Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

There’s a good deal of recently released new music I came across today for this 10th and latest installment of the recurring feature. Two longtime acts, Alice Cooper and Scorpions, join four artists who are entirely new to me. From shock rock to bluegrass to blues rock, it’s all here. That kind of variety is exactly how I envisaged these posts to be when I started the series. Let’s get to it!

Alice Cooper/Don’t Give Up

While I don’t listen frequently to Mr. Shock Rock, I dig classics like School’s Out and No More Mr. Nice Guy. Alice Cooper’s latest single Don’t Give Up, which was released on May 15, certainly isn’t comparable to these aforementioned tunes, but I still find it sufficiently enjoyable. “”Don’t Give Up” is a song about what we’ve all been going through right now and about keeping our heads up and fighting back together,” Cooper stated on his website. This video wouldn’t have been possible without you – and who knows, you might be in it!And whatever you do – “Don’t Give Up”” – okey dokey!

Scorpions/Sign of Hope

I’ve been meaning to write again about the German rock/pop metal band and guess I was looking for an occasion. Now I got one: Don’t Give Up, a new single that came out on May 14. Scorpions first entered my radar screen in 1984 with their ninth studio album Love at First Sting. Various songs from that record received heavy radio play in Germany, especially Rock You Like a Hurricane, Big City Nights and Still Loving You. While I don’t listen much to metal, what I always liked about Scorpions is how they blended heavy guitar rock with pop and catchy melodies. “We are working on lot’s of Hard‘n Heavy Rockers for our new album these days,” reads a short statement from the band on their website. “…but because of the dramatic Covid-19 pandemic, we want to give you a little Sign of Hope that came straight from the heart in troubled times … stay healthy and safe … we love you … Scorpions.”

Margo Price/Twinkle Twinkle

This 37-year-old country singer-songwriter from Nashville is new to me. Based on Wikipedia, Margo Price grew up in Aledo, Ill. and moved to Nashville at age 20 in 2003 after dropping out of school. Her debut studio album Midwest Farmer’s Daughter appeared in March 2016. Twinkle Twinkle, a nice scorching rocker, is the second single from Price’s upcoming third album That’s How Rumors Get Started, produced by Sturgill Simpson. The song appeared on March 11. The release of the new album has been pushed back to July 10 due to COVID-19.

Brian Fallon/When You’re Ready

Brian Fallon is a 40-year-old singer-songwriter from Red Bank, N.J. While that’s only 30 miles from my house, I had never heard of this artist before either. It looks like he has been active since 1997 and released three studio albums and one EP to date. When You’re Ready is a pretty, soothing tune from his most recent album Local Honey released on March 27. Are you ready? 🙂

Watkins Family Hour/Miles of Desert Sand

According to Wikipedia, Watkins Family Hour is a bluegrass musical collaborative led by Sara and Sean Watkins. The group began in 2002 as a monthly, informal musical  variety show with the Watkins siblings and their friends in the Los Angeles nightclub Largo. Their eponymous debut album, which consists entirely of covers, was released on July 24, 2015…and was produced by Sheldon Gomberg. Among others, Gomberg has worked with Charlie Musselwhite, Rickie Lee Jones, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Jackson Browne and Steve Forbert– quite impressive credentials! Miles of Desert Sand is from their most recent album Brother Sister from April 10, which based on Discogs appears to be their sophomore album. I really dig the warm sound of the fiddle and the harmony singing. Check it out!

Shawn Pittman/There Will Be a Day

Let’s end this post with some funky blues. There Will Be a Day is a hot groovy tune from Make It Right!, which according to Wikipedia is the 13th album by blues rock singer-songwriter Shawn Pittman, another artist I don’t believe I had heard of before. But I can tell you one thing: Based on the few songs I’ve sampled from that album, I’m ready for more! Pittman who was born and grew up in Oklahoma moved to Dallas at age 17. He had picked up the guitar in his early teens and got involved in the music scene at Schooners, a Dallas local club. In 1996 as a 22-year-old, Pittman self-recorded his debut album Blues From Texas, which was retitled Burnin’ Up for his national debut in 1997. Pittman has worked with musicians from Double Trouble, the former backing band of Stevie Ray Vaughan, as well as Kim Wilson, Gary Clark Jr. and Susan Tedeschi, to name a few others. Make It Right! was released on April 10. Pittman certainly embraced the title!

Sources: Wikipedia; Alice Cooper website; Scorpions website; Discogs; YouTube

Singer-Songwriter Jason Isbell Releases New Album

“Reunions” may have been his most challenging record to make so far

While I had heard of Jason Isbell before and listened to some of his past music, I had not taken a closer look at the singer-songwriter from Green Hill, Ala., who at age 41 has experienced both remarkable success and full-blown addiction to alcohol and cocaine in his late ’20s. Both sides of his story provide important context for Reunions, Isbell’s new album, which he recorded with his backing band The 400 Unit. It was broadly released yesterday, May 15.

Apparently, Isbell grew up in a musical family. His grandfather and uncle showed him how to play various instruments. As a 6-year-old, he learned the mandolin, and in high school, he played the trumpet and French horn. Somewhere along the way, he picked up the guitar and started playing in a garage band and a country cover band. Eventually, he met session bassist David Horn, whose son Patterson Hood was a co-founder of alternative country and Southern rock band Drive-By Truckers. When he was 21, Isbell got a publishing deal with FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala., where he worked until he joined Drive-By-Truckers the following year during their supporting tour for their third studio album Southern Rock Opera.

Isbell stayed for six years and recorded three studio albums with the band, contributing guitar and vocals, and writing some of their songs. During these years with Drive-By Truckers, Isbell developed his alcohol and cocaine addiction. Apparently, it did not slow him down much. Following his departure from the band in April 2007, Isbell wasted no time to launch a solo career and released his solo debut Sirens of the Ditch in July that year.

Jason Isbell

The 400 Unit, weirdly named after a colloquial name for the psychiatric ward of a local hospital in Florence, Ala., came together for Isbell’s sophomore album Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit released in February 2009. Two years later, Isbell agreed to enter a rehab program at a Nashville facility. He managed to overcome his addiction and has been sober since. In February 2013, Isbell married singer-songwriter and violinist Amanda Shires. Since 2011, she had been a guest on his albums and eventually became a member of The 400 Unit. In parallel, Shires continued to pursue her solo career. In 2019, she also formed country band The Highwomen. Isbell played guitar on their eponymous debut album, which appeared last September.

Since Isbell got out of drug rehab, he won many accolades for his music, which among others include four Grammy awards and various Americana Music Honors & Awards. They turned out to be a mixed blessing when making his new album. “For some reason, I felt really pressured,” Isbell told The New York Times. “You think, ‘If I make a record that’s not great, everybody’s going to dismiss me entirely. If I [expletive] up my relationship, everybody’s going to be so shocked that they’ll write me off completely.’ All those things, when you say them out loud sound ridiculous, but they stay in there and gnaw at you.”

Jasom Isbell & Amanda Shires
Jason Isbell with Amanda Shires

The pressure took a toll on his marriage and at some point prompted Shires to move to a motel, since she felt belittled. “I want him to make the best art he can but not at the expense of making me feel less,” she noted to The New York Times. “I needed space because lines were getting crossed.” So with all the drama surrounding the album, how did it turn out? Pretty good, in my opinion, though one hopes this outcome happened despite the aforementioned challenges, not because of them. Let’s get to some music!

Here is the opener What’ve I Done to Help. Like all of the remaining nine tracks on the album, the tune was written by Isbell. “It seems like this song set the right mood for the record,” Isbell told Apple Music. “It’s a little bit indicting of myself, but I think it’s also a positive message: Most of what I’m talking about on this album is trying to be aware as possible and not just get lost in your own selfish bubble, because sometimes the hardest thing to do is to be honest with yourself.” BTW, none other than David Crosby provides harmony vocals on the tune!

In Overseas, Isbell was trying to write a song that’s about multiple things at once, which he views as a big challenge. “On the one hand, you have an expatriate who had just had enough of the country they’re living in and moved on and left a family behind,” he explained to Apple Music. “And the other is more about my own personal story, where I was home with our daughter when my wife was on tour for a few months.” Apparently, the song was inspired by Eric Clapton, who once said in an interview he didn’t feel he would ever be a great songwriter since he wasn’t able to write allegorically. “I was probably 12 or 13 when I read that,” Isbell said, “and it stuck with me.”

Running With Your Eyes Closed has a little bit of a Mark Knopfler guitar vibe, which is definitely part of the reason it speaks to me. According to Isbell, “It’s a love song, but I really try hard to look at relationships from different angles, because songs of the initial spark of a relationship – that territory has been covered so many times before and so well that I don’t know that I would have anything new to bring.” I really dig the sound of this track. Check it out!

One of the most personal tracks on the album is It Gets Better. “I was awake until four in the morning, just sort of laying there, not terribly concerned or worried about anything,” Isbell explained. “And there was a time where I thought, ‘Well, if I was just drunk, I could go to sleep’. But then I also thought, ‘Well, yeah, but I would wake up a couple hours later when the liquor wore off.’ I think it’s important for me to remember how it felt to be handicapped by this disease and how my days actually went. I’ve finally gotten to the point now where I don’t really hate that guy anymore, and I think that’s even helped me because I can go back and actually revisit emotions and memories from those times without having to wear a suit of armor.”

Let’s do one more. Here’s the closer Letting You Go, a tune Isbell wrote for his four-year-old daughter, recalling her as a baby and fast-forwarding to picture her getting married and leaving the house. Well, that certainly looks like a big jump into the future; then again, time flies, as I can attest when it comes to my own son who is 18 now – how did that happen so quickly? “Once, when my daughter was very little, my wife said, ‘Every day, they get a little bit farther away from you’,” Isbell reflected. “And that’s the truth of it: It’s a long letting-go process.” He clearly is very attached to the little girl.

Reunions is Isbell’s fourth straight album produced by Dave Cobb, who has also produced for Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson and John Prine, among others. In addition to Shires (fiddle, backing vocals), The 400 Unit features Sadler Vaden (guitar, backing vocals), Jimbo Hart (bass, backing vocals), Derry DeBorja (keyboard, accordion, backing vocals) and Chad Gamble (drums, backing vocals).

So what does David Crosby think about Isbell? “Jason has become one of the best writers in the country,” he commented to The New York Times. “And my idea of really good writers is Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan. His singing is emotional. It’s honest. He’s really trying to tell you the story.” Hopefully, Crosby’s praise won’t put additional pressure on Isbell when comes to making his next record. As strange as it sounds, it might actually be a good thing for Isbell if he doesn’t get a ton of accolades for Reunions!

Sources: Wikipedia; The New York Times; Apple Music; YouTube