Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

Another Saturday is upon us, which means it’s time to take a fresh look at newly released music. My picks for this week include melodic punk, pop country, indie rock and some contemporary reggae. All tunes appear on releases that came out yesterday (August 6).

Fake Names/It Will Take a Lifetime

Fake Names are a supergroup featuring members from Swedish and American punk bands I’m not familiar with. According to this review in Broadway World, the line-up includes guitarists Brian Baker (Minor Threat, Dag Nasty, Bad Religion) and Michael Hampton (S.O.A., Embrace, One Last Wish), lead vocalist Dennis Lyxzén (Refused, International Noise Conspiracy, INVSN) and bassist Johnny Temple (Girls Against Boys, Soulside). In May 2020, Fake Names released their eponymous debut album. It Will Take a Lifetime is the opener of their new self-titled EP. The tune is credited to all four members. The recording also includes guest drummer Brendan Canty (Rites of Spring, Fugazi). I rarely listen to punk but find this pretty accessible. Obviously, it’s not hardcore, which isn’t my cup of tea, plus it’s pretty melodic!

Allison Ponthier/Cowboy

Allison Ponthier is a singer-songwriter based in Brooklyn, New York, who originally hails from the Dallas area. This feature in Atwood Magazine describes her music as “equal parts Taylor Swift, Kacey Musgraves, and Phoebe Bridgers.” Cowboy is from Ponthier’s debut EP Faking My Own Death. The tune first appeared in March as her debut single. “”Cowboy” is the story of when I moved from my hometown in Texas to Brooklyn and ended up coming out as a queer person,” Ponthier explained to Atwood Magazine. “I was always trying to run away from different aspects of myself, and I guess it was time to live my truth as a gay cowboy.” According to the publication, “Ponthier is quickly asserting herself as one of 2021’s freshest and most exciting new singer/ songwriters.” While I know way too little about her music to comment on the statement, I find Cowboy pretty intriguing.

Laura Stevenson/Continental Divide

Laura Stevenson is a folk and indie rock-oriented singer-songwriter from Long Island, New York. According to her Apple Music artist profile, Stevenson is the granddaughter of Harry Simeone, an arranger and conductor who was co-credited with writing the Christmas classic “Little Drummer Boy.” Simeone’s wife, Margaret McCravy, sang for Benny Goodman’s Orchestra in the 1930s under the name Margaret McCrae. By her late teens, Stevenson was already writing her own songs and performing locally when she befriended members of band the Arrogant Sons of Bitches. They temporarily disbanded in 2004, and when lead singer Jeff Rosenstock quickly formed the ska-punk collective Bomb the Music Industry!, Stevenson was enlisted as keyboard player. She continued to play solo shows during her time with the group, with members often contributing to her backing band. Credited as Laura Stevenson & the Cans, she made her solo recording debut in 2009 on a split EP with BTMI, adding the three-track “Holy Ghost!” later the same year. Her full-length debut, A Record, followed on Asian Man Records in 2010 and included collaborations with Rosenstock. Fast-forward 11 years to Stevensons’ new and self-titled sixth album, for which she wrote all tracks. Here’s Continental Divide – check out that great warm sound – very nice!

Sizzla/On a High

When being asked about reggae music, I’m quick to say I dig it because it’s groovy and makes you want to move. The truth is I mostly base this on Bob Marley, the only reggae artist I’ve explored beyond just a song or two. Perhaps tellingly, I had not heard of Sizzla (born Miguel Orlando Collins), who according to Wikipedia is “one of the most commercially and critically successful contemporary reggae artists.” Well, if they say so. Sizzla was born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica. In 1995, he met Jamaican record producer Philip “Fatis” Burrell, who produced his debut album Burning Up that appeared in September of the same year. Sizzla is a prolific recording artist who has since released more than 50 additional albums, frequently several during the same year. On a High, written by Collins, is the title track of Sizzla’s new album. Feel free to groove along!

Sources: Wikipedia; Broadway World; Atwood Magazine; Apple Music; YouTube

Jakob Dylan’s Wallflowers Are Back And In Full Blossom

First new album in nine years picks up where Bringing Down the Horse left

I completely missed the release of Exit Wounds, the new album by Jakob Dylan’s band project The Wallflowers, even though I had heard of it back in May. I also don’t recall seeing it in Apple Music’s new releases on July 9 when it appeared – very strange! Well, I’m glad I finally came across it over the weekend.

The first new Wallflowers album in nine years features melodic roots rock and a warm sound. In many ways, Exit Wounds feels like it could have been the follow on to Bringing Down the Horse from May 1996, the sophomore album by Dylan’s band that brought commercial success and two Grammy awards. The one big difference is there are no obvious hits like One Headlight and my favorite, 6th Avenue Heartache. Still, after having listened to the 10 tracks a few times, I find this new album pretty enjoyable.

Produced by Butch Walker, who has worked with Avril Lavigne, Taylor Swift, Green Day and many other artists over the past 20-plus years, Exit Wounds is only the seventh studio album by The Wallflowers in three decades. Initially formed as The Apples in 1989 by Dylan and his childhood friend and guitarist Tobi Miller, the band changed their name to The Wallflowers in 1991. After six studio albums and a series of line-up changes, Dylan turned The Wallflowers into a project in 2013, relying on hired musicians for his recurring tours.

Why did it take nine years since Glad All Over from October 2012 to make a new Wallflowers album? “When you get started, you feel you’re going to lose traction and it will all slip away if you don’t keep maintaining it,” Dylan told Spin during a recent interview conducted as part of a major feature story. “That phase passes at some point, and then you have a career, and you can make records when you’re inspired.”

As the Spin story rightfully adds, there was also the 2018 documentary Echo in the Canyon, for which Dylan was the executive producer and interviewed artists like Roger McGuinn, Brian Wilson, Stephen Stills, David Crosby and Tom Petty – apparently, a close to four-year engagement from start to finish! Last but not least, Dylan had actually written the songs for Exit Wounds prior to the pandemic and wrapped up the recording more than a year ago, but decided to hold the album’s release.

Time for some music. Here’s the opener Maybe Your Heart’s Not in It No More, a nice mellow tune and one of three tracks featuring singer-songwriter Shelby Lynne on backing vocals. I think her and Dylan’s voices blend beautifully. The reflective and downcast lyrics represent most of the album. “We all have exit wounds as much as ever,” Dylan explained to Spin. “Whether we’re going to a better place or making a lateral move, we can’t get there from here without them.”

Roots and Wings is among my early favorites. The tune was also released separately as the album’s lead single on April 9, peaking at no. 6 on Billboard’s Triple A Airplay, aka Adult Alternative Airplay – frankly, a chart I had not been aware of. Who can keep track of Billboard’s seemingly ever-expanding charts. A review by Riff Magazine calls the sound “Springsteen-esque” and notes the harmony vocals were provided by Butch Walker. Which ever way you want to characterize it, the song is one of two tracks I find most memorable.

Darlin’ Hold On is another mellow tune that features Shelby Lynne sharing vocal duties with Dylan. In this case, beyond backing vocals, she also gets to sing a verse by herself. Quite pleasant.

And since I really dig how Dylan’s and Lynne’s vocals blend, here’s the third track featuring her on backing vocals: I’ll Let You Down (But Will Not Give You Up).

Let’s do one more: Who’s That Man Walking ‘Round My Garden, my favorite tune on the album at this time. Dylan explained to Spin the rocker is an homage to Tom Petty. Evidently, the two of them had bonded. The above noted conversation for the Echo in the Canyon documentary was Petty’s last on-camera interview prior to his death. “‘Who’s That Man’ is a straight-up tribute to Tom Petty, his music, and his style, and I hope he notices somewhere. I can’t say enough about his positivity and encouragement. It was very moving to have him pass, and it affected me greatly, so there are moments of not just influence, but a tip of my hat in appreciation that I hope he’ll hear.”

While I’m not sure I would have picked up on the Tom Petty influence, I kind of wish Dylan had included one or two additional more up-tempo rockers on the album. Most of the remaining tracks fall on the mellow side. After a while, this can get a bit repetitive.

A few words about the other musicians on Exit Wounds, based on the Spin story: Apart from backing vocals, Walker contributed guitar, keyboard and percussion. Additional musicians included Aaron Embry (keyboards), Val McCallum (guitar), Whynot Jansveld (bass, mastering) and Mark Stepro who played drums on all but one track that featured Brian Griffin.

Except for McCallum, which Spin noted played on The Wallflowers’ fourth album Red Letter Days from November 2002, Dylan put together an entire new band to record Exit Wounds. Given that, it’s kind of remarkable how much it resembles The Wallflowers in the ’90s. “It was important for me to make a pure Wallflowers record,” Dylan emphasized during his interview with Spin. Making it clear he’s always been in charge, he added, “I started this band. This is my band. It doesn’t matter who is or who isn’t around anymore.”

The Wallflowers will do a U.S. tour starting next month. The 20-date engagement will kick off in New Braunfels, Texas (San Antonio area) on August 18 and wrap up in Nashville on November 20. Starting in May 2022, The Wallflowers are also scheduled to tour the U.S. and Canada for three months, together with Matchbox Twenty. The current schedules for both tours are here.

Sources: Wikipedia; Spin; Riff Magazine; Jambase; YouTube

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

As another eventful week is drawing to a close, the time has come again to venture into the world of newly released music. This latest Best of What’s New installment features great power pop, indie pop rock and art pop from the U.S. and rock from the U.K.

While two of these acts are well established and have been around for many years, all are new to me. Broadening my music universe by “discovering” artists and bands is a key reason why I enjoy writing the series. All of the featured songs were just released yesterday. Let’s get going!

Matthew Sweet/Stars Explode

Matthew Sweet is a singer-songwriter who played in various bands during the ’80s and was part of the vibrant local music scene in Athens, Ga., before gaining traction as a solo artist in the ’90s. According to his profile on Apple Music, he skillfully navigates the line between the power pop underground and the mainstream end of alternative rock. Matthew Sweet was a master of potent pop tunes and catchy melodic hooks, but he also knew how to make his songs rock, and his inspired use of incisive guitar work gave his songs an edge that was fresh and satisfying. Sweet spent most of the ’80s in the background, performing with the groups Oh-OK and Buzz of Delight, playing in Lloyd Cole’s backing band, and releasing a pair of overlooked solo albums (1986’s Inside and 1989’s Earth) as he honed his skills. His this solo album Girlfriend from October 1991 brought him commercial breakthrough. Between 2006 and 2013, Sweet collaborated on a series of cover albums (Under the Covers Vol. 1 – Vol. 3) with Susanna Hoffs of The Bangles. Stars Explode, written by Sweet, is from his 15th studio album Catspaw. It illustrates he hasn’t lost his ability to write catchy power pop tunes that nicely rock. Sounds like Sweet is right up my alley, so I’m planning to further explore his music.

Beach Bunny/Good Girls (Don’t Get Used)

Beach Bunny are an indie pop rock band formed in Chicago in 2015. The group started as a solo project by vocalist and guitarist Lili Trifilio who released her debut EP Animalism in 2015. Following the third EP Crybaby in 2017, Beach Bunny became a full-fledged four-piece group. In addition to Trifilio (vocals, guitar), their current lineup features Matt Henkels (guitar), Anthony Vaccaro (bass) and Jon Alvarado (drums). Beach Bunny’s first full-length studio album Honeymoon appeared in February 2020. Good Girls (Don’t Get Used) is the opener of the group’s latest EP Blame Game. Like the three other tracks on the EP, the song is credited to Lili Trifilio and Beach Bunny. The catchy track reminds me a bit of some early Taylor Swift tunes I’ve heard.

You Me At Six/Beautiful Way

You Me At Six are an English rock band formed in 2004 in the greater London area. Apple Music notes post-hardcore and alt-rock influences in their music. I don’t know the band and take this at face value. After two self-released EPs in 2006 and 2007, their debut album Take Off Your Colours came out in October 2008. It peaked at no. 25 on the British albums chart and yielded two UK award nominations. Their fourth album Cavalier Youth from January 2014 topped the UK and Scottish albums charts and also made the Billboard 200, reaching no. 124. The band’s current core lineup consists of co-founding members Josh Franceschi (lead vocals), Chris Miller (lead guitar), Max Helyer (rhythm guitar, backing vocals) and Matthew Barnes (bass, backing vocals), as well as Daniel Flint (drums) who has been with the group since 2007. Beautiful Way, credited to all members of the band, is from You Me At Six’s seventh studio album Suckapunch. The track’s guitar part drew me in – it definitely has something!

Midnight Sister/Foxes

Rounding out today’s new music collection is the duo of Juliana Giraffe and Ari Balouzian, professionally known as Midnight Sister. A profile on Apple Music describes their style as art pop with a cinematic flair…Both natives of the San Fernando Valley [Calif.] and graduates of the same high school a few years apart, they met when Balouzian, a classically trained musician, wrote the score for a short film scripted by Giraffe and her sister, a friend of Balouzian’s. When he followed up by sending some instrumental music to Giraffe, and she returned it with vocals, they liked the results and decided to keep working together. Midnight Sister was Balouzian’s first pop project aside from doing arrangements for Tobias Jesso, Jr. and Alex Izenberg, and Giraffe’s first musical endeavor. Their full-length debut album Saturn Over Sunset appeared in 2017. Foxes is a track from their sophomore release Painting the Roses. It’s an intriguing tune with portions that sound Beatle-esque.

Sources: Wikipedia; Apple Music; 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

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

Another week flew by that was pretty busy, which hardly left any opportunity to focus on music. And even as I’m writing this on a Saturday, I feel pressed for time. While this sucks it’s a minor inconvenience in the grand scheme of things, so I don’t want to wine too much about it.

Perhaps it’s not a coincidence the music in this latest Best of What’s New installment is on the quiet side – no crunchy rockers or the kind of smoking hot blues I dig this week. I still like what I found and hope so will folks who read this. All of these tracks are on releases that appeared yesterday (December 11).

David Nail/Roach Motel

Let’s kick it off with David Nail, a Nashville-based country singer-songwriter who was born and grew up in Kennett, Mo. In 2002, he recorded an eponymous album that generated a charting country single, Memphis, but due to staff changes at his then-label Universal Music Group Nashville, the record never appeared. His first released album became the appropriately titled I’m About to Come Alive in August 2009. After putting out three more solo albums, Nail formed David Nail & The Well Ravens in July 2018, an independent project with longtime colleagues Jason Hall and Andrew Petroff. They independently released the album Only This And Nothing More in September 2018. Roach Motel is from Nail’s new solo EP Bootheel. To me, this tune has a Bruce Springsteen feel, which is what drew me in right away.

Helios/Never Will You Be Without

It’s safe to assume ambient music isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. I like it on occasion, especially when I’m in the mood to relax. Behind Helios is composer and multi-instrumentalist Keith Kenniff, who according to his Apple Music profile is also known for his neo-classical work as Goldmund. His recordings as Helios typically mix moody synthesizer textures and slow, glitchy beats with fragile melodies played on pianos, guitars, and other acoustic instruments. After establishing the Helios sound and gaining a cult following for his early releases, particularly 2006’s Eingya, Kenniff became an in-demand composer for film, television, and advertising. He remained prolific, regularly issuing albums as both Helios and Goldmund, in addition to making shoegaze/indie pop along with his wife, Hollie Kenniff, as Mint Julep…Keith Kenniff was raised in rural Pennsylvania, where he learned to play drums, guitar, and bass. He began playing piano while studying percussion at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and began recording music as Helios in 2001. Never Will You Be Without is a track from the new album Domicile, Kenniff’s 12th released as Healios.

Taylor Swift/champagne problems

Taylor Swift needs no further introduction. While I’ve always respected Swift for being an artist who writes her own songs and also is a musician and liked some of her early tunes, I haven’t closely followed her. In part that’s because some of her more recent releases I’ve heard sound too much like contemporary mainstream. Regardless how you feel about her, there’s no question Swift who only turns 31 tomorrow is a very talented and accomplished artist. I mean, who am I to judge her in the first place? Plus, champagne problems, a tune from Swift’s new album evermore, sounds very different from the aforementioned mainstream pop. Apple Music characterizes it as “cozy home-studio vibes for more bare soles arrangements and bare-soul lyrics, casually intimate and narratively rich.” Wow, that’s many words I couldn’t have come up with myself, which is why I also could never make it as a music critic! However you want to describe it, I just like champagne problems, which was co-written by Swift and William Bowery, and that’s good enough for me to feature the tune here. Admittedly, it does make me curious to take a closer look at the rest of the album.

Randall King/Around Forever

Randall King is a country singer-songwriter from Lubbock, Texas, and an artist I probably would have ignored as recently as 5-10 years ago when I pretty much didn’t listen to country music. Well, I guess things have changed since then. Blame it in part on John Mellencamp, an artist I’ve loved for many years, and his transition from straight heartland rock to roots/Americana/country-oriented music. Another factor is the evolution of the country genre itself where you have massive crossover action. According to his Apple Music artist profile, King has an ear for steel guitar and the genre’s classic Americana roots. Inspired by country legend George Strait, King released his debut EP, Another Bullet, in 2016. He collaborated with Americana group Flatland Cavalry in 2016, singing a duet with frontman Cleto Cordero on the honky-tonk rocker “Hard Livin’ Illene.”His first album, 2018’s self-produced Randall King, was a major breakthrough, debuting in the Top 10 on iTunes’ Top Country Albums chart. Around Forever, written by King together with singer-songwriters Josh Miller and Will Bundy, is a tune from King’s new EP Leanna.

Sources: Wikipedia; Apple Music; YouTube