Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

This latest installment of the recurring feature presents yet another new tune by Robert Allen Zimmerman, who finally revealed there will be a new album with original music, probably providing some relief among die-hard Bob Dylan fans. The piece also includes a new song by a German singer-songwriter who happens to be a yuge Dylan fan and has led my favorite German rock band for more than 40 years. There’s also a melancholic track by Norah Jones. And how about rounding out things with some smoking hot blues by an indigenous artist from Canada? Let’s get to it.

Bob Dylan/False Prophet 

False Prophet, released today, is the third new song by Bob Dylan that appeared in recent weeks. He probably thought three make a charm and also finally confirmed what many fans had hoped for: All these tunes appear on a new album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, set to come out on June 19. It’s Dylan’s 39th studio album, per Rolling Stone’s count, and his first release of original music in eight years since Tempest from September 2012. False Prophet, a guitar-driven bluesy tune, definitely speaks to me more than the previously released I Contain Multitudes and the nearly 17-minute Murder Most Foul. In fact, I kinda like it!

Niedeckens BAP/Ruhe vor’m Sturm

BAP or, since September 2014, Niedeckens BAP have been my favorite German rock band for now close to 40 years. I’ve covered this group from Cologne around singer-songwriter Wolfgang Niedecken on various past occasions, most recently here. One of their characteristic features is they sing all of their songs in Kölsch, the regional dialect spoken in the area of Cologne. Ruhe vor’m Sturm (calm before the storm), the first tune from the band’s next album scheduled for September, has rather dark lyrics, drawing a bridge between Germany’s past Nazi era and the growing influence of right-wing extremist ideology in Germany and other countries. “Everything that has happened in previous years, the populists that step by step are gaining power and those who are still in their starting positions…are developments that can frighten you and make you think, ‘how is it supposed to continue’,” said Niedecken during an interview with German broadcast station SWR1. “I’ve had many sleepless nights. I have now grandchildren…and don’t simply want to say, ‘ do whatever you want’ – I won’t accept that.” Niedecken who writes all of the band’s lyrics has spoken up against racism for many years. The song was deliberately released today, the 75th anniversary of Germany’s unconditional surrender to the Allies and the official end of World War II and one of the darkest chapters in human history.

Norah Jones/Tryin’ to Keep It Together

Every time I listen to Norah Jones, which for some reason I hardly do, I somehow feel at ease. There’s just something about the singer-songwriter’s voice I find incredibly powerful. Tryin’ to Keep It Together is a bonus tune on Jones’ upcoming eighth studio album Pick Me Up Off the Floor, which will appear on June 12. “I didn’t intend on releasing it early, but it kept running through my head,” said Jones in a statement, as reported by Rolling Stone. “It’s very much how I feel in this moment, so it felt appropriate to release it. Maybe it’s how others feel as well.” The song was co-written by Jones and Thomas Bartlett, a.k.a Doveman, who also produced it. Jones released the official video for the tune today. In a tweet she wrote, “The official video for ‘Tryin’ To Keep It Together’ was filmed at home and is out now. Thanks to my quaran-team house-mate, Marcela Avelar, for making this video.”

Crystal Shawanda/Church House Blues

Crystal Shawanda is an indigenous country-turned-blues artist. According to her website, she grew up on Wikwemikong reserve on an island in Ontario, Canada. While her parents exposed her to country music and taught her how to sing and play guitar, her oldest brother introduced her to what became her ultimate passion, the blues. She started her career in country music and her debut album Dawn of a New Day was released in June 2008. But while country music apparently brought her some success, she started feeling like a fish out of water and decided to take off some time. Shawanda returned in September 2014 with her first blues album The Whole World’s Got the Blues. Her new record Church House Blues was released on April 17. According to this review in Glide Magazine, it was produced by Shawanda’s husband and collaborator Dewayne Strobel, who also plays guitar on the record. The review notes influences from Shawanda’s heroes Etta James, Koko Taylor, The Staple Sisters and Janis Joplin. Regardless whether you agree with their take or not, one thing is crystal clear to me: That woman has mighty pipes and great energy. Check out the title track!

Sources: Wikipedia; Rolling Stone; SWR1; Crystal Shawanda website; Glide Magazine; YouTube

On This Day in Rock & Roll History: March 22

Today, my recurring music history feature is hitting a bit of a milestone with the 50th installment. While 50 sounds like an impressive number, it means I still have 315 dates left to cover! The music nerd in me tells me that’s actually not a bad thing! Plus, it turns out there’s lots of fodder for March 22, so let’s get to it.

1963: Please Please Me, the debut studio album by The Beatles, appeared in the UK. According to The Beatles Bible, the record was rush-released to capitalize on the success of the singles Love Me Do and Please Please Me. Both singles were on the album, along with their b-sides P.S. I Love You and Ask Me Why, respectively. The remaining 10 tracks were recorded during a marathon session on February 11, 1963, which lasted just under 10 hours. The other fun fact about the record is that George Martin initially had planned to call it Off The Beatle Track – kind of clever, though he obviously abandoned the idea. Naming it after a successful single probably was also part of the plan to maximize sales. As was common on the early Beatles albums, Please Please Me featured various covers. Here’s one of my favorites: Twist and Shout, co-written by Phil Medley and Bert Berns, and first recorded by U.S. R&B vocal group The Top Notes in 1961.

1965: Robert Allen Zimmerman, the genius known as Bob Dylan, released his fifth studio album Bringing It All Back Home. It marked his first top 10 record in the U.S., climbing to no. 6 on the Billboard 200, and his second no. 1 studio release in the UK, following The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan from May 1963. Perhaps more significantly, Bringing It All Back Home was also Dylan’s first album to feature recordings with electric instruments; in fact, on the entire A-side, he was backed by an electric band. The b-side was acoustic. Four months later, on July 25, the electric controversy turned into a firestorm with Dylan’s appearance at the Newport Folk Festival. Here’s Maggie’s Farm. It was the much faster and more aggressive performance of that song at Newport, which caused most of the controversy there.

1971: John Lennon released his fifth solo single Power to the People in the U.S., 10 days after its debut in the UK. Credited to Lennon and Plastic Ono Band, the non-album tune peaked at no. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100, marking Lennon’s second most successful single to date. In the UK, the song climbed to no. 6. It performed best in Norway where it hit no. 3. Power to the People was recorded at Ascot Sound Studios in Berkshire, England as part of sessions that also yielded tunes for Lennon’s second solo album Imagine. “I wrote ‘Power to the People’ the same way I wrote ‘Give Peace a Chance,’ as something for the people to sing,” Lennon reportedly said. “I make singles like broadsheets. It was another quickie, done at Ascot.” Quickie or not, I think it’s safe to say it wasn’t his best tune.

1974: The Eagles dropped their third studio album On the Border. After two country-rock records, the band decided they wanted a more rock-oriented sound. Therefore, most of the album was produced by Bill Szymczyk, who had previously worked with then-future Eagles member Joe Walsh and The James Gang, among others. It also marked the band’s first record with rock guitarist Don Felder. Here’s Already Gone, featuring Felder on lead guitar and Glenn Frey on lead vocals. Co-written by Jack Tempchin and Robb Strandlund, the tune also appeared separately as the album’s lead single. It’s one of my favorite rockers by the Eagles.

1975: Led Zeppelin hit no. 1 on the Billboard 200 with their sixth studio album Physical Graffiti. The double LP, which includes recordings spanning from January 1970 to February 1974, maintained the top spot for 6 weeks and marked Zeppelin’s fourth no. 1 record in the U.S. The album also topped the charts in the UK and Canada. Viewed as one of the band’s strongest albums, Physical Graffiti was certified 16x Platinum in the U.S. in 2006, which means sales of more than eight million copies – unreal from today’s perspective! Here’s the bombastic Kashmir, co-written by Jon Bonham, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. It’s one of the most unusual rock songs I know; frankly, it wasn’t exactly love at first sight for me, though over the years, I’ve come to dig it.

1977: Stevie Wonder released Sir Duke, the third single off his 18th studio gem Songs in the Key of Life. Both are long-time favorites in my book. The tribute to jazz legend Duke Ellington marked Wonder’s fifth and last no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 during the ’70s. It also topped the R&B chart and became a hit internationally, reaching no.1 in Canada and top 10 positions in Germany, Switzerland and the UK. I just love the groove of this tune. The horn work is outstanding – take it away, Stevie!

1980: Pink Floyd scored their only no. 1 hit in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100 with Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2), where it would stay for four weeks. Given the Roger Waters song, off Floyd’s 11th studio album The Wall, was their most pop-oriented, radio-friendly tune, perhaps that’s not exactly a surprise. It also became a chart-topper in the UK, Austria, France, Germany, Switzerland and New Zealand. I can confirm firsthand that it was played to death on the radio in Germany. On a lighter note, I also recall a funny incident at a school party when I was in seventh grade. For some reason, which I can’t remember, we had a little get-together in our classroom. When our English and homeroom teacher walked in, the song was blasting out of a boom box. He couldn’t suppress a brief smile before looking serious again. What happens when you think you don’t need no education is now vividly on display among some young people in the U.S. and other countries, who continue to hang out in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic as if nothing had happened.

Sources: Wikipedia; The Beatles Bible; This Day In Music; Songfacts Music History Calendar; YouTube

Phil Ochs, Brilliant Yet Widely Obscure Troubador

What do Robert Allen Zimmerman and Philip David Ochs have in common? Both wrote brilliant protest songs in the ’60s. The difference? Robert changed his name to Bob Dylan and became one of the most famous music artists of our time. Philip chose to perform as Phil Ochs and remained largely obscure outside singer-songwriter circles.

Until recently, I had never heard of Phil Ochs myself. Then I saw somebody ranting on Facebook that Bob Dylan undeservedly gets all the credit for being this brilliant protest singer when the recognition should really go to Ochs. The truth is while both artists at some point were important protest singer-songwriters, none of them invented the genre. According to Wikipedia, the tradition of protest songs in the U.S. long predates the births of Dylan and Ochs – in fact going all the way back to the 18th century.

One of the important forerunners to the 1950s and 1960s protest singer-singwriters were the Hutchinson Family Singers, who starting from 1839 became well known for singing about social issues, such as abolition, war and women’s suffrage. And let’s not forget Woody Guthrie, who was born in 1912 and started learning folk and blues songs during his early teens. Over a 26-year-period as an active music artist, Guthrie wrote hundreds of political, folk and children’s songs. He was a major influence on numerous other songwriters who in addition to Dylan and Ochs included Johnny Cash, Pete Seeger, Harry Chapin, Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp and many other former and contemporary artists.

Hutchinson Family Singers
Hutchinson Family Singers in 1845 painting by an unkown artist

‘I get it,’ you might think, ‘but who the hell is Phil Ochs?’ Sadly, it’s a pretty rough story, and it doesn’t have a Hollywood happy ending.

Ochs was born on December 19, 1940 in El Paso, Texas. His dad Jakob “Jack” Ochs was a physician from New York, and his mom Gertrude Finn Ochs hailed from Scotland. The two met there and got married in Edinburgh where Jack was attending medical school at the time. After their wedding, they moved to the U.S. Jack joined the army as a doctor and was sent overseas close to the end of World War II. He returned as a sick man with bipolar disorder and depression.

Jack’s health conditions prevented him from establishing a successful medical practice. Instead, he ended up working at a series of hospitals around the country and frequently moving his family. As a result, Phil Ochs grew up in different places, along with an older sister (Sonia, known as Sonny) and a younger brother (Michael). His father was distant from the family, eventually got hospitalized for depression, and passed away from a brain bleeding in April 1963. Phil’s mother died in March 1994.

Phil Ochs as teen with clarinet
Phil Ochs as a teenager playing the clarinet

During his teenage years, Ochs became a talented clarinet player. Prior to the age of 16, he was principal soloist with the orchestra at the Capital University Conservatory of Music in Columbus, Ohio. Although Ochs had become an accomplished classical instrumentalist, he soon discovered the radio and started listening to the likes of Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash.

Initially, Ochs wanted to become a journalist. Well, he of sort did, combining his interest in writing about politics with music. During his journalism studies at Ohio State University, he met fellow student, activist and future folk singer Jim Glover in the fall of 1960, who introduced him to the music of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and The Weavers, and taught him how to play guitar. It wouldn’t take long before Ochs merged his interest of politics and music and started writing his own songs. He preferred to characterize himself as a topical rather than a protest singer.

Glover and Ochs started performing as a duo called The Singing Socialists and later The Sundowners but broke up before their first professional gig. Glover went to New York, while Ochs started performing professionally at a local fok club in Cleveland. In 1962, he went to the Big Apple as well and soon established himself in the Greenwich Village folk music scence. Ochs described himself as a “singing journalist,” explaining his songs were inspired by stories he saw in Newsweek. By the summer of 1963, he had developed a sufficiently high profile and was invited to perform at the Newport Folk Festival, along the likes of Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul & Mary.

Ochs’ debut album All The News That’s Fit To Sing, an allusion to The New York Times‘ slogan “All the news that’s fit to print,” appeared in 1964. Here is Ballad of William Worthy. The tune tells the story about an American journalist who traveled to Cuba despite the U.S. embargo and was forbidden to return to the U.S. Check out the brilliant lyrics of this tune – safe to assume Ochs’ words didn’t endear him to the Johnson Administration.

In 1965, Ochs’ sophomore album I Ain’t Marching Anymore came out. Here’s the excellent satirical anti-war tune Draft Dodger Rag, which quickly became an anthem of the anti-Vietnam war movement.

After Ochs’ first three albums with Electra Records had gone nowhere commercially speaking, he signed with A&M Records and in October 1967 released his fourth studio record Pleasures Of The Harbor. Unlike his first three folk music-oriented records, the album went beyond folk, featuring elements of classical, rock & roll, Dixieland and even experiental synthesized music. Apparently, the idea was to produce a folk-pop crossover. While the album included great tunes, it’s safe to say it didn’t bring Ochs commercial success. Here is Outside Of A Small Circle Of Friends, which became one of Ochs’ most popular songs. The tune was inspired by the case of a 28-old woman who was stabbed to death in front of her home in Queens, New York, while dozens of her neighbors reportedly ignored her cries for help.

Tape From California is Ochs’ fifth album. Released in July 1968 on A&M Records, it continued his shift away from straight folk-oriented protest songwriting, though he was far from abandoning topical songs. The War Is Over is a tune that was inspired by poet Allen Ginsberg who in 1966 declared the Vietnam war was over. Ochs decided to adopt the idea and organize an anti-war rally in Los Angeles, for which he wrote the song.

Phil Ochs’ final studio album came out in February 1970. Weirdly, it was called Greatest Hits, even though it was not a compilation but a collection of 10 new tracks. Most of the record was produced by Van Dyke Parks, who previously had appeared on Tape From California, contributing piano and keyboards to the title track. Greatest Hits featured an impressive array of guest artists, including Clarence White and Gene Parsons, both from The Byrds; Ry Cooder; Jim Glover; and members of Elvis Presley’s backing band, among others. The album cover was an homage to Elvis, showing Ochs in a gold lamé suit reminiscent of the outfit Elvis wore for the cover of his 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong greatest hits compilation. Here is Jim Dean Of Indiana, a tune about the actor James Dean, who like Elvis was one of Ochs’ idols.

Greatest Hits was Ochs’ final attempt to connect with average Americans, who he was convinced weren’t listening to topical songs. Disillusioned by key events of 1968, including the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the police riot in Chicago around the Democratic National Convention and the election of Richard Nixon, Ochs felt he needed to be “part Elvis Presley and part Che Guevara,” as Wikipedia puts it. Ochs supported the album with a tour, performing in the Elivs-like suit and being backed by a rock band, singing his own songs, along with tunes by Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley and Merle Haggard. But his fans weren’t sure what to make of the “new Phil Ochs.”

Pretty much from there, things went downhill for Ochs. He developed writer’s block and slipped into depression and alcoholism. He did not release any additional records. On April 9, 1976, Ochs committed suicide by hanging himself in the home of his sister Sonny. He was only 35 years old.

I’d like to conclude this post with a few quotes I found on Life of a Rebel, a blog dedicated to Ochs. “As a lyricist, there was nobody like Phil before and there has not been anybody since,” said fellow folk singer Dave Van Ronk. “He had a touch that was so distinctive that it just could not be anybody else. He had been a journalism student before he became a singer, and he would never sacrifice what he felt to be the truth for a good line.” In a note to Ochs in 1963, Pete Seeger wrote, “I wish I had one tenth your talent as a songwriter.” And what did the mighty Bob Dylan tell Broadside magazine in 1964? “I just can’t keep up with Phil. And he’s getting better and better and better.”

Sources: Wikipedia; Life of a Rebel; YouTube