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

Walter Trout Releases Powerful New Album

Ordinary Madness reflects on blues rock veteran’s eventful life and himself

When I saw Walter Trout at The Iridium in New York City last April, I was struck how openly he talked about the challenges life has thrown at him. One sentence stayed with me in particular: “Personally, I’m happy to be anywhere.” Overcoming drug and alcohol addiction in the ’80s, surviving liver failure and recovering from a liver transplant in 1994, and dealing with dishonest management people are some of the chapters in Trout’s long career. Now, the 69-old blues rock veteran is out with his 29th album Ordinary Madness, on which he reflects about his life and himself.

“There’s a lot of extraordinary madness going on right now,” said Trout in a statement issued by Mascot Label Group, which includes his label Provogue. “This album started because I was dealing with the flaws and weakness inside me. But it ended up being about everyone.” Ordinary Madness may also well be one of Trout’s most compelling albums he has released in his 50-year-plus music career.

When Trout’s previous blues cover collection Survivor Blues came out in January 2019, it was supposed to be packaged with a second album of original songs, he told American Blues Scene. But the second album wasn’t ready and Trout didn’t have the time to finish it, since he went on the road to support Survivor Blues, the tour during which I caught him. After he returned home and listened to the previously recorded material, he decided to scrap most of it and start over.

Photo credit: Bob Steshetz

“When you are in a blues band you are either in a bus or a van driving for five to six hours at a time,” Trout said, reflecting on his last tour. “I was doing a lot of looking out the window and watching cities, cornfields, and forests go by. I found myself doing a lot of self-reflection about my life and myself. I started writing little notes to myself and I didn’t expect them to be lyrics.” Well, they did, and together with Trout’s great guitar playing, they make for a compelling listening experience. Time for some music!

I’d like to kick it off with the album’s opener and title track. The song starts with what Trout called “a little electronic psychedelia thing,” before launching into a powerful mid-tempo blues. That intro was created by Jon Trout, one of Walter’s three sons who are all musicians. “Jon is getting ready to start at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Denmark as an Electronic Music Major,” Trout proudly noted. “As great of a guitar player as he is, since he has been twelve, he has also done electronic music.” The tune’s lyrics set the tone for the album. It’s ordinary madness/It’s the everyday kind/It ain’t nothing special/It’s just there in your mind/It’s the sadness and the fear/And the anger that you feel every day/It just lays there in your gut/And it won’t go away/It’s just ordinary madness/And it’s here inside of me/Yes, it’s here inside of me…

While I highlighted Wanna Dance in a previous Best of What’s New installment, I just couldn’t could skip this tune, which to me is one of the standouts on the album. “I had Neil Young and Crazy Horse in mind when I wrote the tune,” Trout told American Songwriter. “The way the two guitars play off each other. I recorded the song and brought it home and was playing it for my kids and my 18-year old said it sounds more like Neil Van Halen and walked out of the room!” Dancing is a metaphor for enjoying and celebrating every moment in live, since We ain’t gonna live forever, as Trout sings. This tune just grabs me with what I feel is an epic vibe.

On My Foolish Pride Trout shows he can write more than just blistering blues rockers. The acoustic ballad’s theme came from a phrase he had written down during his last tour on one of the above long bus rides, he told American Blues Scene. “I had my little notebook that I write in on the road and I went through it and found, “Sometimes I do my best, but I fail and I know that happens to everyone. Then I try to hide away my shame, but I get all wrapped up in myself.”…I had not written it to be lyrical. I started strumming my guitar at home and that became the first verse of my song “Foolish Pride.” That is why the first verse of the song does not rhyme because it wasn’t written to be lyrical. I had to write the rest of the song, but I already had the theme to the song which was examining my own limitations, flaws, and weaknesses. Dealing with your humanity, aging, and relationships are all themes examined on this record.” I just love the warm sound of this tune and the Hammond organ’s beautiful contribution in this context.

The slow blues All Out Of Tears is another highlight on the album. I also have to say while Trout undoubtedly is a better guitarist and songwriter than a vocalist, I feel his singing on this and other tracks works very well. I woke up thinking/ That you might be coming home/Then I realized I was dreamin’/That I just laid there all alone/Everyday without you/You know it feel just like a hundred years/My heart is crying/But my eyes are dry/And I’v run out of tears to cry/I’m all out of tears… It’s a classic blues that reminds me a bit of Gary Moore.

I’d like to feature one more song Trout called out when American Blues Scene asked whether he had a favorite tune on the album: Heaven In Your Eyes. “It has sentimental value to me because I was sitting around the living room when I was putting it together,” Trout explained. “I was strumming my acoustic guitar and I came up with this very melodic kind of tune. The melody was very much like a McCartney song. It needed a lot of words and the only line I had was heaven in your eyes. I didn’t know what to do with it. I played it for Marie [Trout’s wife Marie Braendgaard]. She walked out of the room and came back half an hour later with the lyrics. Lyrically the song is all her. She is also the lyricist on three other songs on the record. We have become the songwriting team.”

On Ordinary Madness Trout is backed by his touring band featuring Teddy ‘Zig Zag’ Andreadis (keyboards), Johnny Griparic (bass) and Michael Leasure  (drums). There is also his long-time producer Eric Corne and special guests including Skip Edwards (keyboards), Drake ‘Munkihaid’ Shining (keyboards) and Anthony Grisham (guitar). The album was recorded at former Doors guitarist Robby Krieger’s private studio in Los Angeles and completed just days before the U.S. shutdown due to COVID-19.

“It is my favorite studio in the world,” Trout said to American Blues Scene. “The guy who runs the studio and is Robby’s partner is Michael Dumas. Michael is the nicest guy and he is there to help you however he can. Robby has a huge collection of gear. There are all sorts of guitars, amps, drums, and keyboards. Everything you can imagine is there…One day, on my song “Wanna Dance” Robby came in and listened to my solo. He stood there and at the end of the solo he looked over at me and he had a great big smile on his face. That felt great.”

I’d like to wrap things up with something Trout told American Songwriter, which I think perfectly sums up what he’s all about. “The word authentic with the blues can get you into trouble. People say, ‘you’re a white kid from the suburbs, how can you be authentic?’ I’m not from Clarksdale, Mississippi and I didn’t pick cotton. To me, the only way for me to be authentic is to play from my heart and my soul with all the honesty and meaning I can put into the music. If I can play a gig and then get to the hotel and look in the mirror and say I gave them everything I have tonight and played from my heart with all the emotion and feeling I can convey to them, then that’s how I can be authentic. I have to be authentic to who I am.”

Sources: Wikipedia; Mascot Label Group; American Blues Scene; American Songwriter; YouTube

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

Here’s the latest installment of my recurring new music feature. It nicely illustrates that great new music isn’t a matter of age. In fact, I’ve said it all along: Old guys rock! 🙂 Three of the following artists have been around for 50 years, while the remaining three represent a younger generation. There’s some blues rock, coz you rarely can go wrong with it; some prog and art rock; some post punk rock; and some indie rock and pop. Let’s get to it!

Walter Trout/Wanna Dance

Long-time blues rocker Walter Trout, who originally hails from Ocean City, N.J., is a survivor – literally. He started his music career on the Jersey shore scene in the late 1960s. After relocating to Los Angeles in the early ’70s, the guitarist became a sideman for John Lee Hooker, Percy Mayfield, Big Mama Thornton and Joe Tex, among others. From 1981 to 1984, Trout was the lead guitarist for Canned Heat. In 1984, he joined John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and, as he noted during a recent one-hour online chat, it was Mayall who encouraged him not to copy other previous Bluesbreakers’ lead guitarists like Peter Green and Eric Clapton but to develop his own style. Trout did, left the Bluesbreakers in 1989 and launched his solo career. He has since released more than 20 albums. In 2014, things got dicey when Trout was diagnosed with liver failure – likely a result from alcohol and substance abuse he overcame in the ’80s. A liver transplant saved his life just in time. After a long recovery, Trout was able to return to music, which as he has said is the only thing he could ever do. Released on June 12, Wanna Dance is a great blues rocker from Ordinary Madness, an upcoming album of all original music, scheduled for August 28. I saw Trout in New York City in April 2019 and witnessed firsthand he is a compelling, no BS artist. Really looking forward to this record!

Ohmme/Flood Your Gut

Ohmme (formerly know as Homme) are an indie rock band from Chicago formed in 2014 by singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalists Sima Cunningham and Macie Stewart. In 2016, Matt Carroll joined the two young women on drums. Apple Music characterizes them as “an experimental indie pop band who use their striking vocal harmonies and lean, angular guitar patterns to create songs that are spare but full-bodied, making clever use of dynamics to generate a rich sound out of a small number of elements” – jeez, you wonder whether they pay reviewers by the number of words they stick in one sentence! Ohmme takes the opposite approach on their Facebook page: “An experiment with voice, guitar, and sound.” The band released their debut single in November 2015, followed by an eponymous EP in 2017. Flood Your Gut is the opener to Ohmme’s new (second) studio album Fantasize Your Ghost, released on June 5. Admittedly, the somewhat monotonous trance-inducing sound of this tune didn’t grab me immediately, but the more often I listen to it, the more I dig it – there’s something weirdly catchy about it!

Kansas/Jets Overhead

American rock band Kansas may have formed in the early ’70s, but evidently, they aren’t dust in the wind yet. Frankly, I wasn’t aware the band is still active. Granted, Kansas have gone through many lineup changes in their 50-year history; if I see this correctly, it appears guitarist Rich Williams and drummer Phil Erhart are the only remaining founding members, who have been on all of the band’s 15 studio releases that came out between 1974 and 2016, as well as their upcoming album The Absence of Presence, scheduled for July 17. I’m mostly familiar with Kansas’ better known tunes like Carry On Wayward Son, Dust in the Wind, Point of No Return and Play the Game Tonight. I oftentimes feel rock that’s based on simple guitar riffs is best and consider the fantastic Carry On Wayward Son as an exception that proves the rule. Jets Overhead, which was written by guitarist Zak Rizvi and appeared on June 5, is the third track released ahead of the album. You rarely hear a violin solo in a rock song these days. Sounds pretty good to me!

Phoebe Bridgers/Graceland Too

Phoebe Bridgers is a Los Angeles-based 25-year-old singer-songwriter. Apple Musics characterization of her music as “folk-based” with “a dreamy and hook-filled indie pop heart” sounds right to me. Apart from her solo work, she’s also a member of indie rock band Boygenius and performs with Conor Oberst in indie rock duo Better Oblivion Community Center. In March 2014, Bridgers released her debut, an EP cheerfully titled Killer. Following what appears to be a live album, 2016 Tour CD, her first full-length studio release Stranger in the Alps appeared in September 2017. Graceland Too is a country-flavored tune from Bridgers’ sophomore album Punisher, which came out on June 18. This song has a beautiful warm sound that nicely blends with Bridgers’ voice.

Elvis Costello/No Flag

Released June 5, No Flag is the first new song by Elvis Costello since Purse, an EP from April 2019, featuring four previously unreleased songs recorded with his band the Imposters. According to a news announcement, Costello recorded No Flag alone in Finland in February this year. “I wanted to go somewhere nobody knew me,” he explained. “So, this is ‘The Helsinki Sound.’” The announcement also asks readers to “look out for the next installment of this story on July 10th” – perhaps a hint to a forthcoming new album? With an unsettling melody and dark lyrics like No time for this kind of love/No flag waving high above/No sign for the dark place that I live/No God for the damn that I don’t give, the timing of the release during the COVID-19 pandemic certainly doesn’t look like a coincidence.

JJ Wilde/Cold Shoulder

JJ Wilde is a singer-songwriter hailing from Kitchener in Ontario, Canada, which is located about 60 miles of Toronto. Wilde started writing and playing guitar during her teenage years. Despite a massive amount of songs and gigging, she apparently struggled in the early part of her career, and ended up working three jobs. When Wilde about to give up music professionally in 2018, she finally got a break, signing with Black Box Recordings. Last year, her debut EP Wilde Eyes, Steady Hands appeared. Ruthless, Wilde’s first full album, was released on June 12. “This album has felt like a long time coming, and no time at all,” wrote Wilde on her Facebook page. “Most of the inspiration for the album came from an apartment I lived in two years before I started this journey. I was in a dark place, and was very unsure of where my life was going. Almost 4 years later, with countless shows, tours, travelling, writing sessions, I now feel like this album is the complete first draft of an inside look into my world.” Here’s Cold Shoulder. I like this melodic rocker – check it out!

Sources: Wikipedia; Apple Music; Ohmme Facebook page; Kansas website; Elvis Costello website; JJ Wilde Facebook page; YouTube