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

What I’ve Been Listening to: Jane Lee Hooker/No B!

Debut album from all-female New York band serves hard-charging blues rock

Jane Lee Hooker is another discovery I made when looking for free outdoor concerts in my area this weekend. The five-piece all-female blues rock band from New York City is scheduled to perform Sunday evening in Long Branch, N.J. as part of that seaside city’s summer concert series. The moment I started listening to No B!, I literally thought, ‘holy shit’ – these ladies are playing a furious type of blues rock, sometimes mixed with a dose of punk.

Just like my previous discovery this weekend, The John Byrne Band whose most recent album I reviewed here, Jane Lee Hooker or JLH doesn’t have a Wikipedia entry- too bad! But their website does provide some background. Formed in 2013, the band consists of Dana “Danger” Athens (vocals), Hail Mary Z (bass), Tracy Hightop (guitar), Melissa “Cool Whip” Houston (drums) and Tina “T-Bone” Gorin. In 2015, JHL signed with blues label Ruf Records and released No B! in April 2016.

Jane Lee Hooker Live

As the website points out, while JLH was only founded four years ago, the band’s members have “between them decades of experience in the studio and on the road.” Each of these ladies were in other bands before they joined JHL. The two guitarists previously played together in the ’90s in a band called Helldorado where they “honed their love of blazing dual leads.”

JHL has shared bills with WilcoSouthside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes and The Blasters, among others. Earlier this year, they conducted a European tour, including Germany, France, Luxembourg and Switzerland. One of their gigs was a performance at the end of May on Rockpalast, a well-known long-running German rock TV show.

No B! starts off furiously with Wade In The Water, setting the tone for the album. According to Wikipedia, originally, the tune is a negro spiritual written by John Wesley Work III and his brother Frederick J. Work and was first published in 1901 by the Fisk Jubilee Singers.

Next up is Mean Town Blues, which kicks things up a few notches. The song was written by Johnny Winter who first released it on his 1968 debut album The Progressive Blues Experiment. JLH’s version of the tune sounds like Winter spinning on 78 instead of 45 rpm!

While I Believe It To My Soul slows down the speed, the track sounds just as intense as the two previous tunes. Originally, Ray Charles wrote and first recorded the song in 1961 on his studio album The Genius Sings the Blues.

In The Valley is only JLH original tune on the album. It was written by Athens, the singer, whose voice at times reminds me a bit of Melissa Etheridge.

Free Me is another nice cover showing a soulful side of Athens. Written by Otis Redding and Gene Lawson in 1967, the song appeared on Redding’s fourth posthumous album Love Man, which was released in 1969.

The last track I’d like to highlight is the great Muddy Waters tune Mannish Boy. Waters recorded it first in 1955. While it’s perhaps a bit peculiar hearing a woman sing, “I’m a man, I’m a full-grown man,” JLH does a great job with it.

JHL, whose current tour apparently started in mid-July, will be on the road all the way to mid-November. After Long Branch they are scheduled for seven additional U.S. gigs until early September before taking their tour back to Europe in late October, returning to Germany and Switzerland. They are also adding Denmark and the Czech Republic where the tour will conclude in Šumperk on November 18 at the Blues Alive Festival.

Here is a clip of JLH’s above mentioned live performance on Rockpalast – not sure how long it will be available.

Sources: Jane Lee Hooker website, YouTube, Wikipedia