Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

Another weekend brings another slate of new music. This installment of Best of What’s New features a nice mix of big name and lesser known artists. Genres include country-oriented rock, folk, indie rock and folk rock. Let’s get to it!

Bon Jovi & Jennifer Nettles/Do What You Can

Jon Bon Jovi and country band Sugarland frontwoman Jennifer Nettles joined forces for an updated version of Do What You Can, a tune from Bon Jovi’s 15th studio album 2020 scheduled for October 2. Written during the early days of COVID-19, initially, the song only included the first verse and the chorus. Jon Bon Jovi invited fans via social media to contribute lyrics, essentially asking them to tell their own pandemic stories. He first revealed an acoustic version of the complete song during the Jersey4Jersey benefit online concert. The tune was subsequently released as a single on July 23. “As I finished the mix and did the video, I said, ‘Boy, this song would have such crossover potential’, Bon Jovi told Rolling Stone. “It makes you feel good and the message is just right on at this time that when you can’t do what you do, do what you can,” added Nettles during a recent Facebook chat. Do What You Can very much has the same feel of the artists’ previous collaboration Who Says You Can’t Go Home from 2006. Both tunes remind me of The Lonesome Jubilee, one of my favorite John Mellencamp albums from 1987.

Jeff Tweedy/Love Is the King

American songwriter, musician and record producer Jeff Tweedy is best known as vocalist and guitarist of alternative rock band Wilco, founded in 1994 by former members of Uncle Tupelo, an alternative country group, which Tweedy co-founded as well. Between these two bands and his solo efforts, Tweedy has released close to 20 albums over the past 30 years. Love Is King is the title track of his fourth solo album that is set to come out on October 23. As reported by Pitchfork, Tweedy announced the tune on September 15, together with a second track of the forthcoming album, Guess Again. “At the beginning of the lockdown I started writing country songs to console myself,” he pointed out in an accompanying statement. “Folk and country type forms being the shapes that come most easily to me in a comforting way. “Guess Again” is a good example of the success I was having at pushing the world away, counting my blessings—taking stock in my good fortune to have love in my life. A few weeks later things began to sound like “Love Is the King”—a little more frayed around the edges with a lot more fear creeping in. Still hopeful but definitely discovering the limits of my own ability to self soothe.”

Elizabeth Cook/Perfect Girls of Pop

Elizabeth Cook is an American country singer-songwriter who has been an active recording artist since 2000. Originally, she hails from Wildwood, Fla. where she was born as the youngest of 12 children. Cook already joined her parents on stage at the age of 4. Her mother Joyce was a mandolin and guitar played and her dad Thomas played upright bass, which he had learned while serving time in an Atlanta prison for illicit production of high-proof distilled spirits. Cook holds the distinction of having performed more than 400 times on the Grand Ole Opry since her March 2000 debut, the most appearances to date by a non-member. Her studio debut The Blue Album came out in November 2000. Perfect Girls of Pop is a track from her seventh and most recent album Aftermath released on September 11. It’s catchy tune that sounds much more like indie pop rock than country.

Native Harrow/Carry On

Native Harrow are a folk rock duo from Eastern Pennsylvania, comprised of Devin Tuel (lead vocals, guitar) and her partner Stephen Harms (bass, drums, keyboards, guitar). Unfortunately, publicly available information on them is limited and the following is based on this Facebook piece and a review by Staccatofy. Carry On is a beautiful tune from Native Harrow’s fourth studio album Closeness, which came out on August 21. Two things about this song grabbed me right away: The warm sound, especially the keyboard, and the vocals by Tuel, who apparently is a classically trained singer. I also think the gospel style choir in the last third of the track is a perfect fit to what essentially is a gospel song. Tuel and Harms recorded the album’s 10 tunes at a Chicago studio together with drummer and engineer Alex Hall over the course of only two 3-day sessions in late December 2019 and early January 2020. The basic tracks were captured live in studio with Tuel, Harms and Hall on vocals/guitar, bass and drums, respectively. The album follows their 2019 release Happier Now.

Sources: Wikipedia; Rolling Stone; Pitchfork; Facebook; Staccatofy; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: Norah Jones/Pick Me Up Off the Floor

In May, I featured Tryin’ to Keep it Together in one of my Best of What’s New installments, a bonus track from Norah Jones’ then-upcoming Pick Me Up Off the Floor. Then, I completely forgot about the album that since appeared on June 12 – until a few days ago, when Jones popped up in my streaming service provider. While the title doesn’t exactly sound cheerful, listening to Jones puts me at ease, especially after a quite busy week. I find there’s something really special about her voice and the warm sound of her music. Both draw me in.

For a long time, I’ve been aware of Norah Jones and her piano-driven lounge style jazz, though I haven’t really explored her music. Jones was born Geethali Norah Jones Shankar on March 30, 1979 in New York City to American concert producer Sue Jones and Indian sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar. After her parents separated in 1986, Jones lived with her mother and grew up in Grapevine, TX. When reading about Jones for this post, I realized she’s been around for 20 years. That’s kind of mind-boggling to me. I still well remember when Jones emerged in 2002 as a 23-year-old!

Pick Me Up Off the Floor is the seventh studio album by the now 41-year-old singer-songwriter who returned to New York in 1999 and still lives there. It follows her EP Begin Again from April 2019, and is her first full-length studio effort since Day Breaks released in October 2016. According to a song-by-song review Jones did for Apple Music, Pick Me Up Off the Floor is her first album inspired by poetry. Emily Fiskio, her friend and a poet, encouraged Jones to give it try. The two women ended up collaborating, and two of the resulting tunes are on the album.

In this June 8, 2020 photo, singer-songwriter Norah Jones poses for a portrait in Hudson, N.Y., to promote her latest album “Pick Me Up Off the Floor.” (Photo by Victoria Will/Invision/AP)

Poetry “…opened me up to a different avenue of writing,” Jones explained. “Plus, when you read Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein to your kids every night, weird rhymes float around in your head.” Apparently, Jones had not set out to make another album. Instead, she recorded tunes spontaneously as they came together. “I was collaborating with different people and just trying to make singles rather than forcing an album. It was very freeing.” Let’s hear some of the results!

Here’s the opener How I Weep written by Jones. “This song began as a poem, and then I sat on it for a few months, unsure what was going to happen,” Jones told Apple Music. “I knew I eventually had to try to turn it into a song, because that’s what I do, so one night, I waited until the house was quiet, and played and sang until it came together.” It certainly did! How I/How I/Weep for the loss/And it creeps down my chin/For the heart and the hair/And the skin and the air/That swirls itself around the bare…The lyrics sound deeply personal, yet Jones’ voice and the string arrangement soften the impact.

Flame Twin, another tune solely written by Jones, injects a dose of blues. I dig the Hammond B3 accents from Pete Remm who also plays electric guitar. And, of course, there’s more of Jones’ great singing. I also enjoy her piano playing. “This is another song that came from a poem,” Jones stated. “I brought it into the studio one day and was like, ‘Well, let’s see if I could put some music to this real quick and record it.’ And it came together pretty quickly.”

Heartbroken, Day After is one of her favorite tunes on the album, Jones told Apple Music. “I love how it came out with the pedal steel. It’s very mournful and heartfelt. And of course it references something specific, but I like that it’s still open to your own interpretation. It’s interpretable to the listener. So I’m not going to tell.” But again, Jones’ delivery and even some of the lyrics don’t make it an all-out bleak song…Hey, Hey/It’s gonna be okay/At least that’s what I tell myself/Anyway/Hey, hey/Don’t look so sad/It’s not that bad/Or is it?/It might be today…

For writing and recording I’m Alive, Jones teamed up with singer-songwriter and producer Jeff Tweedy, who is best known as the lead vocalist and guitarist of alternative rock band Wilco. ” I’ve known Jeff for a long time,” Jones pointed out. “He was one of the first people I thought to call when I wanted to start doing collaboration singles, because I thought it’d be a great way to connect.” The tune’s lyrics have clear political undertones…He screams, he shouts/The heads on the TV bow/They take the bait/They mirror waves of hate…No name calling needed here!

The last tune I’d like to highlight is Were You Watching, one of the tracks Jones co-wrote with Emily Fiskio. “I wrote this song in March of 2018, and it was the very first session I did for anything that wound up on this album,” Jones said. “I knew it needed harmonies and I liked the idea of adding vocals that weren’t me, so I called my friend Ruby Amanfu. She and her husband Sam Ashworth came to New York and did a bunch of harmonies on four or five songs. Then I had this great violinist, Mazz Swift, who I’ve always wanted to work with, come in and add violin. She did a great job. She sounded like she was on the original live recording. It felt perfectly spontaneous.” Nothing to add other than the clip.

Sources: Wikipedia; Apple Music; YouTube

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

This is the fifth installment of Best of What’s New. I’m starting to think this may become a weekly feature, which would make me happy and frankly is something I had not expected when I introduced it five weeks ago. Unlike the previous times, this installment mostly features new releases by well-established artists from Bob Dylan to Mavis Staples. Perhaps not surprisingly, four of the songs were released because of COVID-19, though three were written pre-pandemic. In one case, the lyrics were slightly tweaked, so the tune better fits the current situation. Let’s get to it!

Bob Dylan/I Contain Multitudes

What’s up with Robert Zimmerman? Last Friday, he released his second new song in three weeks. I Contain Multitudes, which took its title from the Walt Whitman poem Song of Myself, comes on the heels of the 17-minute Murder Most Foul centering on the assassination of John F. Kennedy. While as a more casual Dylan listener, I would not dare to try and figure out what’s going on in his head, releasing a song about a traumatic event in 1963, followed by a tune with cheerful lines like The flowers are dyin’ like all things do or I sleep with life and death in the same bed doesn’t strike me as a coincidence during a global pandemic. It is also likely to fuel hope among Dylan fans that a new album may be in the making, though in perhaps typical fashion Mr. Zimmerman hasn’t made any comments in this regard.

Alicia Keys/Good Job

Earlier this week, I had caught a CNN announcement that Alicia Keys was going to debut a new song on the cable news channel last night. And she did: Good Job. While Keys recorded the powerful ballad last year for her next album ALICIA, the lyrics are a beautiful fit to say a heartfelt ‘thank you’ to all folks who look after the sick and keep the country going during the pandemic, oftentimes by risking their own lives. The tune was co-written by Keys, her husband and producer Swizz Beatz, singer-songwriter The-Dream and songwriter, composer and producer Avery Chambliss. “Whether you’re on the frontlines at the hospitals, balancing work, family and homeschool teaching, delivering mail, packages, or food, or facing other personal difficulties because of COVID-19, I feel you. You are seen, loved and deeply appreciated,” said Keys. While I don’t necessarily dig each and every song by Keys, I believe she has an incredible voice and is a powerful performer. She also comes across as very genuine to me.

The Rolling Stones/Living in a Ghost Town

I’d like to give a shoutout to Hanspostcard who first brought this new tune by The Rolling Stones to my attention yesterday on his Slicethelife blog. Similar to Alicia Keys, Mick Jagger wrote Living in a Ghost Town prior to COVID-19. As reported by Rolling Stone, it’s the band’s first new original tune since their 2012 compilation GRRR!, which featured two new tracks, Doom and Gloom and One More Shot. To make it a better fit for the current situation, Jagger had to tweak some of the lyrics. The Rolling Stone story quoted him from an interview with Apple Music: “Keith Richards and I both had the idea that we should release it,” he said. “But I said, ‘Well I’ve got to rewrite it.’ Some of it is not going to work and some of it was a bit weird and a bit too dark. So I slightly rewrote it. I didn’t have to rewrite very much, to be honest. It’s very much how I originally did it.” The Rolling Stone piece also included this quote by Richards: “We’ve got another five or six tracks and there’s a lot of sort of soul feel about it for some reason without anybody intending to,” Richards said. “Obviously right now we’ve got nothing else to do but write some more songs, right?” Could this finally be a new Stones album, which has been rumored for some time?

Cowboy Junkies/Misery

I think the only time I had heard of this Canadian band, which Wikipedia classifies as alternative country and folk rock, was in the late ’80s – probably in connection with their sophomore album The Trinity Session from November 1988, which looks like their most successful release. It included a cover of Lou Reed’s Sweet Jane, which became their highest-charting single the U.S., peaking at no. 5 on the Billboard Modern Rock chart. Well, it turns out Cowboy Junkies are still active, and on March 30, 2020, they released their latest album Ghosts. Three of their founding members, Margo Timmins (vocals), Michael Timmins (guitar, ukulele) and Peter Timmins (drums, percussion) – are siblings, and the album’s eight tracks are all related to the death of their mother Barbara, who passed away in 2018. The fourth member, Alan Anton (bass, keyboards), has also been part of the band since its formation in Toronto in 1985. I’ve listened to some of the album’s songs and like what I’ve heard so far. Here is Misery.

Ron Sexsmith/Dig Nation

Ron Sexsmith, a singer-songwriter from St. Catharines, Canada, is an artist I had not heard of before. According to Wikipedia, he has been a performing musician since 1978 and began releasing his own music in 1985. To date, he has issued 16 studio albums, the most recent of which is Hermitage that came out on April 17. Here’s Dig Nation. Really like the warm sound of that tune. And it’s quite catchy, too. Check it out!

Mavis Staples/All In It Together

Mavis Staples, who started her career in 1950 at the age of 11 as part of her family band The Staple Singers, needs no lengthy introduction. Since 1969, she has also performed as a solo artist and has released 14 solo albums to date. The most recent one, We Get By, came out in May 2019. The single All In It Together, which was released on April 2, 2020, is a collaboration with singer-songwriter Jeff Tweedy who is best known as the vocalist and guitarist of alternative rock band Wilco. “The song speaks to what we’re going through now – everyone is in this together, whether you like it or not,” Staples said in a statement, as reported by Rolling Stone. “It doesn’t matter how much money you have, what race or sex you are, where you live…it can still touch you…We will get through this but, we’re going to have to do it together. If this song is able to bring any happiness or relief to anyone out there in even the smallest way, I wanted to make sure that I helped to do that.” According to Staples’ website, proceeds from the song will be donated to My Block, My Hood, My City – a Chicago organization ensuring seniors have access to the essentials needed to fight COVID-19. Staples and Tweedy’s vocals nicely blend in this blues-oriented rock tune. I also like Tweedy’s slide guitar work.

Steve Forbert/Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues

Here’s another great new tune by a long-time artist I mostly know by name, and this needs to change: Steve Forbert. Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues is the lead single from Forbet’s covers album Early Morning Rain, which is set to come out next Friday, May 1. “I wish I could release this record as a magic wand, in order to renew people’s appreciation for the fine craftsmanship these songs represent,” Forbert writes on his website. “Early Morning Rain contains 11 of my favorites, with only one written later than 1973.” Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues was written by Danny O’Keefe who also first recorded the song in 1967 but did not release it at the time. Instead, it was a band named The Bards who first put out the tune in 1968 as a b-side to a single. O’Keefe first included the song on his eponymous debut album from 1970. A re-recorded version was released as a single in August 1972 and became his best-known song. “I think ‘Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues’ will be really good to put out there right now,” Forbert told American Songwriter. “I’ve always had a kinship with this song.”

Jeff Beck & Johnny Depp/Isolation

While multi-talent Johnny Depp certainly is not a newcomer to music and has played with the likes of Joe Perry and Alice Cooper, teaming up with guitar legend Jeff Beck is intriguing. The first outcome of their collaboration is a great cover of the John Lennon tune Isolation, which appeared last Friday, April 16. Lennon included the song on his first official solo album John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band from December 1970. According to a statement on Beck’s website, The musical soulmates have been working behind-the-scenes for the past few several years on new music. “Isolation” finds Beck in classic form on guitar with Depp on vocals, joined by long-time Beck collaborators Vinnie Colaiuta on drums and Rhonda Smith on bass…“Johnny and I have been working on music together for a while now and we recorded this track during our time in the studio last year. We weren’t expecting to release it so soon but given all the hard days and true ‘isolation’ that people are going through in these challenging times, we decided now might be the right time to let you all hear it,” says Beck. “You’ll be hearing more from Johnny and me in a little while but until then we hope you find some comfort and solidarity in our take on this Lennon classic.” Johnny Depp adds, “…Lennon’s poetry – ‘We’re afraid of everyone. Afraid of the Sun!’ – seemed to Jeff and me especially profound right now, this song about isolation, fear, and existential risks to our world. So we wanted to give it to you, and hope it helps you make sense of the moment or just helps you pass the time as we endure isolation together.”

Sources: Wikipedia; CNN; Rolling Stone; Mavis Staples website; Steve Forbert website; American Songwriter; Jeff Beck website; YouTube