Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

My weekly quest to uncover new music continues. This latest Best of What’s New installment features another diverse collection of music genres/styles, all of which was released yesterday (November 20). It includes country rock, grungy pop punk, alternative and, yes, more African-rooted music. Let’s kick it off with the latter.

Ausecuma Beats/Yelena

Ausecuma Beats is named after the countries/ geographic regions of their members: Australia, Senegambia, Cuba and Mali. According to their profile on Bandcamp, they are more than just a band, they are a philosophy. Led by master djembe player [an African drum], Boubacar Gaye [from Senegal], the nine-strong ensemble, demonstrate artists coming together based on an idea – the idea of place, of transplanting cultural heritage into a contemporary city. Ausecuma Beats is people from all corners of the world finding themselves together in new environments, as a community. Their website also calls out the following additional members: Yusupha Ngum (lead vocals; from Gambia); Rodolfo Hechavarria, known as “Panga” (congas; Cuba); Ed Crocker (drums; Australia); Bassidi Koné (balafon, an African wooden xylophone-like instrument; Mali); and Adam Halliwell (electric guitar; Australia). While I haven’t been able to find when the band was formed, the tune Yelena appears on their eponymous debut album. This is music radiating joy with an infectious groove. I take this any day, especially during these unreal times we are currently witnessing!

Ward Davis/Ain’t Gonna be Today

Ward Davis, originally hailing from Monticello, Ark., is a country singer-songwriter who has been based in Nashville since 2000. According to his artist profile on Apple Music, Davis first gained attention in Nashville as a songwriter, placing songs on albums by Trace Adkins, Wade Hayes, Merle Haggard & Willie Nelson, and Cody Jinks. The latter was a pivotal connection for Davis. After he co-wrote three songs for Jinks’ 2018 album Lifers, Jinks chose to go out on tour with the like-minded Davis, thereby raising the profile of this practitioner of lean, literary neo-outlaw country...Davis spent his first decade attempting to fit into the commercial confines of Nashville, but success took a while to materialize. His first break arrived in 2011, when he placed “My Kind of Crowd” on Premium Country from David Adam Byrnes. In 2014, he released an EP, No Bridges. His debut album 15 Years in a 10 Year Town followed in 2015. Ain’t Gonna be Today is the opener of Davis’ sophomore album Black Cats and Crows. Co-written by Davis and Kendell Marvel, the country rocker features nice harmony guitar and pedal steel action.

I Am the Avalanche/Better Days

I Am the Avalanche are a punk rock band from Brooklyn, N.Y., founded in 2004. ‘Fugetaboutit’, used to be my kneejerk reaction when it comes to punk. But over the years, I’ve come to realize not all punk is created equal, and there’s actually some I like to listen to, at least occasionally. Since I rarely can lose my pop instinct entirely, a tune generally needs to have some melody to appeal, not just be noise. Based on their new studio album Dive, I Am the Avalanche seems to fit the bill. The band features Vinnie Caruana (lead vocals, guitar), Brandon Swanson (guitar), Michael Ireland (guitar), Kellen Robson (bass) and Brett “The Ratt” Romnes (drums). Their eponymous studio debut came out in September 2005. Better Days, co-written by Ireland and Caruana, is the opener of the new album, the band’s fourth studio album. The grungy pop rocker reminds me a bit of Green Day.

Anna McClellan/Feel You

According to her Facebook page, Anna McClellan began performing original songs in her hometown of Omaha, NE at the age of seventeen and has been actively recording and touring ever since. Her debut, Fire Flames [2015], earned her an opening slot on a Frankie Cosmos tour. Through the doors that tour opened, McClellan eventually met Father/Daughter Records which led to the release of her second full-length record, Yes and No, in 2018. After a stint in NYC, several subsequent tours and meandering, Anna returned to Omaha and recorded I saw first light, her latest effort for Father/Daughter. The album was recorded over two weeks with a multitude of local cohorts, and it documents Anna’s journey from the Midwest to the east coast and back again, probing both the roots of her creative impetus and her ongoing commitment to social issues. Here’s Feel You from McClellan’s new album I Saw First Light.

Sources: Wikipedia; Bandcamp; Ausecuma Beats website; Apple Music; Facebook; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: Yola/Walk Through Fire

When I included the latest single by Yola in my last Best of What’s New installment, I noticed her first full-length solo album Walk Through Fire received many accolades. Since the strong voice of the English singer-songwriter immediately grabbed me, I checked it out and have to say it’s a true gem, both musically and in terms of her vocal performance.

Getting to that point wasn’t exactly an easy path for Yola who was born as Yolanda Quartey in 1983 in Bristol, England. According to this review in Popmatters, Yola had a tough childhood characterized by poverty and a parent who didn’t care for her and banned music. Later she lived homeless in London for some time before establishing herself as a session singer and touring with acts like DJ collective Bugz in the Attic and electronic music outfit Massive Attack.

Yola Carter

In 2005, she co-founded country-soul band Phantom Limb and recorded two studio albums and a live record with them. But ultimately, as her artist profile in Apple Music notes, Yola felt the need to strike out on her own. Over the next few years, she started writing her own songs that were influenced by Muscle Shoals era country-soul, R&B and classic singer-songwriter style. In 2016, she released her debut EP Orphan Offering under the name of Yola Carter.

Eventually, Yola went to Nashville where she met Dan Auerbach after he had seen a video of her. Apparently, Auerbach was immediately impressed by her. “Her spirit fills the room, just like her voice,” he reportedly said. “She has the ability to sing in a full roar or barely a whisper and that is a true gift.” Auerbach teamed up with Yola to co-write songs, together with other writers, including Bobby Wood, Pat McLaughlin and Dan Penn.

Yola and Dan Auerbach

Auerbach also assembled an impressive group of seasoned studio musicians, including Dave Roe (bass), who played with Johnny Cash and John Mellencamp, among others; harmonica player Charlie McCoy (credits include Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton, Bob Dylan, etc.) and drummer Gene Crisman, who together with Bobby Wood was a member of the Memphis Boys. They were the house band of American Sound Studio in Memphis, Tenn. where artists like Elvis, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin and Dusty Springfield recorded. Auerbach also produced Walk Through Fire, which appeared in February 2019 on his Easy Eye Sound label.

With all of the above, it’s not surprising the album has a retro late ’60s sound. This is also matched by the cover. And yet, to me, Walk Through Fire feels like an album that will hold up well over time. It simply is a work of beauty. Let’s get to some music.

Here’s the opener Faraway Look. The track was co-written by Auerbach, McLaughin and Yola. BTW, McLaughlin’s compositions have been performed by artists like Bonnie Raitt, Alan Jackson, Taj Mahal and Al Kooper, among others. Sure, the production might be a bit on the lush side, but this is just a beautiful tune.

Ride Out in the Country is another great track. The song was co-written by Auerbach, Yola and Joe Allen. Allen is a county songwriter and bassist who since the early ’70s has worked with the likes of Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash.

Next up is the title track, which according to Wikipedia references both a fire that damaged Yola’s home and an abusive relationship from which she escaped. The tune was co-written by Auerbach, Yola and Dan Penn. Penn has co-written many soul hits of the ’60s, including The Dark End of the Street and Do Right Woman, Do Right Man and Cry Like a Baby.

Rock Me Gently is my current favorite on the album. It’s another Auerbach-Allen-Yola co-write.

Let’s do one more: Love All Night (Work All Day), co-credited to Wood, Auerbach and Yola.

As noted above, Walk Through Fire was very well received. The album also generated three Grammy nominations: Best Americana Album, Best American Roots Song (Faraway Look) and Best New Artist. Walk Through Fire was also nominated for Album of the Year at the Americana Music Honors & Awards. And, yes, the album also did score a win: UK Album of the Year at the UK Americana Awards.

At age 37, Yola still is relatively young. I look forward to much more great music from this talented songwriter and vocalist.

Sources: Wikipedia; Popmatters; Apple Music; YouTube

My Playlist: Emmylou Harris

While I had known her name for decades, it really wasn’t until July 2017 that I started paying closer attention to Emmylou Harris when seeing her in Philadelphia as part of a concert headlined by John Mellencamp. There was something special about this lady with her all-white hair who recently had turned 70. Now 73, Harris has been active for more than 50 years, released dozens of solo and collaborative albums, scored 20 top 10 hits on the Billboard country charts and collected numerous Grammy and other awards. This playlist is an attempt to shine a light on her long and impressive career.

Harris was born on April 2, 1947 in Birmingham, Ala. Her dad, Walter Harris, was a Marine Corps officer, while her mom Eugenia was a wartime military wife. After high school graduation in Woodbridge, Va., Harris went to the School of Music, Theater and Dance at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro on a drama scholarship. It was there where she started to learn songs by Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez on guitar and develop her musical aspirations. Harris dropped out, moved to New York City during the second half of the ’60s, and started performing on the folk circle in Greenwich Village while waiting tables.

In 1969, Harris married fellow songwriter Tom Slocum who wrote the title track for her debut album Gliding Bird. The folk record also included five songs written by Harris. The label Jubilee Records went under shortly after the release, so all distribution and promotion was ceased. Subsequently, Harris disowned the record. She regards her second release Pieces of the Sky from February 1975 as her official debut.

In 1971, after he had seen her perform, Flying Burrito Brothers co-founder Chris Hillman introduced Harris to his music partner Gram Parsons who became a key figure in her early career. Harris worked with Parsons on his solo debut GP from January 1973 and toured as a member of his band the Fallen Angels. Later that year, she also worked with Parsons on his second and final solo album Grievous Angel, which was released in January 1974, following his death from an accidental overdose of drugs and alcohol in September 1973.

In February 1975, the aforementioned Pieces of the Sky appeared. It’s the album that launched Harris’ career as a country artist and established what she became mainly known, i.e., covering songs written by other artists. The album also coincided with the formation of The Hot Band, Harris’ high-profile backing band until 1991. The initial lineup included James Burton (guitar), Glen Hardin (piano), Hank DeVito (pedal steel guitar), Emory Gordy, Jr. (bass) and John Ware (drums).

To date, Harris has released 21 solo studio albums, three live records and a dozen compilations. Additionally, her impressive catalog includes seven collaboration albums with artists like Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Rodney Crowell. Harris also has worked as a guest with numerous other artists, including The Band, Glen Campbell, Johnny Cash, Guy Clark, Bob Dylan, Sheryl Crow and Steve Earle, among others. Let’s get to some music!

While perhaps not as representative of Harris as her other records, I’d like to kick off this playlist with a tune from 1969’s Gliding Bird, which was written by her: Black Gypsy.

If I Could Only Win Your Love from her second album Pieces of the Sky became Harris’ first hit single, climbing to no. 4 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart in 1975. Co-written by Charlie Louvin and Ira Louvin who formed the country and gospel duo The Louvin Brothers, it also marked the first of only a handful of Harris singles that charted on the Billboard Hot 100, in this case at no. 58. Linda Ronstadt sang backing vocals on the album.

While Emmylou Harris is best known as a country artist, her song choices can be eclectic. Here’s an example from her third studio album Elite Hotel released in December 1975: A beautiful cover of The Beatles tune Here, There and Everywhere. Credited to John Lennon and Paul McCartney, the McCartney ballad originally appeared on the Revolver album from August 1996.

Harris’ next album Luxury Liner from December 1976 included the first cover of Townes Van Zandt’s Pancho and Lefty, which subsequently became the revered singer-songwriter’s best known composition. The tune has also been covered by other artists, most notably Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, who recorded it as the title track of their collaboration album that came out in January 1983.

Roses in the Snow, Harris’ first ’80s album, appeared in May 1980. Unlike her preceding country and country rock records, this album was more bluegrass-oriented. Here’s a great rendition of the Paul Simon tune The Boxer, featuring beautiful harmony singing by Cheryl White and her sister Sharon White. The Boxer first appeared on Simon & Garfunkel’s final studio album Bridge Over Troubled Water from January 1970.

In February 1985, Harris released The Ballad of Sally Rose, a concept album loosely based on her relationship with Gram Parsons. The record also stood out for another reason. Like her debut 16 years earlier, it illustrates Harris is more than just a cover artist. All songs were co-written by her, mostly together with her then-second husband Paul Kennerley, an English singer-songwriter, musician and record producer, who also produced this record. Here’s White Line, one of the record’s two singles.

Next, I’d like to jump to the ’90s and Wrecking Ball, Harris’ 18th studio album. The record became her first since Pieces of the Sky that did not make the country charts. Perhaps that wasn’t too surprising, given the music moved away from her traditional acoustic to a more edgy and atmospheric sound. Producer Daniel Lanois who produced and co-produced various U2 albums like The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby undoubtedly had something to do with it. Here’s the title track written by Neil Young who also provided harmony vocals. Young had first recorded the tune for his 1989 studio album Freedom. And, coming back to U2, Larry Mullen, Jr. played drums on most of the album’s songs including this one.

Given the significance of collaboration albums in Harris’ catalog, I’d like to at least acknowledge one: Trio II from February 1999, the second album she did together with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt. All tracks had actually been recorded in 1994, but label disputes and conflicting schedules had prevented the release at the time. While I’ve featured it on the blog before, I just couldn’t resist including the ladies’ angelic rendition of After The Gold Rush, the title track of Neil Young’s third studio album from September 1970. Interestingly, while the remake did not chart when it was released as a single from Trio II, it won the 2000 Grammy for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals. The intensity of this version is just killing me. This is why I dig vocals!

In September 2003, Harris released Stumble into Grace, her second album of the current century. Like some of her previous records, it includes a significant number of her own compositions. She also co-wrote most of the remaining tracks. Here’s the opener Here I Am, one of her tunes.

I’d like to wrap up this playlist with a track from what is Harris’ most recent solo album, Hard Bargain, released in April 2011. Her two latest records are collaborations with Rodney Crowell from February 2013 and March 2015. There’s also the Complete Trio Collection, a compilation of the Trio I and Trio II collaborative albums with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt, which came out in September 2016. Given the enormous role of Gram Parsons, it felt right to highlight opener The Road, a tune Harris penned about her musical mentor – the first to focus on his death since Boulder to Colorado, a song from Pieces of the Sky. It’s also noteworthy that Hard Bargain became Harris’ highest chart entry since the above Roses in the Snow from 1980, peaking at no. 3 on the Billboard Top Country Albums. It also hit no. 18 on the Billboard 200, her highest mainstream chart success since 1977’s Luxury Liner, a remarkable late-stage career success.

Emmylou Harris has sold 75 million records in the U.S. alone. She has won 14 Grammy awards out of 48 for which she had been nominated. She has also won numerous country, bluegrass and Americana awards, and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in February 2008.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

On This Day In Rock & Roll History: January 1st

What could possibly happen on a January 1st when it’s safe to assume many folks are recovering from celebrating the New Year? Well, it turns out quite a bit!

1956: Carl Perkins released Blue Suede Shoes as a single on Sun Records. Written by him, it is considered to be one of the first rockabilly tunes. The song spent 16 weeks on the Best Selling Singles chart from music industry publication Cash Box, a competitor to Billboard at the time, peaking at no. 2. The song was also covered by many other artists, including Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran and Elvis Presley.

1959: Johnny Cash performed one of his first prison shows at San Quentin prison in San Rafael, Calif. Among the audience members was future country artist Merle Haggard who was serving a sentence for burglary. According to Songfacts, the performance captivated the then 19-year-old who later credited Cash for his “outlaw sound.” About 10 years later, the two men ended up performing together on the TV series The Johnny Cash Show. In February 1969, Cash recorded a live album at that prison, Johnny Cash At San Quentin. Here’s a clip of I Walk The Line, one of the tunes Cash likely also performed during the 1959 gig.

1962: Decca Records Head of A&R (singles) Dick Rowe became the record company executive who rejected The Beatles after A&R representative Mike Smith recorded a session with them at Decca’s studios in West Hampstead, London. At the time, the band’s line-up consisted of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Pete Best. While manager Brian Epstein and The Beatles were confident Decca would sign them, instead they went with Brian Poole and The Tremeloes, a local band. According to the Beatles Bible, Rowe thought it would be easier to work with them than a band from Liverpool. The official reason given to Epstein: “Guitar groups are on the way out, Mr. Epstein.” While it is safe to assume Rowe bitterly regretted his decision, he did sign up The Rolling Stones, ironically following Harrison’s recommendation.

The Beatles with Pete Best

1964: The television music program Top of the Pops (TOTP) debuted on the BBC. The inaugural of the show that aired weekly until July 2006 featured The Rolling Stones (I Wanna Be Your Man), Dusty Springfield (I Only Want To Be With You), The Dave Clark Five (Glad All Over), The Hollies (Stay), The Swinging Blues Jeans (Hippy Hippy Shake) and The Beatles (I Want To Hold Your Hand). Thanks to its large viewing audience, TOTP became a significant part of British pop culture, according to Wikipedia.

The Dave Clark Five on TOTP

1966: The Sound Of Silence (originally called The Sounds Of Silence) by Simon & Garfunkel reached no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Written by Paul Simon, the duo initially recorded it in March 1964 for their studio debut Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. But the record bombed and they broke up. After the song had received growing radio play during the spring of 1965, producer Tom Wilson decided to remix the track and release it in September that year. Simon & Garfunkel were only informed about this after the fact. The song’s chart success led them to reunite and record their second album, Sounds Of Silence. On that record, the tune appeared as The Sound Of Silence.

1972: Carole King’s third studio album Music, which had been released in December 1971, reached no. 1 on the Billboard 200. The follow-up to King’s iconic 1971 record Tapestry from maintained that position for three consecutive weeks. In fact, both albums were simultaneously in the top 10 for many weeks. Here is a clip of Sweet Seasons, which was co-written by King and Toni Stern and also released separately as a single.

Sources: This Day In Music.com, Songfacts Music History Calendar, The Beatles Bible, Wikipedia, YouTube