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CD Reviews - September 2021

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SMALL TOWN TITANS – THE RIDE (AntiFragile Music) York’s Small Town Titans have been a constant force on the rise during the past decade, expanding their reach to national and even international acclaim. Their latest full-length album, The Ride, continues that ride with its hearty display of visceral, hard-hitting rock over 10 tracks. The power trio of singer and bassist Phil Freeman, guitarist Ben Guiles and drummer Jonny Ross deliver full firepower throughout the album, crafting rock anthems that mix tough melodies with rigid arrangements, tight instrumental execution and Phil's dynamic multi-range voice. Phil's expressive vocals are incredible here, ranging from high-powered polecat howls and screams to bold baritone growls and everything in between. “Rufflin' Feathers” delivers an instant haymaker to the jaw to open the album, as Phil rants about the current state of societal discourse and the chaos stemming from it. The heavy rumbler “The Man” establishes personal turf and the line that shouldn't be crossed; and with its hints of choral Queen, “Behind the Moon” provides a bold and infectious anthem. With its slight Soundgarden flavor, “Let Me Breathe” progresses as a lyrical quest for personal space and individuality, while the milder-toned “9 to 5” offers an ode to blue-collar life and the struggles of the working man. “When It All Comes Down” presents a thrash-driven throwdown, and Small Town Titans flexes their blues muscles on “Junkie for You (Hey Mama).” The group updates an earlier number, “Universal Limits,” and gives a grungy blues makeover to Marcy Playground's 1990s favorite “Sex and Candy.” With its evolving and intensifying arrangement, the expansive 8-minute, album-finishing title track “The Ride” shares some lyrical philosophy about this journey called life. Small Town Titans fire on all cylinders here; beyond Phil's potent pipes, his bass work and Jonny's powerhouse drumming work in tandem to cement the album's foundational grooves, and Ben's chunky guitar riffs and timely solo work add explosiveness and spark. Stellar song material, engaging performances, and broad and thunderous production combine to make The Ride an exceptional rock album from start to finish. After hearing this, it's no mystery why the Small Town Titans are a rising force poised for greatness. This album delivers the goods! (You can obtain the album through the group's website, www.smalltowntitans.com, and through online music retailers as well.)



SUICIDE PUPPETS – TALES OF LIVING AND DYING ON SLAUGHTER RIDGE ROAD... (Unable Records) Since their beginnings in 2006, Harrisburg's Suicide Puppets have steadily established themselves as one of central PA's top purveyors of intense, punishing heavy metal. On their latest full-length album, Tales of Living and Dying on Slaughter Ridge Road..., the group ups the ante on their songwriting, intensity and focus. The group's sound has evolved into a fusion of industrial-strength power metal with a horror/gothic edge. Thunderous rhythms from bassist Jonny Suicide and drummer Veritas Suicide, plus the scorched-earth guitar roar generated by six-stringers Steven Suicide, Tattuicide and Donnie Von Gailinger, set the fierce backdrop for the brutal growl of frontman Twisty Suicide. Electronics and samples lend an eerie feel to the group's dynamic; while lyrically, the album sets a loose theme of the explorations of anger, hatred and violence. Real life horror informs several of the songs – the driving “6 Sex 6” offers an audio portrait of serial killer Richard Ramirez, while Green River Killer Gary Ridgeway is the focus of “Murder in Green,” and a gruesome Pennsylvania murder and dismemberment is referenced on “Hate You Right Back.” The group analyzes extreme anger and hate on numbers such as “Man in Black,” “Blacker Day” (with Ministry's John Bechdel contributing keys), “Your Love/My Hate” and the album-closer “Still Bleeding.” Suicide Puppets also address religious hypocrisy on “Jesus Loves Me,” and ponder the psychology of military training on “A.R.M.E.D.” The album also includes one cover, as the group ratchets up the intensity on Real Life's 1983 new wave hit “Send Me an Angel.” While the overall dynamic is punishing and brutal, Suicide Puppets show a knack for melody and variation that keeps this album interesting from start to end. The songs have direction and purpose, and Twisty Suicide's snarling vocals are intelligible and coherent. The production gives Suicide Puppets ample firepower and thunder, yet the mix is clean and crisp, and vocals and instruments come through distinct and clear. Suicide Puppets further define their identity and focus here; Tales of Living and Dying on Slaughter Ridge Road might not be for the musical faint of heart, but it does reveal Suicide Puppets' artistry and mastery of their distinctive, heavy-hitting musical turf. (The album can be obtained through Amazon and other online music platforms.)



MARSHMELLOW OVERCOAT – JUMPING SHARKS (no label) “Classic Rock for Today” is the tagline of Bradford-based rock group Marshmellow Overcoat. More than a decade ago, singer, songwriter, guitarist and piano player Tyler Calkins set out to craft a sound based on the songwriting techniques of the 1960s and 70s, and incorporate that sound into a more contemporary style. His band vehicle for pursuing that musical journey, Marshmellow Overcoat further hones that musical vision on their latest album, Jumping Sharks. Tyler, guitarist Alan Hancock, bassist Dave Verbocy and drummer Anthony Cavallero introduce ten catchy songs that effectively merge classic-styled songcraft with a current, guitar and piano-driven edge. And they seamlessly accomplish it; efficient melodies, vocal harmonies, backbeats and subtle hints of lyrical psychedelia recall the style of 1960s hit-making, nicely powered by the group’s upbeat and uptempo approach. With Tyler's sandy, raspy voice not far removed from both John Lennon and Micky Dolenz, Marshmellow Overcoat proudly channels Beatles and Monkees flavors on many of the songs; notably the uptempo “Really Coming Home,” “We've Got to Roll” and the Dave-fronted “What I Love.” The group taps a driving Rolling Stones edge on “Reason to Stay,” and the harmonies and cheerful melody of “The Best Thing” recall the pop styles of The Association and the Mamas & Papas. Influenced by piano stars Elton John and Billy Joel, Tyler incorporates a similar piano-rock vibe into the hopeful-themed “Through the Night.” And with their band name derived from a monicker The Band once considered using during their formative period, Marshmellow Overcoat infuses such numbers as “Stop You Now,” “Hope You'll Understand” and the album-ending “At the End of the Day” with hints of The Band. Showing less of a retro tone, the harder-edged album-opener “Smoke Screen” addresses the current societal climate of information and misinformation. The group learns from the past well; these songs are infectious, tight and to the point. All four musicians' performances are sharp and enthusiastic; and vocals, harmonies, guitars and piano meld smoothly together. Recorded at GCR and Mammoth Recording Studios in Buffalo, the album sounds bright, balanced and full. While the past provides the foundation for their song creations, Marshmellow Overcoat infuses those influences into their own distinctive identity on Jumping Sharks, a solid, cohesive and pleasant listen. (The album can be obtained through Marshmellow Overcoat's website, www.marshmellowovercoat.com, or through the group's Bandcamp page.)



ANTONIO ANDRADE – LUCKY IN LOVE (Life Shakes Records) More than 45 years of performing experience has shaped Antonio Andrade's passion not just for creating original music as a songwriter, but also for interpreting the music of others. On his latest album, Lucky in Love, the Harrisburg area-based performer invests that passion into renditions of 10 songs from a diverse range of artists, and incorporates his own distinctive style, personality and perspective into each. The lone original song of this set, the title track “Lucky in Love,” opens the album; singing, strumming acoustic guitar and providing an infectious harmonica accent, Antonio weaves a story of hope, trials and tragedy as each love story has its own fate. Antonio next pays homage to fellow central Pennsylvania musician Robert Bobby with a rendition of Robert’s “Ask a Man”; a longtime performer on the state’s stages, Robert passed away in March, 2018. From there, Antonio presents his treatments on a variety of rock, pop and folk classics; he gives the Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post” a stripped-down, acoustic swamp blues feel, with his rugged voice emoting the hardship expressed in the song’s words. He gives a folksy makeover to the Left Banke’s 1966 hit “Walk Away Renee,” with Americana accents from Pete Damore’s banjo and Crystal Harlu-Damore’s gentle backing vocals. Antonio transforms the Talking Heads’ “And She Was” into a happy-go-lucky, laid-back acoustic vibe. He salutes an influence with a version of Steve Forbert’s “Midsummer Night’s Toast,” which features two of Steve’s former sidemen, guitarist Mark Stuart and bassist Mark Dann. Tying in with the album’s title, Antonio applies his expressive vocal style to Tom Petty’s “You Got Lucky,” and evokes his own hopeful tone on a rendition of The Wallflowers’ “One Headlight.” Antonio salutes two more influential singers with his takes on Karla Bonoff’s “Lose Again” and Tom Waits’ “Ice Cream Man,” before closing the album with a nod to folk legend Pete Seeger via an Americana twist on “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” again featuring Pete Damore on banjo and Crystal Harlu-Damore’s duet vocal. Antonio owns each of the cover songs he performs here; his expressive voice, arrangements and nuances allow listeners hear these songs from his own perspective, and experience them in a different light. Recorded at the Green Room in Harrisburg, and co-produced and engineered by Derek Euston (who also contributed guitar, bass, keys and harmony vocals on several tracks), Lucky in Love sounds crisp and full, with Antonio’s emotive voice front and center. This album shows the true beauty and potential of cover music; Antonio Andrade allows us to hear these classics through his own filter, voice and perspective on Lucky in Love, in the process honoring these songs and the artists who influenced him. (The album can be obtained through Antonio’s website, www.lifeshakes.com.)



DREAM HOME – DREAM HOME (Mint 400 Records) Pittsburgh-based rock trio Dream Home came together in 2018, several months after the book closed on former Altoona area musician Jaren Love’s previous band project The Lampshades. Jaren collaborated with musicians Joe Praksti and Sam Winward to form the new group, and their self-titled debut album demonstrates a different slant and direction from The Lampshades. Less agitated and chaotic than The Lampshades’ sound, Dream Home takes a smoother and more streamlined approach with more emphasis on melodies, production and lyrical depth. The group explores psychedelic textures that hint at Pet Sounds-era Brian Wilson and Sgt. Pepper-era Beatles, as well as a touch of the Flaming Lips' alternative psychedelia; topped with Jaren's familiar wistful vocal style. The words appear to follow a loose theme of loathing and discomfort with domesticated life; Jaren voices uncertainty on the short opening track “A Lot of Times Just Don't Know What to Say.” He regrets the daily grind on “Fixing Tires” and the sullen closer “Go Back Home Son,” and laments the people in his life who have faded into the past on “Forever 22” and “Do It All the Time.” Nocturnal misgivings inform the words of the acoustic-driven “Third Trick” and the Beatle-esque “Late at Night,” while “Carpeted” yearns for hope as life's picture becomes clearer. The melodies are each catchy, and Jaren's former Lampshades bandmate Dane Adelman helps flesh out the sound with layers of slide guitar, keys and trumpet. Engineered, produced and mixed by Steve Donahue, Dream Home's busy arrangements sound sharp and balanced, with Jaren's voice and the instrumental components coming through clear and distinct. Dream Home offers a fresh tapestry for Jaren Love to explore life's ups and downs, and this eponymous debut provides a clear turning of the page. (The album can be obtained through the group's Bandcamp page, www.dreamhomepgh.bandcamp.com.)



BETTY JO ROCKWELL – ALL FOR LOVE (Canadian American International Music) A western PA native who now calls Shepherdstown, West Virginia her home base, singer and songwriter Betty Jo Rockwell explores rock, bluegrass, country and folk music frontiers on her latest album, All for Love. Betty Jo created the words and music, plus sings and plays guitar and accordion; accompanied by her husband, Scott Rockwell on guitars, bass, drums and banjo; and guitarist John Turner. She sings with clarity and a frequent vibrato, her style providing a connecting thread between the songs' diverse range of flavors. Vocal layers and harmonies from backing singers Gena Rockwell and Jade Tremba help give the uptempo album-opener “East Coast Drifter” a B-52s flavor. Several songs ride a retro vibe; the rocking title track “All for Love” shows an early 1970s flavor both with its sound and words about unity through love. “Disappear's” hard edge hints Crazy Horse-era Neil Young, while “Earth Healing Sound” channels a Woodstock tone with its theme of love and connectivity with the planet. Betty Jo shares some personal reflections as well; the bluegrass-driven “Restless Soul” recalls her father and his arrival on American soil, while the Appalachian-flavored “Clifftop” celebrates a favorite southern West Virginia location. Other highlights include the bold country rock-toned love song “Symphony” with its infectious melody, the uptempo and roots-driven “Oracle” with its mystic narrative about a fortune teller, and the folksy and reminiscent closer “Love Letters.” Betty Jo has a way with melodies here, as each song is catchy and captivating, and the mixture of styles and arrangements keeps the album sounding fresh from start to end. Her voice sounds spirited and inspired. Produced and recorded by Scott Rockwell, All for Love maintains clarity and crispness throughout, and keeps Betty Jo's voice front and center in the mix. Betty Jo Rockwell broadens her musical frontier on All for Love, a satisfying listen that brings her artistry and style to the forefront. (The album can be obtained online through Amazon and other digital platforms.)



ALMOST HONEST – SEICHES AND SIRENS (Electric Talon Records) Since 2013, Harrisburg area trio Almost Honest has been forging their unique doom rock-based identity. On their second full-length album, Seiches and Sirens, Almost Honest indulges their imaginations and creativity over 10 hard-hitting tracks. Singer and guitarist Shayne Reed, bassist Seth Jackson and drummer Quinten Spangler craft swaggering, heavy-rocking melodies with captivating twists and turns, merging Sabbathy doom metal dynamics with elements of funk, thrash and eccentric psychedelia. An explosive thrash-geared introduction ushers in the album's opening track, the rumbling “Fools Gold Flesh,” with Seth's sinister bass line anchoring the song's winding groove. Interesting chord progressions power the melody of “Keystone,” while Shayne's intensifying vocal growl escalates the edge on “Interstellar Executive.” Almost Honest indulges their imaginations and adventurism several times here; blending an unpredictable melody with spoken sagely passages on “Dancing Shaman and the Psychedelic Cactus,” conversing with mountain spirits on “Stonecutter,” and warning of a sinister siren on the riff-laden and ominous “Jenny Greenteeth.” All three musicians cut loose and go-for-broke here; the performances are enthusiastic and delivered with attitude and swagger. The group rocks hard, but never takes themselves too seriously, keeping this album a fun listen along the way. The production and mix give this set heaviness, balance and edge, enabling Almost Honest's presentation to hit full force. The result is a strong, well-done album; Almost Honest raises the bar on their creativity and further defines their heavy-rocking world on Seiches and Sirens. Fans of 1970s-period Black Sabbath, Clutch, Mastodon and Monster Magnet will likely find common ground with what this group brings to the table; Seiches and Sirens offers an exciting, hard-hitting, fresh-sounding musical adventure. (The album can be obtained through the group's website, www.almosthonestofficial.com or their Bandcamp page.)

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