“Welcome 2 America” takes latest glance at coveted Prince Vault materials

Courtesy of Google Images

The Prince Estate recently announced their latest foray into unveiling more of the legendary rocker’s treasure trove of unreleased creative material. Entitled Welcome 2 America and due out in July, the 12-track LP (recorded in 2010) was initially slated to accompany a then-ongoing tour of the same name. However, for reasons known only to the artist himself, Welcome 2 America was scrapped; bound instead to gather dust on the shelves of the much-spoken-of Prince Vault.

Until now. 

The lead single (and title track) is perhaps at first listen not the type of promotional introduction one would typically expect. The 5+ minute funky slink plays almost like jazz club improvisation, with Prince providing a spoken monologue against the gorgeous vocals of trio Shelby J, Elisa Dease, and Liv Warfield. Lyrically, the single confronts themes like the dangers of escalating technology, endless greed amongst the aristocrats, and oppressive societal rule, issues that have only grown worse and more toxic since Prince wrote and spoke these words to tape. 

That seems to tap into the broader mindset of where this posthumous album will dwell. To quote the Estate’s Welcome 2 America press release:

“(The album is) a powerful creative statement that documents Prince’s concerns, hopes and visions for a shifting society, presciently foreshadowing an era of political division, disinformation, and a renewed fight for racial justice”

This certainly isn’t new territory for His Royal Badness, as his albums Purple Rain and Sign O’ The Times most famously highlighted themes including fears of nuclear war, the AIDS crisis, and trying to survive while the world is falling to pieces. Even Prince’s final studio album Hit n Run Phase Two opens with “Baltimore”, a rock’d up ode for peace following the 2015 death of 25-year old Black man Freddie Gray at the hands of Baltimore police officers.

So it seems appropriate that even from beyond the grave Prince has more statements to make that fit into the mood of our modern times. And while I have pondered at length just what he might have thought of his Estate releasing this recording and several others since his passing in 2016, the facts are these: Prince put no plans in place for the future of his creative works and didn’t seem to care what might happen to it all.

As a result, I just want to hear the music. Ordinarily I seek to respect the wishes of the artist and creator first and foremost, but with no knowledge of that and the mythical whisper of the Prince Vault coming to call… its time to just enjoy these little musical feasts as the treat that they are.

Prince was a once in a lifetime talent; hearing more his thought process in this world is a good thing.

Courtesy of Google Images

Rag’n’Bone Man provides one of year’s best through “Misadventure”

Courtesy Google Images

Rory Charles Graham is musician Rag’n’Bone Man, a strikingly poignant moniker inspired by a children’s show from Graham’s youth in the United Kingdom. His sophomore album is entitled Life by Misadventure, and I can easily predict this will rocket him straight to household name.

Think Chris Stapleton with 2016’s Traveller; Misadventure inhabits some different genre spaces but reflects just as much time spent with its heart on its sleeve.

What I mean begins within the tenderly gruff baritone of Graham. He simply has a can’t miss vocal; it draws attention as easily as dropped jaws given the spacious power, range, and easy vulnerability it takes on. It’s not just every musician that can go toe to toe with the rock steady talents of P!nk on a song, but “Anywhere Away from Here” is diamond level singer-songwriter piano balladry. The two could cut an album tomorrow and I’d be in line for it.

But for all this talk of vocals, the lyrics on Life on Misadventure are just as worth noting. Tracks like “Fall in Love Again”, “Crossfire”, “Anywhere Away From Here” and “Alone” feel downright confessional they shoot so straight, and that realness is in every melodic step this record takes.

That honesty might at first seem surprising upon initial glance at Graham, a 6’5 giant of a man with face tattoos who gives off more Hell’s Angel than Angelic Singer vibes. But looks can be deceiving for a reason, especially once Graham breaks into a Michael McDonald-esque croon that beautifully haunts long after the album stops playing.

Courtesy of NME.com

Pick up Life by Misadventure. For being about experiences off the path, it hits as straight as an emotional firebolt right to the heartstrings.

If You Don’t Yet Know Silk Sonic, “Leave The Door Open” For This Supergroup

It’d be wrong to start picking off the cobwebs on OTBEOTB without acknowledging… well, this.

This, AKA Silk Sonic, AKA Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak, AKA the Justice League-style dynamic duo you didn’t know you desperately needed to hear until you were first told they paired up, have made the world a funkier place since the early March drop of the pair’s slow-jam single “Leave The Door Open”.

From the strength of the song itself to the “its such a retro clean-cut 60’s/70’s vibe Pablo Escobar would approve” aesthetic of the music video, its difficult not to feel the heavy weight of anticipation on what a full collaboration between Bruno and Andy is going to look like once its (eventually) announced. The talent and immediately evident chemistry of the pair across a full LP, the level of guest stars and musicians that I’m sure have been pulled in to assist… as a listener the possibilities generate endless goosebumps.

Look no further than “Silk Sonic Intro”, a brief lead-in to our main at”track”tion that features Parliament bassist and resident funkmaster Bootsy Collins playing the role of album MC.

Makes it easy to get hyped up doesn’t it? That’s Bootsy baby!

Luckily for us, Silk Sonic also shines an exposing light on the pillars of other iconic, impactful artists who helped them forge their sound. Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson/The Jackson 5, James Brown, Prince, and George Clinton (with both Parliament and Funkadelic) are some of the first that come to mind here, though the well runs much deeper and widespread the farther you search.

I mention this because as important as it is to look forward and feel modern, it’s also of deep meaning to look down into the roots of all the old hooks, noodles and melodies of the past. Fully digest those albums, take the time and hear those stories to not only know how music has evolved, but to also never forget the pioneers and the innovators who birthed various genres in the first place.

Though never let that pigeonhole you into being the type of music consumer/reviewer who only bases opinions off comparisons to others either. Anderson .Paak and Bruno Mars as Silk Sonic is wildly exciting simply because of what each and each alone brings to the table.

Now we just wait for the full album.

An Open Letter…

To the person whose eyes choose to read these sentences,

Greetings. You may or may not know some small piece of the “creative me” via prior posts on this website as you give these current words a scan. At this point its more likely the latter as I’ve been absent since last year, AKA the start of pandemic times.

A combination of slow recovery from right wrist surgery, the changing of the world amid COVID, and a mix of so many of my anxieties kept me far from the computer; glued instead to the undersides of blankets and mind-blanketing side hustles. Fears… they don’t easily go back in the box when life changes radically. At least in my experience.

But I’m not here to magically say I’m better from those wounds now and have returned to become 100% myself again either. Its more a “one situation at a time” kind of vibe where some moments outweigh handling others during a pandemic. I will however say in these currently backward days that seem so unfit to be called something as futuristic-sounding as 2021, it feels wrong to allow time to win and freely pass while only being able to lay in the fetal position staring at its back as it gradually fades away.

So while I can’t perhaps provide the exact essentials many folks need right now, I’m still a writer here to entertain with creativity when I’m able to do so. And I can still do what I’ve always loved best: supporting musicians who just need a signal boost and a voice to listen and help spread the word. Sometimes the best thing we can do as humans (virus or no virus) is to give each other a hand up.

And better to do it sooner rather than later, because most of all we know is finite. The full name for this site (On The Back Edge of the Beat) came from singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle and a random piece of stage banter I happened to see of his on Youtube that ultimately inspired the title. That was all it took to start this project, and as small as it is I’ve always been thankful to JTE for that idea lightbulb.

Sadly, we lost Justin in August 2020 at only age 38. I haven’t had the words to describe how that’s felt since I learned it happened, other than I miss him and I wish it hadn’t had to occur of course. Especially for the sake of his wife and young daughter.

Moments like that have made me realize that its okay to slow down during these times, preserve strength and heal your wounds. However, you can’t just stop the car and hide because that’s easier than life’s potential fortune of possible cruelty. That’s a lesson I’m still working out on the days it feels easier to just be sad or depressed, but I plan to return to do what I do best on this site again, with a small tweak.

I’m now changing the email for all submissions to cwhedden@yahoo.com. Its a more direct means of contact that’s easier to handle right now.

Hopefully this is just the start of more to come in the days to follow.

All the best,

Escapism

There’s much to be said for the word identity here on this mid-August night, mid-2020. 

I recently dug into my family’s past via genealogy. Yes, despite perhaps many valid fears about entities holding onto your DNA, I was too much a history fanatic to resist the temptation of learning about connections. The detective work involved in crafting a story made up of your own chapters. 

I think the urge largely came as a result of escapism. The world has embraced such a shattered fetal position in my 30th year of life, and it’s nice to blink it away for just a moment. Not so much to imagine myself as part of the prior cast in my existence so much as where they lived. What the lands looked like, and what was beautiful then. Away from the sheer mess of these current days. 

I’ve been your music writer on and off here a long time, but none of those words have felt appropriate during the COVID pandemic. Especially when many, many people are still sick, many of have lost loved ones, and many weeks news only seems to get more frightening in a place I once felt so safe in when I was younger. And while I do believe in distractions to help ease these type of anxieties, the sentences I form have to be more truth than story. More honest than disguised. 

And honestly? As just an average person, I’m unsure of almost everything I see. I look at all leadership gone, regular individuals as close as my neighbors struggling, equal, equitable rights for all still being held back, and I have so many fears. I’m concerned for the creators, the small businesses, regular folks just trying to make a go of things. 

Are we being left with a future here? It feels less like it by the day.

Thankfully, music is at my side still despite not writing about it. Run The Jewels, Anderson .Paak, Fantastic Negrito, Kathleen Edwards, and Taylor Swift have all been making appearances as of late, and have new stuff that’s worthy of a listen right this second (go now, I’ll wait).

I’m also almost 3 months in to a likely year-long process of healing from wrist surgery, so typing has become a slower, jittery process while the strength rebuilds over time. 

Additionally, I’m trying to use this time to figure out how to rebuild. How to find my identity and how to make it in what the world has become. For now, all I can say that feels right is stay healthy, stay safe, and just be good to each other whenever its possible. 

Just a regular guy checking in; signing off for now. 

Reading from the lines of a postcard of recollections…

My own personal birthday banner

I recently had several of my loved ones throw a small celebration in honor of my 30th birthday. It’s the first significant occasion I’ve had take place in a world now altered by COVID-19 and the subsequent quarantine, and one that occurred (safely online) despite those circumstances. 

Since the festivities and the official start to my 30’s, I’ve found myself in the mood to reminisce and glance back at the road I’ve traveled so far. Particularly after the many difficult events that have occurred in just the first few months of 2020.

Specifically, I’ve found myself focusing on the relationship between the life miles I’ve traveled and the music that’s been there with its thumb in the wind waiting for me, eager to hitch a ride on the trek. And where better to start, as most stories do, than with the beginning?

Photo source: NPR.org

I remember so many different bands and artists being played around my house when I was growing up.  

Billy Joel (that “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant” piano solo!), Neil Young, Ray Charles, Carole King, Joni Mitchell, The Beatles (so much good Beatles), James Taylor (the first musician I saw live in concert) and Dave Matthews Band. There was also plenty of support from the likes of Nirvana, The Eagles, Alanis Morissette, Nanci Griffith, Collective Soul, Oasis, Tracy Chapman (whose work still haunts me in the most beautiful way), the Crash Test Dummies, Soul Asylum… it was a feast fit to keep many a cassette and CD player well-fed.

It was also just the sort of early flavor palate any music hobbyist aspires to begin learning on. After all, every healthy garden has to start with just a few strong seeds, and the gene pool I developed from had plenty to share.

Photo via greenbaypressgazette.com

Eventually, that initial versatility led to my own musical choices, which included some lasting hits (U2, the Bee Gees), as well as a few that didn’t make the long-term cut (the boy band years for instance). However, regardless of their ultimate status, each artistic contribution remains important because much like the flap of a butterfly’s wings causing a hurricane, the smallest change might mean I’d be a different person today.

And that’s not something I’d be willing to compromise on or accept, virus or no virus.

Image via Genius.com

I like to say Warren Zevon was the jumping on point where listening to music became more than just a passing habit of mine. The now-sadly-deceased singer-songwriter was a master of macabre wit, wistful heartbreak, and a trademark, slicked back Mr. Bad Example personality. For me, Zevon was like finding the Holy Grail in another run-of-the-mill junk sale, and nothing would again be the same. 

(Knowing you could use the word “brucellosis” in a song… game-changer).

As gifted as he was, Zevon’s talent was held back by varying factors, including a lack of commercial success, subsequently being mislabeled as a one hit wonder with 1978’s “Werewolves of London”, and many years of erratic battles with personal demons. Still, I’ve never heard his kind before or since, and the initial discovery gave my ears their first taste of just how wide and variable the world of melody could truly be outside my small-town knowledge.

I just needed the patience to mine for it. 

Photo courtesy of NPR.org

From there, I was drawn into further revelations later on via the likes of Wilco’s folk-rock experimentalism, Ryan Adams’ sad bastard songwriting sensibility, and Ben Folds’ proficiency for mouthy piano-slinging. Almost like relationships, each connection for better or for worse has paved the way for more progress in my musical paint set the older I’ve become. 

Progress though… can be a tough word to reckon with when it comes to the double-edged sword that is the steady forward march of age. 

On one hand, the expansion of my horizons in this medium have without question been some of the greatest blessings of my existence. The teenage version of myself holding his first iPod classic would never have been able to imagine the artists I’ve heard and loved up to now, the friends I’ve made through music, and the way its made me a better version of myself.

Cbc.ca is the source for this image

Yet… I feel an almost imperceptible sense of the blues standing here now, officially 30 years old. Songs like Joni’s “The Circle Game” or Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” used to make me suffocatingly sad as a kid knowing that those innocent moments I was in when I heard these tracks couldn’t last. That eventually, time comes between the fun and games to take us off to the tasks of adulthood. And at this stage of my days (and in these current times), I can confirm to my youthful past that innocence doesn’t last, and there is a part of me wishing I’d used all that early time for something more than I did.

But that’s part of growing up (and learning to be well-versed in the art of 20/20 hindsight). The good and bad things in this existence are about as adept at escaping their connection as we are at dodging inevitable time or age or death. What matters more is coming to terms with and accepting the ups and downs, and still making the most of them. It’s not easy, but we only get so long to learn and grow and do, and I for one plan to waste no time in carving more musical stories into my next decade.

I just hope to get to take you all on the trip.

Knock, Knock…

I’ve been missing from the land of the living, here we are now lonely together…

What a difference a few months can make between updates.

Since my last post in late-February, we’ve all had a front row seat for the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. I haven’t had the virus myself and I’m lucky to say it hasn’t hit too closely to those in my personal life, but regardless the ongoing situation has been a difficult one to attempt to process for a multitude of reasons.

There’s of course the anxiety and fear spent on any possibility of getting ill, as well as worrying for those who’ve gotten sick, are on the front lines fighting COVID, or are just struggling to get by. This period of time has also brought to mind that innocence of childhood, where so much more seems simple and safe.

That well-being, if perhaps a bit naive, felt like an impenetrable shield that acted as protection for any evil big or small. Sadly, part of growing up is learning life can’t always play by those unwritten rules, especially where a problem like a virus is concerned.

Issues like that have a way of getting real in a hurry.

But we will survive this. All the written words of thoughts and feelings aside, there will be another side out of which we will emerge again. I don’t know when that will be and there are still more hurdles to cross, but we will overcome and still be here to speak of music’s perfect melody!

I promise you that.

Be well and stay safe everyone. Much love to you all!

Fay’s “Firefly” offers sharp final preview before “Intuition” album release

The world of music is much like anything else when it comes to overall activity and how it relates to the time of year. January is usually pretty far removed within the doldrums of quiet, but luckily the pace starts to positively shift and accelerate once February gets a head of steam going.

And luckily for those of you who count yourselves as OTBEOTB readers, that means more features to peruse!

For today’s commentary, we return to artist Randi Fay, who’s on the cusp of releasing her concept album Intuition February 20th. Previously I evaluated the title track from the upcoming LP, now its time to take the vitals of its sibling single “Firefly” to get more of a sense of just what Fay’s concept is all about.

In comparing the two songs off the bat, the musical approach of “Firefly” certainly fits within the same melodic framework and audio-centric story teased at by “Intuition”. It has a fresh, exuberant rush of boisterous, retro 80’s layering mixed into a swelling pulse reminiscent of swirling K-pop, all while still maintaining a unique dance-floor identity. 

Don’t let that immediately upbeat nature fool you into thinking this endeavor is only about fun however. Beneath that danceable, rhythmic frenzy lies a sobering lyrical commentary that attempts to discover what’s real and genuine in a world dominated by Instagram filters, like quantities, and ego-boosting smoke and mirrors.

All in all, the contrast between the two opposing sides makes for the best metaphor to truly send the point across home plate. 

Much like the song “Intuition”, “Firefly” also has a strong sense for big, constellation-soaring hooks as well as easily ingratiating charm. Fans certainly won’t walk away disappointed.

Listen below:

Mohawk Bends make strong debut OTBEOTB feature with slick rocker “See What You Do To Me”

It’s now the month of February, which is right about the time we Northeast folk can JUST begin thinking about digging out from under winter’s stern, unflinching grasp. And unfortunately, while we are making some progress prying up the season’s fingers, the mood in the air remains an inflexibly grey, lethargic blandness. 

Thankfully we have the fiery energy of bands like Mohawk Bends to help melt away some of those frigid blues. The indie rockers recently dropped the sprawling, thrashing hammer of single “See What You Do To Me”, which soars on a wave of arpeggio-ed guitars, massively fun hooks, and confidence oozing out of every pore. 

It’s the kind of song at first listen that demonstrates strong musicianship without needing to take itself too seriously. And that’s long been one of the beauties of straight up, not-grown-in-a-test-tube rock n roll. While I can appreciate the next clever set of poetry set to intricate melody as much as the next music listener, sometimes it hits straighter to the point to take screwed-over heartbreak, add a teaspoon of nervy, flexing guitars cranked up to 10, and let the passion and talent take care of the rest. 

This Austin-based outfit manages to pull that all together and then some with “See What You Do To Me”, which blends together sounds from the likes of the Arctic Monkeys, Collective Soul, The Whigs and Oasis while still maintaining the nature of its own identity. And that’s one of the most important things to achieve here, when you can make a listener come back based on your approach to musical creativity, not because you just sound like group x, y or z. 

The realm of rock is always in need of more worthy ambassadors, and thankfully Mohawk Bends seem up to the challenge with a track like this in their arsenal.

Listen below:

Car roads and the casual melodies….

I recently found myself introducing a significant seismic shift into the expanding universe otherwise known as my existence. Namely, by deciding to alter my circumstances and start a new job that’s far removed from my old stomping grounds in media. The decision’s involved making a lot of significant alterations to my life and has left me wondering just what this next choice of a fork in the road has in store for me in the long run.

To be honest, the further outward I travel in that regard, the more I realize there’s a lot to unpack in the hypothetical possibilities.

Those unknown pages are exciting yet somehow dizzying and terrifying all at once, and that internal struggle of feeling makes tackling the present… less than pleasant from time to time. Especially for someone who’s fought chronic anxiety for years now with varying degrees of success.

But luckily, before each fresh morning of my newly-occupied time begins, I am given a small window of a commute for music and melody to come crawling on in to keep me company. The guest stars involved in the event usually rotate quite frequently too.

For a while it was Bruce Springsteen’s 2019 solo effort Western Stars. While I didn’t make a Top 10 album list for the year just expired, The Boss certainly would have made a cameo for this one as this record thrives on one of Springsteen’s main specialties: character songs.

While my car cuts a knife through backwoods, fields and scattered homes set against a rustic terrain, it’s easy to be transported away into the world of Western Stars. For one thing, there’s its engrossing stage of lovelorn daredevils (“Drive Fast (The Stuntman)”), past-prime cowboys (“Western Stars”), and aching nostalgics (“Moonlight Motel”). There’s also Springsteen’s ever-present ability to paint a vivid audio portrait for the listener that’s about more than just the story embedded at the surface.

Inside all those actors, the 70-year old New Jersey native injects honesties that include love, loss, insecurity, the struggles of blue collar living, and plumbing the dark depths of emotional turmoil. And while I never imagined making a segue between these two artists, many of those creative adjectives are also present via another cameo of my weekday listenings: rapper Mac Miller and his 2020 work Circles.

Circles was completed by producer-at-the-helm Jon Brion and recently released following Miller’s untimely demise from an accidental drug overdose in 2018. Like Western Stars, Circles is similarly a brilliantly flawed slice of humanity, not to mention another sort of seismic shift for its creator.

When Miller first came on the scene I remember him coming off as a stereotypical white frat-boy rapper, and as a result an attraction to his work never occurred for me. My car trips with Circles have caused me to bury that presumptive judgement however, as very sadly Miller seemed ready to show us a varied, evolving vision of himself creatively that we now can only get a glimpse of.

For example, album tracks like “Everybody” and “That’s On Me” ditch the hip-hop for a touch of The Beatles filtered through Elliott Smith’s Figure 8, with Miller showing a likable capability as a vocalist. Meanwhile, the title track is a gently meditative intro that slices deep into the cartilage of the musician’s blossoming display of vulnerability. Miller also hits familiar rap signposts with “Complicated” and “Blue World”, but despite the tone shifts the album’s focus remains on looking inward no matter the darkness.

I applaud artists willing to stare into the harshest parts of the mirror, not only for the courage of revealing truths in themselves but for placing those constellations in the sky for their listeners to find too. My experience in this case may be as simple as a few moments spent in the car before a long working day, but albums like Circles and Western Stars make those daily efforts easier to handle.

That’s because artists like these and so many others openly exorcise their fears, worries and anxieties in a way that, when we connect to it, feels like it slays the demons for us a bit too. I can think of few better ways to make the busy weeks just a little bit lighter.

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