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

Some Wise Words From Sir Paul

This morning, I came across a recent tweet from Paul McCartney. It links to a blog post on his website. When asked by a woman via Twitter whether he had any advice how to deal with difficult situations where everything in the news paints a bleak picture of the future, Paul said the following:

I’ve always been an optimistic person, because I don’t like the alternative! I find that even when you go through crisis after crisis, you still come out the other end, and no matter how bad you’re feeling it can often work out OK.

Something I’ve learned is that life’s good, really, but we often screw it up. So I try to tell myself and other people that if we can just work on not screwing it up, it’s going to be better for us and everyone else. I always try and see the good side – the silver lining – and if you’re lucky, it arrives.

I remember as a kid, I would hear old women on the housing estate where we used to live saying ‘ohh me rheumatism, ohh me arthritis, ohh it’s killing me, it’s terrible!’ And I thought well, it’s not going to get any better if you talk like that! I know life’s difficult for a lot of people, but I think a positive thought is often a great help. You’ve got to train yourself not to think the worst.

With Covid, it’s awful. You’ve got to look for the good side, and even though we’re all restricted right now, you’ve got to say – ‘well, on the other hand it gives me loads of time to do all the stuff I wanted to do’. And even though we can’t hug our friends like we wish we could, there will come a time when we’ll be able to, and I have a feeling it’ll be even better than ever.

Also asked whether music could lift up humanity’s spirit and perseverance, he added:

Yeah, definitely. I think music is a great healer. I think that you can be feeling terrible, then put on a piece of music you like and get swallowed up by it. You can go in into the mood of the music and it’s a magical thing. I remember once, again when I was a kid, I was hanging out with my mate from school and I had a headache, and we put on an Elvis record – ‘All Shook Up’ – and at the end of the record I didn’t have the headache! So, I’ve always believed in that power.

Sure, I can see some folks being a bit cynical about the blog post and dismiss it as a gimmick to stay engaged with fans. The intro of the post also mentions Paul’s new album McCartney III. Plus, saying COVID gives you plenty of time to do things you had wanted to do but couldn’t do could come across as being a bit tone-deaf, especially to people who don’t have the luxury of a job that allows them to work from home. I view it differently.

To start with, given Paul’s mega success, he really doesn’t need to resort to any gimmicks to stay connected to his audience. It’s safe to assume his financial wellbeing doesn’t depend on sales of McCartney III. When noting extra time for things because of the pandemic, Paul is really talking about himself. In fact, he likely wouldn’t have done a new album, had it not been for COVID. To me, there’s also no question music can have a positive impact on how you feel. It has done so time and again in my case! But most importantly, I believe Paul when he says he’s a positive guy. It’s very much reflected in many of his songs. Here’s one that comes to mind.

While John Lennon contributed some of the lyrics and the tune was credited to Lennon-McCartney, wrote most of Getting Better. The Beatles recorded the song for their eighth studio album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band released in May 1967.

Sources: Wikipedia; Paul McCartney website; YouTube

The Year that was 2020 – Part 1 of 2

A look back on my music journey over the past 12 months

At first, the thought of writing a year in review type post didn’t look very appealing. After all, it’s safe to assume most of us can’t wait to kiss 2020 goodbye and erase it from our memories. This certainly describes my sentiments in many ways. But while the past 12 months brought unprecedented challenges, including for the music business, I think not all was doom and gloom. Initially, this was supposed to be one post. Then, it got longer and longer, so I decided to break it up in two parts. Here’s part 1

The good and the bad…

On the positive side, the music industry recorded rising revenue fueled by streaming. As Music Business Worldwide noted in September, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) reported a 5.6% year-over-over increase in total U.S. recorded music retail revenue to $5.6 billion for the first half of 2020. This included a 12% surge in streaming music revenue to $4.8 billion. If streaming kept that pace in the second half of the year, it would be up one billion year-over-year. However, according to this Billboard story from earlier this week, growth in streaming volume has stalled since the end of June.

At the same time, the concert business, the main source of income for most artists, is in the toilet. The Los Angeles Times recently reported America’s largest concert promoter Live Nation experienced a nosedive in revenue of 98% and 95% during the summer and fall, respectively. The same article also stated 90% of independent performance venues will close for good without government aid, while long-established venues like the Troubador in L.A. are hanging on but face an uncertain future. This doesn’t only put the livelihoods of many artists at risk but also of all the folks working at performance venues or whose job are otherwise tied to live entertainment.

New music kept coming out

Despite COVID-19, new music continued to be released throughout the year – lots of it. In fact, at least some of this activity can be explained by the pandemic. Artists who weren’t able to tour found themselves with more time on their hands to work on new material. New albums by Bruce Springsteen, Taylor Swift and Paul McCartney are just some of the examples that come to my mind in this context.

I’m happy new music was a major theme for my blog in 2020, more than ever before. As frequent visitors know, I’m not talking about music you can find in the present mainstream charts. As of this blog post, I reviewed more than 20 new albums. That’s only counting new original music, not other releases, such as new installments from Springsteen’s great live bootleg series or James Taylor’s cover album of the American songbook. Yes, while I know next to nothing about American standards, I did review that album and enjoyed listening to it!

Frankly, I could have reviewed more new albums. I didn’t. In addition to lack of time, part of the reason was because of Best of What’s New. This weekly recurring feature on newly released music, which I launched in March, focuses on songs rather than entire albums.

It’s gratifying to me that except for one time due to a death in my close family, I posted new installments each week, meaning I’ve been able to discover new music week after week I found decent enough to write about. Keep in mind this is the same guy who as recently as last year kept complaining how “terrible” contemporary music is! I forgot one important qualifier: Music that’s in the mainstream charts. Let’s take a look at some of the new music I wrote about over the past 12 months.

My favorite new albums

While it’s hard to narrow things down, from the 20-plus new albums I reviewed the four ones I feel most excited about are AC/DC/Power Up (released November 18), Walter Trout/Ordinary Madness (August 28), Norah Jones/Pick Me Up Off the Floor (June 12) and Ruby Turner/Love Was Here (January 24). Following is a tune from each:

AC/DC: Shot in the Dark (Power Up)

Shot in the Dark, the album’s great lead single, is classic AC/DC and makes you feel you just time-travelled back to 1980. Like all other tracks on Power Up, it was co-written by Angus Young and his older brother Malcolm Young during the period between the Stiff Upper Lip (February 2000) and Black Ice (October 2008) albums. You can read more about Power Up here, a must listen to for AC/DC fans.

Walter Trout: Wanna Dance (Ordinary Madness)

I love Walter Trout, a no BS artist and decent guitarist who has lived through dramatic ups and downs. Perhaps, he’s the ultimate blues rock survivor! Here’s Wanna Dance. “I had Neil Young and Crazy Horse in mind when I wrote the tune,” Trout told American Songwriter. Dancing is a metaphor for enjoying and celebrating every moment in life, since We ain’t gonna live forever, as Trout sings. He knows all too well. This is one hell of a blues rocker! See here for more about Ordinary Madness.

Norah Jones: Flame Twin (Pick Me Up Off the Floor)

I had been aware and always liked Norah Jones and her piano-driven lounge style jazz for ,any years, but had never explored any of her albums. I’m glad Flame Twin from her seventh studio album Pick Me Up Off the Floor finally changed this. Written by Jones, the tune injects a dose of blues, which rarely if ever is a bad thing in my book. I also dig the Hammond B3 accents from Pete Remm who plays electric guitar as well. And, of course, there are Jones’ great soothing vocals and piano playing. Like other songs on Pick Me Up Off the Floor, the tune was inspired by poetry. My review of this great album is here.

Ruby Turner: Don’t Cry Over Yesterday (Love Was Here)

Don’t Cry Over Yesterday was the track that made me listen to Love Was Here, a beautiful classic soul album by British soul, gospel and R&B vocalist Ruby Turner. I hadn’t heard of Turner before, even though she’s performed since 1983 and worked with other artists like Bryan FerrySteve WinwoodMick Jagger and UB40. “Discovering” great artists like her is part of the reason why I love music blogging. If you’re into ’70s style soul, I’d encourage you to check out this album, a true gem! You can read more about it here.

Other new 2020 studio releases I’d like to call out include McCartney III (Paul McCartney), Letter to You (Bruce Springsteen), Bless Your Heart (The Allman Betts Band), Hate for Sale (Pretenders), Rough and Rowdy Ways (Bob Dylan), Homegrown (Neil Young), Self-Made Man (Larkin Poe), Blues with Friends (Dion), Early Morning Rain (Steve Forbert) and El Dorado (Marcus King).

In part 2 of this post, I’m revisiting the Best of What’s New feature and concerts before wrapping things up with final thoughts.

Sources: Music Business Worldwide; Billboard; Los Angeles Times; Christian’s Music Musings; YouTube

McCartney III is the Charm of Macca’s DIY Home-Made Albums

I was excited when Paul McCartney announced his new album McCartney III back in October, though my expectations weren’t very high. McCartney and McCartney II, the two previous albums in his DIY homemade trilogy, for the most part never appealed to me. While McCartney III is no Band on the Run, Tug of War or predecessor Egypt Station for that matter, there’s something charming about the album, which was released today (December 18). With each additional listening, I feel a bit like what Sir Paul sang 53 years ago: It’s getting better all the time.

Unlike McCartney and McCartney II, McCartney III had not be planned. From the previous announcement on McCartney’s website: “I was living lockdown life on my farm with my family and I would go to my studio every day. I had to do a little bit of work on some film music and that turned into the opening track and then when it was done I thought what will I do next? I had some stuff I’d worked on over the years but sometimes time would run out and it would be left half-finished so I started thinking about what I had.  Each day I’d start recording with the instrument I wrote the song on and then gradually layer it all up, it was a lot of fun.  It was about making music for yourself rather than making music that has to do a job.  So, I just did stuff I fancied doing. I had no idea this would end up as an album.” 

McCartney III feels a bit like a hodgepodge of tunes, including somewhat experimental music, full-blown rock and more typical acoustic McCartney type songs. That’s part of its charm! Like on his two DIY predecessors, McCartney plays all instruments himself, including guitar, bass, piano, harpsichord, mellotron, synthesizer and drums. There’s one exception. On the rocker Slidin, he did get a little help from Rusty Anderson (guitar) and Abe Laboriel Jr. (drums), two longtime members of his backing band in the studio and on the road.

There’s also When Winter Comes, an unreleased track that was previously recorded in the early ’90s and co-produced by George Martin. Macca wrote a new passage for the song, which inspired album opener Long Tailed Winter Bird. In turn, that tune sparked the process for McCartney to work on songs and of course extra time he had on his hands during the extended COVID-19 lockdown. Let’s get to some music.

I’d like to kick it off with the aforementioned opener Long Tailed Winter Bird, a largely instrumental track that’s the most adventurous on the album. I had to listen to the tune a few times before it started speaking to me – certainly not typical McCartney.

Find My Way sounds more like a McCartney pop tune. It’s got some nice harmony guitar accents. I also like the harpsichord. And the legendary Höfner violin bass! Here’s the official video.

Lavatory Lil is a nice rocker with a cool descending bassline. Some reviews I’ve seen called it reminiscent of Polythene Pam. Whichever way you want to describe it, I think it’s a cool tune!

Let’s follow it up with another rocker: the above noted Slidin’, the hardest rockin’ tune on the album.

How about some classic McCartney acoustic guitar tune? Ask and you shall receive. Here’s The Kiss Of Venus.

The last track I’d like to call out is the closer Winter Bird/When Winter Comes. Don’t get fooled by the beginning, which sounds like a reprise of the opener. About 27 seconds into the track, When Winter Comes begins, another nice acoustic tune.

McCartney III has a few additional parallels to McCartney and McCartney II. The photography stayed in the family. In the case of the two predecessors, it was Linda McCartney. On the new album, the principal photos were shot by McCartney’s daughter Mary McCartney, with additional photos by his nephew Sonny McCartney and some shots Paul took on his phone. Each of the three albums appeared during the first year of a new decade around major developments: The breakup of The Beatles, the end of Wings and the turmoil caused by a global pandemic.

Unlike McCartney and McCartney II, which initially had lukewarm receptions from critics, the majority of reviews I’ve seen for McCartney III are pretty positive. Perhaps the critics have mellowed because of COVID-19, or perhaps they are simply happy that one of the most beloved artists on the planet still feels passionate about his craft and releases new music. I can’t deny the latter is a factor in my judgment.

McCartney III appears on Capitol Records and is available via digital platforms, on CD, and on LP. According to McCartney’s website, the latter are manufactured by Third Man Pressing. Vinyl configurations range from standard 180g to a Third Man Edition of 3000 hand-numbered red vinyl copies, a ‘333’ Edition sold only via Third Man Records online store and limited to 333 copies on yellow-with-black-dots vinyl created using 33 recycled vinyl copies of McCartney and McCartney II, a U.S. indie retail exclusive pressing of 4000 hand-numbered white vinyl LPs, and more. 

Sources: Wikipedia; Paul McCartney website; YouTube