Gordy. It was included on Gaye’s second studio album That Stubborn Kind Of Fellow from December 1962 and became his first hit single, reaching the top 10 of the Billboard R&B Chart.

In addition to solo releases, Gaye also recorded various duet albums. One was Take Two with Kim Weston, which appeared in August 1966. I’ve always liked the upbeat opener of that record It Takes Two, a co-write by Stevenson and Sylvia Moy.

Ain’t No Mountain High Enough is from another duet record, United, with Tammi Terrrell, released in August 1967. The tune, which was co-written by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, peaked at no. 19 on the Billboard Pop Charts. In 1970, the track topped the Billboard Hot 100 when Diana Ross released it,  giving the former Supremes front woman her first no. 1 solo hit.

Another Gaye ’60s classic is I Heard It Through The Grapevine, the title track of his eighth studio album from August 1968, which originally was titled In The Groove. Co-written by Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield, the tune had first been released by Gladys Knight & The Pips in 1967. The above extended live performance looks like it was captured during the ’70s.

If I would have to choose only one tune from Gaye, it would probably be What’s Going On. The singing is just off the charts! Co-written by him, Renaldo Benson and Al Cleveland, this gem is the title track of Gaye’s 11th studio release from May 1971. The concept album was the first record he produced.

Let’s Get It On, the title track of Gaye’s 13th studio album from August 1973, is another of his ’70s classics. He wrote it together with the record’s co-producer Ed Townsend. It became Gaye’s most successful single for Motown, topping both Billboard’s Hot 100 and Hot R&B charts. The above clip is an extended version from a 1981 show in The Netherlands. It nicely illustrates what a passionate performer Gaye was.

A great party song with a cool funky groove, Got To Give It Up is included on Live At The London Palladium, a double album Gaye released in March 1977. The tune was written by Art Stewart, who also produced the record.

The last song I want to highlight in this post is Sexual Healing, Gaye’s first single after he had left Motown. Co-written by him, Odell Brown and David Ritz, the sensual tune with a smooth groove is from Midnight Love, Gaye’s final studio album from October 1982. Above is the track’s official video clip. Sexual Healing topped Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart and climbed to no. 3 on the Hot 100. It is also on Rolling Stone’s list of 500 Greatest Songs Of All Time at no. 233.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube