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

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

Since the sudden death of my beloved mother-in-law Carmen Anaya Acevedo last week, I essentially took a break from blogging, including Best of What’s New. It just didn’t feel right. Meanwhile, new music didn’t pause, which is good news. This week’s installment could have easily been longer, but I’d like to keep these posts to four to six songs.

I’m particularly excited about new music by Stevie Wonder, one of my favorite artists, who last July announced he needed a kidney transplant. The surgery happened in December, and apparently Wonder, who turned 70 in May, is doing well. There’s also new music by Tom Petty, Americana rockers Cordovas, as well as three additional artists including a German alternative rock band. Let’s get to it!

Tom Petty/Leave Virginia Alone

Leave Virginia Alone is a tune from Wildflowers & All the Rest, the substantially enhanced reissue of Tom Petty’s second solo album, which came out on October 16. Written in 1995, the song was first recorded by Rod Stewart for his 17th studio album A Spanner in the Works from May that year. While Stewart’s version, which I hadn’t heard before until now, isn’t bad, I much prefer Petty’s take. The track also appeared separately as a single on October 1. I really miss Tom Petty, and it’s great to hear his voice.

Cordovas/Destiny

Cordovas are an Americana rock band from Memphis, Tenn. formed in 2011. The members are vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Joe Firstman, Sevans Henderson (keyboards), Lucca Soria (guitar, vocals) and Toby Weaver, another vocalist and multi-instrumentalist. Destiny is a track and the lead single of the band’s new album Destiny Hotel released on October 16. According to the band’s website, the album expands on the harmony-soaked roots rock of Cordovas’ ATO Records debut That Santa Fe Channel, a 2018 release that earned abundant praise from outlets like Rolling Stone and NPR Music. I covered it here at the time.

Stevie Wonder/Can’t Put It in the Hands of Fate (feat. Rapsody, Cordae, Chika & Busta Rhymes)

Can’t Put It in the Hands of Fate is one of two new tunes Stevie Wonder released on October 13, coinciding with the 36th birthday of his oldest son Mumtaz Morris. He is joined by hip hop artists Rapsody, Cordae, Chika & Busta Rhymes, which definitely makes this a song that’s outside my core wheelhouse. But I actually love it! Lyrically, it’s almost a present day version of You Haven’t Done Nothin’ or Living For the City, both tunes Wonder recorded in the ’70s. “In these times, we are hearing the most poignant wake-up calls and cries for this nation and the world to, please, heed our need for love, peace and unity,” he stated, as reported by Jambase. According to Billboard, Wonder will also release a new full-length album to be titled Through the Eyes Of Wonder. His last such album A Time to Love dates back to September 2005.

Jeremy Ivey/Hands Down in Your Pocket

Jeremy Ivey is a Nashville-based singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. According to Apple Music, he established himself in the early 2010s as a member of the country-soul band Buffalo Clover alongside his wife, singer/songwriter Margo Price. When Price’s career took off in 2016, Ivey served as her guitarist and sideman before signing a deal with Anti- and launching a solo career of his own with 2019’s The Dream and the Dreamer. Hands Down in Your Pocket is a tune from Ivey’s sophomore solo album Waiting Out the Storm, which was produced by Price and came out on October 9. “I think that having the opportunity to put out my own records, I’ve got a lot of pent-up inspiration,” Ivey told Apple Music. “Because there are just certain freedoms that I can take when I’m singing the song that I can’t take when I’m writing it for someone else to sing.”

Yola/Hold On (feat. Sheryl Crow, Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby & Jason Isbell)

Yola, born Yolanda Quartey, is an English singer-songwriter from Bristol, England. She was the lead vocalist of English country and soul band Phantom Limb and recorded two albums with them in 2008 and 2012. In February 2016, she released her solo EP Orphan Offering. A full-length debut album Walk Through Fire followed in February 2019. Yola has also sung backing vocals for numerous artists, including Massive Attack, The Chemical Brothers and Iggy Azalea. In addition, she was a guest on the 2019 eponymous debut album by country super group The Highwomen, together with Sheryl Crow. Yola’s latest single Hold On, released October 9, features Crow on piano, Jason Isbell on guitar, as well as The Highwomen’s Brandi Carlile and Natalie Hemby on backing vocals. As reported by Pitchfork, a portion of the tune’s proceeds will benefit MusiCares and the National Bailout Collective.

Die Happy/Story of Our Life (feat. Daniel Wirtz)

I’d like to wrap up this post with new music by alternative rock band Die Happy, formed by Czech singer Marta Jandová and guitarist Thorsten Mewes in 1993 in Ulm, Germany. The current line-up also includes Ralph Rieker (bass) and Jürgen Stiehle (drums). Die Happy’s debut album Better Than Nothing appeared in 1994. They have since released 13 additional albums including their most recent Guess What from April this year. Story of Our Life featuring Daniel Wirtz, a German rock singer-songwriter, is on the bonus version of the album and was released as a single on September 18.

Sources: Wikipedia; Cordovas website; Jambase; Billboard; Apple Music; Pitchfork; YouTube

Performing Live From Their Homes

A selection of artists who don’t allow the coronavirus to stop the music

By now it’s safe to assume everybody is getting tired to read about COVID-19, so I’ll keep it light. Obviously, one of the many industries that have been hit hard by the coronavirus is the concert business. Painfully but rightly, shows are being canceled or rescheduled all over the place. It simply would be irresponsible to do anything else. The good news is this doesn’t mean live performances have come to a standstill.

For example, if you follow the “right” pages on Facebook, you can receive plenty of notifications about live gigs streamed online. Sure, in nearly all cases, these performances are low key and improvised, and the majority of artists who pop up aren’t necessarily well-known. Still, there is plenty of great live music you can enjoy over the internet these days. I would also argue that low tech and improvised gigs have their own charm.

Following are some recent performances captured by Rolling Stone as part of their In My Room series. I realize these gigs are not 100 percent comparable to concerts that are live-streamed. It’s also safe to assume there was some post-production done to these clips, but the footage still conveys a good deal of spontaneity to me. It’s all about the spirit to keep the music going but doing so in a responsible way, so let’s get to some of it!

Graham Nash/Our House, 4+20 & Teach Your Children

I simply love everything about this clip. To start, Graham Nash remains a compelling artist. Let’s not forget the man is 78 years old. I also like how he is weaving in public service announcements throughout this little concert performed at his home. To me, he comes across as very genuine. All of the tunes are from Déjà Vu, the sophomore album by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Undoubtedly, it’s one of the greatest albums that have ever been recorded. Our House and Teach Your Children are Nash compositions, while 4+20 was written by Stephen Stills. Obviously, much of CSNY’s magic was in their incredible harmony vocals, which is impossible for Nash to replicate, but none of this really matters. Just watching the man perform makes me happy. You can see his passion. That’s what it’s all about!

John Fogerty/Have You Ever Seen the Rain, Bad Moon Rising & Long As I Can See the Light

John Fogerty is another rock & roll hero in my book. If I recall it correctly, Have You Ever Seen the Rain was the first Creedence Clearwater Revival song I ever heard as a young kid back my sister. My sister had that tune on vinyl as a 45 single. I’ve loved Fogerty and this band ever since! Have You Ever Seen the Rain, Bad Moon Rising and Long As I Can See the Light were all written by Fogerty. They appeared on CCR’s Pendulum, Green River and Cosmo’s Factory studio albums from December 1970, August 1969 and July 1970, respectively. My personal highlight in the above series is Fogerty’s performance of the third tune on the piano.

Angélique Kidjo/Gimme Shelter, The Overload & Move On Up

‘Damn, damn and damn’ is all I can say watching Angélique Kidjo, a Beninese singer-songwriter, actress, and activist of Nigerian descent, sing the above tunes. Have you ever heard such a funky rendition of The Rolling Stones’ 1969 classic Gimme Shelter? Or how ’bout Move On Up, one my favorite songs by Curtis Mayfield from his 1970 solo debut album, which she turns into some African liberation song? Her version of The Overload, a tune by Talking Heads from their fourth studio album Remain in Light from October 1980, is almost more haunting than the original. This is some really cool stuff – check it out!

Yola and Birds of Chicago/At Last, It Ain’t Easier & Second Cousin

Let’s do one more and keep the best for last. I had neither been aware of English musician and singer-songwriter Yola nor Birds of Chicago, an Americana/folk band from the Windy City led by husband and wife JT Nero and Allison Russell. But after I had watched that clip, I was simply blown away – passionate and all-out beautiful singing simply doesn’t get much better. And the songs they selected are terrific! At Last, co-written by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren, was the title of the debut album by Etta James, released in November 1960. This a capella version of the tune is the highlight of the series. It Ain’t Easier was written by Yola and appeared on her debut album Walk Through Fire from February 2019. Last but not least is Second Cousin, which appears to be a tune by Birds of Chicago.

Sources: Wikipedia; Rolling Stone; YouTube