Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

Happy Saturday! The new music show must go on. Here’s what I found this week. All tunes are on releases that appeared yesterday (Nov 30).

Warren Zeiders/One Hell of an Angel

My first pick is by Warren Zeiders, a young country singer-songwriter from Pennsylvania. From his website: Warren Zeiders’ distinctive, high energy country music is powered by a steady supply of youthful grit, honesty, and muscle. Hailing from Hershey, Pennsylvania, the 22-year-old singer/ songwriter delivers outlaw sermons in a gravelly, world-weary voice that belies his young age. His music is suited more to the vast wilderness of his home state than the bright lights of Nashville, injecting a healthy dose of Heartland ethos into the honky tonks of Music City. But it’s that space he lives in—between lonesome outsider and magnetic performer—that helps him relate to listeners from all walks of life through songs fueled by unshakeable soul-searching. This brings me to 717 Tapes The Album, Zeiders’ new release, which combines songs from two previous 717 Tapes EPs (Vol. 1 and Vol. 2) with four new tunes. Here’s one of the latter, One Hell of an Angel, co-written by Zeiders, Benjy Davis and Josh Jenkins – nice country rocker!

Pixies/Vault of Heaven

Pixies are an alternative rock band from Boston, associated with the ’90s alternative rock boom. During their initial phase from 1986 until 1993, they released four albums. They broke up in early 1993 and reunited 10 years later. Their current line-up includes co-founding members Black Francis (lead and backing vocals, rhythm guitar, acoustic guitar), Joey Santiago (lead guitar, backing vocals) and David Lovering (drums, percussion, backing vocals), together with Paz Lenchantin (bass, violin, backing and lead vocals), who became a member of the group after they reunited. Vault of Heaven, penned by Francis (credited as Charles Thompson, his birth name), is a track from Pixies’ eighth and latest studio album Doggerel. Good song. The video is a bit odd!

Snarky Puppy/Keep It On Your Mind

While I didn’t know any of their music, I had heard of Snarky Puppy before and based on their name pictured a punk band – well, not exactly! From their AllMusic bio: An acclaimed fusion-influenced jam band, Snarky Puppy have built a loyal following with their adventurous blend of jazz, rock, and funk. Led by bassist Michael League, the Texas group emerged in the mid-2000s and garnered buzz with albums like 2006’s The Only Constant, 2010’s Tell Your Friends, and 2013’s Family Dinner, Vol. 1, which took home the Grammy for Best R&B Performance for their cover of the Brenda Russell song “Something” featuring singer Lalah Hathaway. More accolades followed, including further Grammy Awards for 2015’s Sylva and 2016’s Culcha Vulcha, the latter of which also topped Billboard’s Jazz Albums chart. The band again reached the Top Ten of the jazz charts with 2019’s Immigrance and picked up their fourth Grammy Award for 2020’s Live at the Royal Albert Hall. Empire Central is the group’s new live-recorded album that thematically revolves around the Texas city of Dallas. Here’s Keep It On Your Mind – definitely very different from what I expected. That said, I like it!

Dropkick Murphys/Talking Jukebox

What a coincidence – only three weeks ago, I featured some new music by Irish-American Celtic punk band Flogging Molly. Now it’s the turn of their Boston area cousins Dropkick Murphys who were formed in 1996, the year before Flogging Molly. Since their January 1998 debut Do or Die, the Murphys have released 10 additional albums, including their latest This Machine Still Kills Fascists. The all-acoustic album is composed of unused lyrics and words by Woody Guthrie and is the group’s first without lead vocalist Al Barr who was on hiatus from the band to take care of his ailing mother. In addition to Barr, Dropkick Murphys feature Ken Casey (lead and backing vocals, bass), Tim Brennan (accordion, mandolin, bouzouki, keyboard, piano, tin whistle, backing vocals, lead guitar), James Lynch (rhythm guitar, backing vocals), Jeff DaRosa (banjo, mandolin, bouzouki, guitar, keyboard, piano, harmonica, tin whistle, backing vocals) and Matt Kelly (drums, bodhrán, backing vocals). Here’s Talking Jukebox. The music is credited to the band.

This post wouldn’t be complete with a Spotify playlist of the above songs and a few additional tunes by each of the featured artists.

Sources: Wikipedia; Warren Zeiders website; AllMusic; YouTube; Spotify

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John Mellencamp Delivers Warm Roots Music and Cranky Lyrics on New Album

“I’m not for everybody,” John Mellencamp told NPR about his new album Strictly A One-Eyed Jack – a fair observation, and I say this as a longtime fan. I also saw this statement in some of the other reviews I read about the record that was released on Friday, January 21. It’s evident to me the heartland former straight rocker who turned 70 last October has found his sweet spot with roots music. He gradually embraced that style starting with The Lonesome Jubilee from August 1987, which remains one of my favorite Mellencamp records to this day. If you dig his previous records like Plain Spoken (2014) and Sad Clowns & Hillbillies, I think it’s a safe bet you will like his new album – unless perhaps you expect something new.

Strictly A One-Eyed Jack was written and produced by Mellencamp at his own Belmont Mall Studios in Bloomington, Ind., notes his website. His 24th studio album, the first with new original songs since the above-mentioned Sad Clowns & Hillbillies, includes three collaborations with Bruce Springsteen. One of the tunes, Wasted Days, was first released as an upfront single on December 10, 2021. I covered it here at the time. Overall, I can hear some musical and lyrical traces from other artists like Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Steve Earle and Woody Guthrie, and of course Mellencamp’s familiar style, including a raspy voice shaped by more than 50 years of smoking.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the songs starting with the opener I Always Lie to Strangers. Like most other tunes on the album, it was solely written by Mellencamp. During an interview with Forbes.com, he elaborated on the title: “The average person hears 300 or 400 lies a day and will tell 150 himself and not even know it. ‘Cause you turn the news on, you get lies. You turn advertising on, you get lies. You talk to people, they lie to you. Even as simple as, “How are you doing today?” “I’m doing great.” No, they’re not, but they say it anyway. So it was just that simple of the thought that led to that song.” While I don’t know the source of Mellencamp’s highly inflated-looking stats, I guess his general point is legit.

The title of the bluesy I’m A Man That Worries pretty much says it all. Here’s the first verse for illustration:

I am a man that worries
Worries occupy my brain
I’m worried about tomorrow

I worry about today
I’m worried about the words I’m hearing
I’m worried about all this bad news
I know it’s a curse
That ain’t ever gonna go away

So how about some of these collaborative tunes with Springsteen? I’m skipping Wasted Days since as noted above, I already wrote about it previously. Here’s one of the other two tunes: Did You Say Such A Thing. I love the rock feel Springsteen’s guitar-playing adds. As reported by Ultimate Classic Rock, he also plays the solo. Hearing the two sing together sounds pretty cool as well. During the Forbes.com interview, Mellencamp characterized the collaboration as “quite by accident.” He said, “For my entire career I was always like the poor man’s Bruce Springsteen. And Bruce and I have known each other for years…But we did a rainforest thing for Sting…And all of a sudden he was like my big brother, and he treated me like I was his sibling, and I treated him with respect. And then we became really good friends, and it just kind of happened. He came to Indiana, he stayed at the house. It was great.” If only all accidents would have such great outcomes!

Gone So Soon surprised me a bit with its jazzy feel. I suppose this proves that while John Mellencamp clearly has become a roots-oriented artist, he isn’t a one-trick pony. Based on credits available on Discogs, the great piano part of this tune is played by Troye Kinnett, while Joey Tartell provides the beautiful trumpet solo. I also love the backing vocals by Merritt Lear. It all gets perfectly complemented with Mellencamp’s rough vocals. Check it out – very moody!

Here’s the title track. When asked, ‘Who is the one-eyed Jack to you?’, during the Forbes.com interview, Mellencamp explained, “You can’t write about yourself all the time. But I have grown to be a good observer and good listener, so I hear what other people think and what people say. Then I’m open to suggestions, which means that sometimes I’ll be doing something and a voice in my head will go, “Well, you better write this down.” And I think, “Ah, f**k I’m painting, I don’t want to write this down.” And I’m like, “You need to write this down, John.” And that happened quite a bit with this record.” BTW, that one-eyed Jack portrait of Mellencamp was painted by Speck Mellencamp, his younger son with his ex-wife, the model Elaine Irwin. John Mellencamp is an avid painter as well. His artwork has been exhibited numerous times, including at museums like the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville and the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio.

The final track I’d like to highlight is the album’s closer. A Life Full Of Rain is another collaborative recording with Springsteen. Unlike the two other songs, this tune is on the quieter side. Lyrically, it’s yet another not exactly cheerful song.

Following is how Mellencamp summed up the album to Forbes.com: “I’m not for everyone anymore. I was someplace the other night and some guy came up to me and he said, “You know, music is just not the same.”And he said, “It’s just not the same. And there’s not any good songwriters anymore.” And I went, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.” I go, “Wait a minute. Have you heard my last record?” [Mellencamp clearly doesn’t lack self-confidence, though I agree with him – CMM] He goes, “No.” I go, “Have you heard Bruce’s last record?” He goes, “No”. I go, “Have you heard Dylan’s last record?” He went, “No.” I go, “Have you heard Woody Guthrie’s last record?” He said, “No.” I said, “Maybe there’s still music out there. You’re just not listening. There’s the problem. You’re not listening. It’s still being made. It’s still out there, but you’re just not listening. You grew up. Too bad for you.”

I don’t want to wrap up this review without acknowledging the other musicians on the album, who do a beautiful job: Music director Andy York (acoustic and electric guitar, autoharp, banjo, bass, backing vocals), Mike Wanchic (electric guitar, backing vocals), Miriam Sturm (violin), Jon Gunnell (bass) and Dane Clark (drums, percussion) – the same musicians who backed up Mellencamp on his two previous albums. In fact, Sturm has played on all of his records since Mr. Happy Go Lucky from September 1996. York and especially Wanchic go back with Mellencamp even further. For York, it’s until Dance Naked, Mellencamp’s 13th studio album that appeared in June 1994. And for Wanchic the oldest Mellencamp album I could verify is Uh-huh from October 1983. These are remarkable long-term relationships in an ego-driven industry that’s notorious for volatility.

Sources: Wikipedia; John Mellencamp website; NPR; Forbes.com; Ultimate Classic Rock; YouTube; Spotify

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

I can’t believe it’s October. What happened to summer? Perhaps on the upside, if time continues to race at its current pace, it also means this year will be over soon and we’re into 2021, which will hopefully bring better times. While it remains uncertain when live concerts can safely resume and some artists have delayed releasing new material, it’s great to see decent new music continues to come out.

As more frequent visitors of the blog know, my favorite music decades are the ’60s and the ’70s. As such, I’ve generally given up on what’s in the mainstream charts these days. Yet, in March this year, rather than continuing to complain about generic and soulless music populating the charts, I decided to pay more attention to new music that’s not in the charts, even if it’s not by artists I usually listen to, and to start the weekly recurring feature Best of What’s New. While finding new music I dig forces me to do some detective work, it’s been pretty rewarding, so I have every intention to continue this quest.

This brings me to the latest slate of songs. It’s a diverse set, featuring great music by an African American singer-songwriter reminiscent of a ’60s folk protest song, rich soul by a dynamite husband and wife duo, a delicious Louisiana music gumbo by a New Orleans-based singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, and folk rock by a prolific Canadian artist. Like is oftentimes the case in this series, I had not heard of any of these artists before. Let’s get to it!

Tré Burt/Under the Devil’s Knee (featuring Leyla McCalla, Allison Russell and Sunny War)

Tré Burt is a Sacramento-based singer-songwriter. According to his website, Burt was drawn to music from an early age. He was raised with his grandfather’s passion for soul music, like the Temptations, Nina Simone, Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye. A school project on Woody Guthrie opened his eyes to the power of folk songwriting. And he discovered one of his songwriting heroes, Neil Young, through his older brother, Joey. In 2018…[he] self-released his debut album, Caught It From the Rye. The album, which showcases Burt’s literary songwriting and lo-fi, rootsy aesthetic, landed him a handful tour dates and some positive press, but Burt had no idea just how far it would get him: to a spot on the roster at John Prine’s Oh Boy Records. Burt’s first work appearing on Oh Boy is the single Under the Devil’s Knee. Released on September 22, it’s a powerful tune about the senseless deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Eric Garner and the Black Lives Matter movement. To me it has a ’60s protest song vibe. It almost feels like looking at a modern day Richie Havens. Check it out!

The War and Treaty/Little Boy Blue

The War and Treaty is a husband and wife duo of Michael Trotter, Jr. and Tanya Blount. Apple Music describes their style as impassioned soul music that draws on traditional folk, country, R&B, and spirituals, often combining them all. Initially known as Trotter & Blount, they released their debut album Love Affair under that name in 2016. This was followed by the EP Down to the River in July 2017, their first music appearing as The War and Treaty. Healing Tide, the first full-fledged studio album under the current moniker, came out in August 2018. The record, which featured a guest appearance of Emmylou Harris, was well received and reached no. 11 on the Billboard Top Heatseekers Albums and no. 26 on the Independent Albums charts. Blount first became prominent in 1993, when she performed a duet with Lauryn Hill in the comedy picture Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit. The following year, she released her solo debut album Natural Thing. Little Boy Blue is a terrific soul song from Hearts Town, the second full-length album by The War and Treaty that appeared on September 25.

Ric Robertson/Louisiana Love Thing

Ric Robertson is a New Orleans-based songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, who according to his website synthesizes the full canon of American music—New Orleans jazz, classic American pop songsmiths, country, modern funk, swampy blues, and R&B to name a few—and births it into something out of this worldRobertson conjures this musical pedigree into a cohesive potion, a finely-tuned sonic concoction with just enough rock n’ roll to kill, just enough blues to keep you alive, and just enough country to make you hold on to love. It’s stirred by Robertson’s distinct voice: sweet, enticing, and contoured with the finely subtle grit of Mississippi River silt and the warmth of vintage vinyl. Robertson’s debut album The Fool, The Friend was released in June 2018. A review in The Big Takeover characterized it as “a fresh and authentic blend of swampy blues, rock and country” and called Robertson “a force to be reckoned with.” While I haven’t listened to that album yet, I agree based on Robertson’s new tune Louisiana Love Thing. It’s from his new EP Strange World that came out on September 25. That’s one delicious gumbo!

Daniel Romano/Joys Too Often Hollow

Wikipedia describes Daniel Romano (born Daniel Travis Romano in 1985) as a Canadian musician, poet and visual artist based out of his hometown of Welland, Ontario. He is primarily known as a solo artist, though he is also a member of [Canadian indie rock band] Attack in Black and has collaborated with [fellow Canadian music artists] Julie Doiron and Frederick Squire. He has also produced and performed with City and Colour, the recording project of Dallas Green [another Canadian music artist]…and is a partner in his own independent record label, You’ve Changed Records. Romano is a prolific artist. His solo debut Workin’ for the Music Man appeared in 2010. He has since released 11 additional solo records, nine collaboration albums and two EPs. An incredible 10 of these releases all appeared this year, including How Ill Thy World Is Ordered, his fourth 2020 album with his backing band Outfit. Here’s Joys Too Often Hollow, a nice folk rocker from that album released on September 18.

Sources: Wikipedia; Tré Burt website; Apple Music; Ric Robertson website; The Big Takeover; YouTube

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

For this latest installment of the recurring feature, I had lots of new/recently released music to choose from: various singer-songwriters, Americana, rock and blues. It would have been easy to add at least four additional songs, but I’d like to keep these posts to no more than four to six tracks. As in previous installments, it’s a mix of young and more established artists, which is exactly what I’d like it to be. I’m really glad that my foray into new music continues to yield many promising discoveries. Here we go!

John Craigie/Don’t Ask

From his website: Renowned for his eloquent Americana style, engaging live shows, and off-the-cuff clever observations, John Craigie carries on the legacy of classic singer-songwriters, while blazing a trail of his own. Recently, that trail twisted and turned into new territory for the Portland, OR performer who The Stranger appropriately dubbed, “the lovechild of John Prine and Mitch Hedberg.” Released on May 8, Don’t Ask is the latest single from the 39-year-old’s upcoming new album Asterisk the Universe, slated for June 12. Two additional tracks from the record, which should be his seventh, are already available. According to Wikipedia, Craigie has been called a “modern day troubadour” reminiscent of Woody Guthrie and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. While I don’t know about that, I’ve no doubt I really dig what I’m hearing.

Israel Nash/Canyonheart

Israel Nash is a 39-year-old singer-songwriter from Dripping Springs, TX. Wikipedia puts his music in the Americana, rock and indie rock genres. Based on his most recent release – the EP Topaz – I can also hear some soul influences. Nash came to Texas via New York from Missouri, his original home. After moving to New York in 2006 and performing in local clubs, Nash independently released his debut album New York Town in 2009. After the appearance of his sophomore album Barn Doors and Concrete Floors in March 2011, Nash moved to Dripping Springs late in the same year. He has since released three additional studio records, one life albums and two EPs including Topaz, which came out on May 22. Here’s the great opener Canyonheart. Check out that tune’s beautiful warm sound!

John “Papa” Gros/It’s Raining

To start with, what an awesome name, and very much New Orleans – admittedly, it was part of the reason why I took a closer look at John “Papa” Gros, who hails from the big easy. For over three decades, Gros has brought his city’s celebratory culture to listeners around the globe., according to his website. Gros mixes all the sounds of New Orleans – funk, trad jazz, brass band, blues  – and makes it his own signature gumbo. His new solo album Central City, shows Gros capturing New Orleans’ distinct feel-good charm with help from some of its’ most renowned players. Gros began playing gigs when he was just fifteen years old but didn’t truly kick off his career until after graduating from Loyola in 1989 with a degree in French Horn performance…Between 2000 and 2013, Gros began his transition into the spotlight by leading Papa Grows Funk, a highly revered group that mixed hard-hitting funk grooves with often unpredictable jazz spontaneity. The band has since broken up, and John “Papa” John has carried on with a solo career. Central City, which came out on April 17, is his third solo effort. Here’s the beautiful It’s Raining. I hear some Randy Newman in here!

Scott Ellison/All Wound Up

Are you ready for some good ole’ blues and honky tonk? Enter singer-songwriter, guitarist and blues rocker Scott Ellison was born in Tulsa, Okla. in on June 13, 1954. According to his website, he started his career in the ’70s, playing with country singer Jesseca James and blues artist Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown in 1981. After relocating to Los Angeles in the mid-’80s, Ellison played with The Box Tops, The Shirelles, The Drifters and Gary U.S. Bonds, among others. By the ’90s he had formed his own blues band and opened for other artists like Joe Cocker, The Fabulous Thunderbirds and Buddy Guy. In 1993, Ellison’s first solo album Chains of Love appeared. Skyline Dive is his most recent record, which appeared on May 8. Here’s All Wound Up, a nice smoking blues rocker – my kind of music!

Fretland/Say It Well

I couldn’t find a lot of information on Fretland, an Americana band from Snohomish WA. The apparently still young group was founded by singer-songwriter Hillary Grace Fretland (vocals, guitar). The band also includes Luke Francis (guitar), Jake Haber (bass) and Kenny Bates (drums). Say It Well is the beautiful closer of Fretland’s eponymous album released on May 22. It’s a very bare bones acoustic tune, which sounds like is performed by Hillary with guitar only.

Dr. Joe/Believer

Dr. Joe is another artist I had not heard of before. From his website: Based in Austin TX but raised on a farm outside Salina, Kansas, band leader Joe Sparacino spent his early childhood learning piano from a southern gospel choir matron and listening to his family’s old vinyl collection of Ray Charles, Leon Russell and James Booker. Their debut single: “Tell Your Mother” was produced by Vance Powell (six-time Grammy Award winning record producer) whose credits include Jack White, The Raconteurs, White Stripes, Kings of Leon, Arctic Monkeys, Chris Stapleton, etc. and recorded at his famed Sputnik Studio in East Nashville. GOOD DAYS [apparently their second single] was recorded by – Niles City Sound (Leon Bridges) in Fort Worth Texas with additional work by Adrian Quesada (Black Pumas), Abhi The Nomad and Austin Jenkins (White Denim). It was mixed and mastered at Abbey Road in London. Believer is Dr. Joe’s latest single, which came out on April 10 (Good Friday). I think this tune is cooking. I suppose this means I’m a believer! 🙂

Sources: Wikipedia; John Craigie website; John “Papa” Gros website; Scott Ellison website; Fretland website; Fretland Facebook page; Hillary Grace Fretland Facebook page; YouTube

Phil Ochs, Brilliant Yet Widely Obscure Troubador

What do Robert Allen Zimmerman and Philip David Ochs have in common? Both wrote brilliant protest songs in the ’60s. The difference? Robert changed his name to Bob Dylan and became one of the most famous music artists of our time. Philip chose to perform as Phil Ochs and remained largely obscure outside singer-songwriter circles.

Until recently, I had never heard of Phil Ochs myself. Then I saw somebody ranting on Facebook that Bob Dylan undeservedly gets all the credit for being this brilliant protest singer when the recognition should really go to Ochs. The truth is while both artists at some point were important protest singer-songwriters, none of them invented the genre. According to Wikipedia, the tradition of protest songs in the U.S. long predates the births of Dylan and Ochs – in fact going all the way back to the 18th century.

One of the important forerunners to the 1950s and 1960s protest singer-singwriters were the Hutchinson Family Singers, who starting from 1839 became well known for singing about social issues, such as abolition, war and women’s suffrage. And let’s not forget Woody Guthrie, who was born in 1912 and started learning folk and blues songs during his early teens. Over a 26-year-period as an active music artist, Guthrie wrote hundreds of political, folk and children’s songs. He was a major influence on numerous other songwriters who in addition to Dylan and Ochs included Johnny Cash, Pete Seeger, Harry Chapin, Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp and many other former and contemporary artists.

Hutchinson Family Singers
Hutchinson Family Singers in 1845 painting by an unkown artist

‘I get it,’ you might think, ‘but who the hell is Phil Ochs?’ Sadly, it’s a pretty rough story, and it doesn’t have a Hollywood happy ending.

Ochs was born on December 19, 1940 in El Paso, Texas. His dad Jakob “Jack” Ochs was a physician from New York, and his mom Gertrude Finn Ochs hailed from Scotland. The two met there and got married in Edinburgh where Jack was attending medical school at the time. After their wedding, they moved to the U.S. Jack joined the army as a doctor and was sent overseas close to the end of World War II. He returned as a sick man with bipolar disorder and depression.

Jack’s health conditions prevented him from establishing a successful medical practice. Instead, he ended up working at a series of hospitals around the country and frequently moving his family. As a result, Phil Ochs grew up in different places, along with an older sister (Sonia, known as Sonny) and a younger brother (Michael). His father was distant from the family, eventually got hospitalized for depression, and passed away from a brain bleeding in April 1963. Phil’s mother died in March 1994.

Phil Ochs as teen with clarinet
Phil Ochs as a teenager playing the clarinet

During his teenage years, Ochs became a talented clarinet player. Prior to the age of 16, he was principal soloist with the orchestra at the Capital University Conservatory of Music in Columbus, Ohio. Although Ochs had become an accomplished classical instrumentalist, he soon discovered the radio and started listening to the likes of Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash.

Initially, Ochs wanted to become a journalist. Well, he of sort did, combining his interest in writing about politics with music. During his journalism studies at Ohio State University, he met fellow student, activist and future folk singer Jim Glover in the fall of 1960, who introduced him to the music of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and The Weavers, and taught him how to play guitar. It wouldn’t take long before Ochs merged his interest of politics and music and started writing his own songs. He preferred to characterize himself as a topical rather than a protest singer.

Glover and Ochs started performing as a duo called The Singing Socialists and later The Sundowners but broke up before their first professional gig. Glover went to New York, while Ochs started performing professionally at a local fok club in Cleveland. In 1962, he went to the Big Apple as well and soon established himself in the Greenwich Village folk music scence. Ochs described himself as a “singing journalist,” explaining his songs were inspired by stories he saw in Newsweek. By the summer of 1963, he had developed a sufficiently high profile and was invited to perform at the Newport Folk Festival, along the likes of Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul & Mary.

Ochs’ debut album All The News That’s Fit To Sing, an allusion to The New York Times‘ slogan “All the news that’s fit to print,” appeared in 1964. Here is Ballad of William Worthy. The tune tells the story about an American journalist who traveled to Cuba despite the U.S. embargo and was forbidden to return to the U.S. Check out the brilliant lyrics of this tune – safe to assume Ochs’ words didn’t endear him to the Johnson Administration.

In 1965, Ochs’ sophomore album I Ain’t Marching Anymore came out. Here’s the excellent satirical anti-war tune Draft Dodger Rag, which quickly became an anthem of the anti-Vietnam war movement.

After Ochs’ first three albums with Electra Records had gone nowhere commercially speaking, he signed with A&M Records and in October 1967 released his fourth studio record Pleasures Of The Harbor. Unlike his first three folk music-oriented records, the album went beyond folk, featuring elements of classical, rock & roll, Dixieland and even experiental synthesized music. Apparently, the idea was to produce a folk-pop crossover. While the album included great tunes, it’s safe to say it didn’t bring Ochs commercial success. Here is Outside Of A Small Circle Of Friends, which became one of Ochs’ most popular songs. The tune was inspired by the case of a 28-old woman who was stabbed to death in front of her home in Queens, New York, while dozens of her neighbors reportedly ignored her cries for help.

Tape From California is Ochs’ fifth album. Released in July 1968 on A&M Records, it continued his shift away from straight folk-oriented protest songwriting, though he was far from abandoning topical songs. The War Is Over is a tune that was inspired by poet Allen Ginsberg who in 1966 declared the Vietnam war was over. Ochs decided to adopt the idea and organize an anti-war rally in Los Angeles, for which he wrote the song.

Phil Ochs’ final studio album came out in February 1970. Weirdly, it was called Greatest Hits, even though it was not a compilation but a collection of 10 new tracks. Most of the record was produced by Van Dyke Parks, who previously had appeared on Tape From California, contributing piano and keyboards to the title track. Greatest Hits featured an impressive array of guest artists, including Clarence White and Gene Parsons, both from The Byrds; Ry Cooder; Jim Glover; and members of Elvis Presley’s backing band, among others. The album cover was an homage to Elvis, showing Ochs in a gold lamé suit reminiscent of the outfit Elvis wore for the cover of his 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong greatest hits compilation. Here is Jim Dean Of Indiana, a tune about the actor James Dean, who like Elvis was one of Ochs’ idols.

Greatest Hits was Ochs’ final attempt to connect with average Americans, who he was convinced weren’t listening to topical songs. Disillusioned by key events of 1968, including the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the police riot in Chicago around the Democratic National Convention and the election of Richard Nixon, Ochs felt he needed to be “part Elvis Presley and part Che Guevara,” as Wikipedia puts it. Ochs supported the album with a tour, performing in the Elivs-like suit and being backed by a rock band, singing his own songs, along with tunes by Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley and Merle Haggard. But his fans weren’t sure what to make of the “new Phil Ochs.”

Pretty much from there, things went downhill for Ochs. He developed writer’s block and slipped into depression and alcoholism. He did not release any additional records. On April 9, 1976, Ochs committed suicide by hanging himself in the home of his sister Sonny. He was only 35 years old.

I’d like to conclude this post with a few quotes I found on Life of a Rebel, a blog dedicated to Ochs. “As a lyricist, there was nobody like Phil before and there has not been anybody since,” said fellow folk singer Dave Van Ronk. “He had a touch that was so distinctive that it just could not be anybody else. He had been a journalism student before he became a singer, and he would never sacrifice what he felt to be the truth for a good line.” In a note to Ochs in 1963, Pete Seeger wrote, “I wish I had one tenth your talent as a songwriter.” And what did the mighty Bob Dylan tell Broadside magazine in 1964? “I just can’t keep up with Phil. And he’s getting better and better and better.”

Sources: Wikipedia; Life of a Rebel; YouTube