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