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Celebrating Pennsylvania Music, Present and Past

Archive for the category “Album Reviews”

Find the Time by The Great SOCIO

Find the Time by The Great SOCIOThe Great SOCIO is a Philadelphia-based rock band which was formed in 2010.

The band tours extensively around the Philadelphia area and has developed a loyal following of fans through their energetic live performances. In fact, their 2014 EP release, Find the Time, was funded by fans through a Kickstarter campaign, as they had done with their previous 2013 release, Modern Grip. Since their founding, the four-piece group has forged a unique sound that they refer to as the “socio-sound”. This consists of a unique musical arrangement led by powerful bass and drum rhythms, synthesized sounds, poetic lyrics and the occasional trumpet, played by lead vocalist Berto Muñoz. Unusual for a rock-based band is the fact that they have no actual guitars in the mix, relying heavily on the bass lines and flourishes of trumpet and synth sounds to carry the melody.

“The World’s Alive” starts off the EP with a driving anthem set in motion by the drums of Drew Bernier and bass by Craig Stenger that will have you grooving along before the end of the first verse. The vocals flow seamlessly from quasi-rap to a classic bluesy rock sound. The theme seems to be that there is lots to see and experience here if you can “find the time”. Next up is “Criminals”, an angry sounding song and a sort of antithesis to the opener, with excellent effects laid down by organist/pianist/synth-master, Monty Scienceist.

“Let Go” begins with a quirky, albeit catchy. synth organ and more rapping that morphs into a measured marching rhythm highlighted by the horns. The lyrics encourage letting go of the past so you can look to the future. “Paradise” and “Anything Everything” are accented by the additional vocals of Tess Emma who adds another layer of interest to the eccentric vocal style of front man and trumpeter Muñoz. Closing out the EP is “Vultures”, which contains a cool meshing of horns, organ with a syncopated vocal and bass line. The song explores the “need for us to be as one.”

Overall, this EP is creative, fun and a greatly entertaining listen.  The group cites some of their influences as The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Faith No more and Rage Against The Machine, but upon listening to this odd but highly interesting blend of sounds that the band has created, it is apparent that this sound belongs to the Great Socio.

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Tigerbomb

Tigerbomb 2013 albumA rock power trio from Lancaster, PA, Tigerbomb is made up of three musicians who also happen to be brothers. With a sound drawn from a vast range of influences, the group proudly declares themselves to be “genre free”, although they do trend towards the heavier side of the alternative spectrum. Released in March 2013, their eponymous CD reflects this sonic mixture, along with a unique approach to composing which keeps the tunes in constant motion and allows for no potential complacency or rust.

With a steady drum beat by Isaiah Stauffer, the album commences with “13”, a song which features a well-forged guitar riff and instrumental forays between verses. This serves to pack the mere two and a half minute song with plenty of variation and is an effective opener for the album. “Satch’s Satchel” follows with a familiar feel that alternates between Pearl Jam and Red Hot Chili Peppers. Nehemiah Stauffer provides some funky guitar licks which are an interesting and highlight of the song. “Mice In the Kitchen” is a bit weaker than the first two tracks, as it gets a bit lost in repetition until it is finally saved by the fat guitar lead that sits well above the rest of the mix. One drawback of this album is that the drums, at times, seem to be a bit detached from the rest of the mix, as is the case in this song. However, the album recovers with “A Head Full of Buckets”, due mainly to the satisfying and dramatic vocals by bassist and vocalist Andrew Stauffer. The cool juxtaposition of the song title itself along with the key line “My head, needs to be fed”, make this an indelible moment on the Tigerbomb album.

TigerbombAndrew Stauffer’s desperate, wailing vocals are also a strong point on “Unknown Superpowers”. From the crisp, intro guitars to the drum rudiments between the first two verses, the band leaves it all out there during one minute of this song before calming down to a steady, almost bluesy groove midway through the song. “Deft Ones” contains the best riff on the album, which starts with Andrew’s bass line and is soon synced with Nehemiah’s guitar. Overloaded guitar effects between verses and a short, outro lead highlight this song.

Much like it begins, the eight-song album finishes with strong material. A bass line borrowed from The Allman Brother’s, “Whipping Post”, commences “The Blame” before the song whips into a more intense frenzy which provides the best overall performance by drummer Isiah Stauffer. “We Deal In Lead” has a lightning fast riff and beat along with the best overall hook and message which leads one to think that this may be developed into something special in the future.

Formed in early 2010, Tigerbomb has shared the stage with groups as diverse as Jimmie’s Chicken Shack, Falcon Jones Band, the funk rock group Rufus J Fisk, and the British trio A Silent Film. Although there are some glitches with sonic quality and slight timing issues, which prevent this recording from reaching its full potential, you can see where the group is going with the material on Tigerbomb.

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Seeds and Thorns by Up the Chain album review

October 31, 2013
By Ric Albano

Seeds and Thorns by Up The ChainSeeds and Chains is an engaging new album by Philadelphia area folk artist Up the Chain. Led by front man and creator Reed Kendall, the album employs some of the most talented musicians in the Philly area for this entertaining and rewarding musical journey. There is hardly a weak moment on this eleven-track album filled with solid compositions and the pristine production of Bill Moriarty. While the music has a solid folk/rock core throughout, there are definite nods to other genres like alternative, Americana, country, and even a bit of Philly soul.

Seeds and Thorns starts with one of its strongest tracks right up top. “Seasick Sailors” was co-written by bassist Matt Wong and has a great upbeat Americana style with just a touch of a country arrangement. Lyrically, the song is a rallying cry against complacency. Musically, the song is driven by a great acoustic riff and strategic placement of electric and acoustic piano riffs along with slide and electric guitars and measured vocals. Finally, there is a true outro chorus section, which adds variety and the crowning jewel to the arrangement.

The rest of the tracks are sole compositions by Reed. “Tire Track” has a mellow, James Taylor-like approach led by electric piano of Anam Owili-Eger, a talented player who maintains his own solo career beyond Up the Chain. Anam returns with a great acoustic piano lead on “Same Story”, an otherwise acoustic folk tune which examines the struggle between restlessness and stability. Adding some contrast to this track is drummer Matt Scarano, who plays a consistent, driving, country beat while all other instrumentation remains much more mellow. Scarano’s kick adds a nice effect to the beginning of “Take Me Talking”, complimenting the line “Your past is pounding at the door”. This song also contains nice rudiments and a Caribbean bass line by Wong.

“A Ground” takes a decidedly bluesy turn during the intro with a crying guitar lead by Avery Coffee who also adds some strategic sonic candy like slide and riff-walked electric parts. The remainder of the song is pretty much an acoustic ballad with a bit of a Jim Croce vibe. “The Horse’s Course” has an interesting drum beat by Scarano and more production enhancements by Moriarty while the short diddy “Something New” contains a pleasant fiddle throughout by Kiley Ryan.

Up The ChainThe album was recorded over the course of several months at Moriarty’s new studio in the East Falls neighborhood of Philadelphia, which he calls “No Nostalgia”. The track “For to Give Away” is a definite tribute to the old-school soul known as the Sound of Philadelphia, with all the elements on full display – smooth bass, electric piano, saxophone, and most especially Kendall’s vocals, which adapt to this genre perfectly with a high-pitched croon found nowhere else on the album. This is followed by “No Sweeter Sound”, perhaps the best overall song on the later half of the album. Here the songwriting and production join at the sweet spot with layered electric guitars and a great guitar lead complimenting the interesting composition with a diminishing chord progression and waltz-like beat making for some absolutely “sweet sounds”

Kendall says he did not script the various musical parts for Seeds and Thorns, but rather started with simple ideas and grooves and let the talented musicians take it to its place. The closing medley feels the most improvised on this album. “Everything We Have” begins as a live sounding acoustic tune but eventually builds with overdubs until it feels a lot more electric. A sustained organ and bass beat provides the link into the final track “Names of Ghosts”, where you can feel some influences from Paul Simon and Jackson Browne. The consistent acoustic rhythm is complimented by long flourishes of guitar pedal effects and an almost a percussive ensemble with orchestra of guitars to end the album (save for the short live piano and vocal recording that acts as a “hidden” track.)

Kendall had been performing live since age 13 and releasing solo albums in high school. After a soul-searching journey to New Zealand he came up with the concept for the group Up The Chain and they released their 2011 full-length debut Holy, Open, Drying Road, consisting of live recordings and early demos. With Seeds and Thorns, Kendall’s music has reached a new plateau of studio production with a full band while staying true to how the simplicity of the songs as they were conceived.

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Largo Review

May 14, 2012
By Ric Albano


LargoOriginally planned to be The Hooters sixth studio album, Largo became a much larger and more complex project which involved top-notch talent from across the rock spectrum in both style and era. The album started as just another studio album for producer Rick Chertoff and the songwriting team of Rob Hyman and Eric Bazilian. Together this team had produced three albums for The Hooters along with Grammy-nominated albums for Cyndi Lauper and Joan Osbourne, both of whom would lend their talents to the Largo project.

Antonin DvorakBut soon the album grew to become more of a “concept” album on the American experience from diverse points-of-view. The main theme is based on Antonín Dvořák‘s slow-moving (or “largo”) second movement of his 9th Symphony. Throughout the album there are several different versions of “Largo”, which act as breaks to separate the other themed songs. Written in 1893 and commonly known as his “New World” Symphony, the piece was inspired by the Czech composer’s extended time in America where Dvořák became interested in the Native American music and African-American spirituals he heard in America. In December 1893, he explained how Native American music had been an influence on this symphony;

“I have not actually used any of the Native American melodies. I have simply written original themes embodying the peculiarities of the Indian music, and have developed them with all the resources of modern rhythms, counterpoint, and orchestral colour.”

Taj MahalThe album is bookmarked by instrumental versions of “Largo” performed by Irish musical group The Chieftains, with the opening track sounding more like something performed near a camp fire in the old west than traditional Celtic music. After this calm intro piece, the album breaks into “Freedom Ride” led by bluesman Taj Mahal, who provides lead vocals, harmonica, and barks between verses. Taj Mahal is a self-taught musician who incorporates elements of world music into his music and the rocker “Freedom Ride” includes bag-pipes and excellent percussive effects. He returns for two more tracks later on the album, “Needed Time” where he adds a dobro to the short porch-blues piece and “Banjoman”, which curiously has no banjo, but does include a good bass riff and an excellent, bluesy guitar lead.

David FormanJoing Taj Mahal on “Banjoman” is singer/songwriter David Forman, who lends his deep and resonant voice to seven tracks on Largo. On “Gimme a Stone”, perhaps the best track on the album, Forman shares lead vocals with Levon Helm of The Band on a song with good, upbeat overtones and lyrics about taking up the challenge against heavy odds. Another member of The Band, Garth Hudson adds the almost psychedelic instrumental “Garth Largo”, where he plays saxophone, allen organ, synthesizers, and accordion. On “Medallion” Forman shares vocals with Willie Nile in a driving trance song about a cab driver with Middle-Eastern flavor that later morphs into “The Star Spangled Banner”. The retro closer “Before the Mountains” is credited to “Little Isidore”, an alternative stage act by Forman, and has an almost Frankie Vallie-like quality. On “Disorient Express” Forman shares lead vocals with Hyman, on this unique, two part song which starts with a banjo and trance like, bass-driven rhythm and morphs into a completely different coda section lead by Hyman’s bright electric piano.

Rob HymanHyman teams up with Joan Osbourne on two duet ballads, “Cyrus In the Moonlight” and “Hand In Mine”. On the former there is persistent percussion and good piano accented by really cool tremolo effects, while the latter is phrased as a classic American folk song with subtle electric guitar effects above calm melody and instrumentation. Both of these songs have a movie soundtrack quality to them. Hyman adds his own Hammond organ instrumentsal “Vishnu Largo”, while Osborne returns towards the end of the album with a memorable lead vocal on “An Uncommon Love”, a song co-written by the legendary Carole King.

Cyndi LauperOne of the most striking moments on the whole album is Cyndi Lauper’s superb vocal performance on the bluesy ““White Man’s Melody”. Lauper, who was apparently “very pregnant” with her first child at the time, provided a classic vocal to this extended, seven-and-a-half-minute song which also has interesting instrumentation and accents, especially by the mandolin and 60s-style organ, and a great guitar lead later in the song.

A review of Largo on AMG states that it “is everything Americana should be” and “easily one of the most ambitious albums of the digital era”. But what Largo can claim in quality, it did not have in commercial and industry fortune as it got caught between major-label mergers and customer confusion over the plain “Largo” cover. However, there has long been talk of a Broadway production and a couple of the songs have become regulars by Who singer Roger Daltrey, keeping the music alive until digital versions have sprung back to life on iTunes and Amazon.com in recent years.

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RA


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The Optimist by Eric Bazilian

May 6, 2012
By Ric Albano


The Optimist by Eric BazilianThe Optimist is the debut solo album by Eric Bazilian, released in 2000. It is kind of odd to consider that this artist’s “debut” anything would come at the dawn of his fourth decade of professionally performing, writing, recording, and producing. But all of the previous recordings by Bazilian were done for acts such as Cyndi Lauper, Joan Osbourne, and of course, his primary band The Hooters. But at this point in time, that band was smack dab in the middle of a 14-year period between studio albums, with Out Of Body being released in 1993 and Time Stand Still not coming until 2007.

The Optimist is a pleasing assortment of well-crafted rock songs released on the indy Mousetrap Records label. It is clear that Bazilian’s songwriting is cut from the Lennon/McCartney cloth, but he masterfully adds many of the sonic developments in the thirty years since the Beatles breakup, right up to including some drum loops by Gota Yashiki, “The Groove Activator” who played a big part in forging the rhythm on Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill. The album is a hybrid of demo tapes dating back to 1996, many self-composed and recorded parts, and some professional mastering. Bazilian was spending his summers in Sweden with his wife’s family and recorded some of the album in his in-law’s barn on his Macintosh laptop.

The album begins with “Driving In England”, an almost-punk-like composition with an infectious drive that makes an excellent beginning to the album. The song, which was co-written by guitarist Randy Cantor, contain vocals with much grit and an air of desperation and drums by fellow-Hooter Dave Uosikkinen. Cantor also co-wrote “Gemini Yo Yo”, with another drum-fused rhythm, distant fuzz guitar, and a half-serious/half-pureness element reminiscent of Cheap Trick.

Although The Optimist is pretty solid cover to cover, there are a few gems which rise above the rest of the material. The first is “Until You Dare”, a moderate acoustic ballad with strategic electric overtones. The song’s lyrics address summoning the courage to take a chance or leap of faith and getting out of your comfort zone to make an attempt at greatness –

  “How you gonna learn how to fly when you’re so busy crawling?”

A more melodramatic, piano-led version of “Until You Dare” was recorded by for the Hooters’ Time Stand Still album in 2007.

“Hopelessly, Relentlessly” is a subdued, melancholy song, written about the end of summer with a larger allegory for life itself. It contains, perhaps, Bazilian’s best guitar work on the album. “Be My Woman” is another gem on the album with a retro sounding guitar and lyrics that explore some of history of rock n’ roll, my favorite being –

“I’ll tell you what it is with the Stones, they kind of suck without Brian Jones…”

Eric BazilianMuch of the rest of the album is a fusion of the millennial sound along with some entertaining infusion of diverse instrumentation and styles. “Bye Bye Baby”, co-written by Glenn Goss contains a saxophone driven riff with vocals that perfectly mix Tom Petty and Bob Dylan, and just a touch of Lenny Kravitz added to the blend during the choruses. It also contains a nice coda crescendo to top off the vice. The pure pop song “U.G.L.Y.” dated back to sessions in 1996 with the finished product co-written with Amanda Marshall in 1998, while the fun “Kid from Outer Space” contains some crisp, layered, and entertaining guitars and exceptional bass – all recorded by Bazilian.

“Fiddlesticks” is the type of song which could have been a big hit in different era, while the closing title song, “The Optimist” is a deeply philosophical tune written and recorded in the barn in Sweden. The CD also includes a hidden bonus track, the original 1995 demo of “One of Us” which Bazilian presented to Joan Osbourne in the studio before the song would go on to international fame and acclamation.

Aside from the “Until You Dare” inclusion, It seems like many of the same themes about time and life are continued on the Hooters next effort, Time Stand Still in 2007. Still, there is something about hearing this artist completely liberated, without consideration for input or opinion from band members, that makes it a more pure and honest effort.

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Idaho by Pete Bush & the Hoi Polloi


This review was originally published at DAMES Of PA on January 21, 2012.

Idaho by Pete Bush & Hoi PolloiPittsburgh’s Pete Bush got his start playing guitar in a hard rock band in the late 1990′s before making the radical transformation to stand-up bass in a “jazz-sex-pop” band called Salena Catalina. He next moved up to frontman when he formed Pete Bush & the Hoi Polloi, a jazz/fusion trio with whom Bush provides vocals, guitars, and various other instrumentation. Idaho was released by the group last May and adds some nice sonic additions to the base live sound. This sound is an unsual blend of jazz, rock, blues, rockabilly, and even a hint of punk. Finding a specific genre in which to market their sound has been a struggle for the band from the beginning.

Along with bassist Jesse Prentiss and drummer Christian Catone, Bush recorded the sonically adventurous Idaho in a studio owned by Jawbox’s lead singer J. Robbins in Baltimore, MD.

The 8-song album leaves no moment wasted for filler or throwaway tracks. The opener “Ceiling Mirror” starts the album off perfectly as a fusion of all the group’s styles, arranged masterfully for maximum effect of the rock parts. It gives the listener an immediate display of the range of styles present on the album. Other highlights of the album include the croning jazz ballad “Montebean”, the pleasant closing title song “Idaho”, and a couple of strongly Latin-influenced numbers, “Sacramemento” and “How Apropoe”, the latter of which is built on a choppy, electric guitar riff.

Even with the release of the album the band still looks forward to their live performances to express their passion for music. Still, Idaho simultaneously captures the rhythmic flow of a well produced studio album while maintaining a sense of spontaneous improvisation usually reserved for the live performance.

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This review was originally published at DAMES Of PA on January 21, 2012.


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Perfect 10


This review was originally published at DAMES Of PA on June 27, 2011.

Perfect Smile by The Cellarbirds Often overlooked as just a subset of The Badlees, this band may have put out one of the best recordings by a Pennsylvania artist over the past decade. Perfect Smile by The Cellarbirds is excellent through and through. It’s one of those albums that just gets better with each listen. It combines various styles and influences; simple riffs and arrangements like Tom Petty or The Byrds, complex instrumentation and experimentation of later-era Beatles, some contemporary post-grunge and modern punk elements, all along with the Springsteen-esque and smoky Americana vocals of Bret Alexander. Song sequencing is important here, the album constantly morphs along a journey of themes from love and possibilities, to the two sides of expectation, to acceptance, to the breaking point and aftermath and the fresh (or not really so fresh) start. Upon its release in 2001, it was universally acclaimed by critics but could never really catch on with widespread public support. In this sense, it has been the best kept secret of the past 10 years.

Formed in 1998 by guitarist and vocalist Alexander along with bassist Paul Smith and drummer Ron Simasek, the Cellarbirds were (and still are) all active members of the Badlees. The Badlees were signed to a major label but were facing endless delays in the release of their latest album due to corporate entanglements. The trio developed a live show, distinctly different from the Badlees, and played in between the big band’s tours and recording sessions. When Alexander and Smith opened Saturation Acres Recording Studio in 1999, the trio became the default session band for the studio, backing up many artists on their professional recordings. Finally, by the spring of 2001, the Cellarbirds recorded their first (and to date only) album, Perfect Smile.

Busy with several other projects, Perfect Smile was written and recorded in a hurried and frantic pace. According to Alexander, for 14 straight days the band would show up in the morning with no song and leave in the afternoon with a potential track. In the end, they just picked the 10 best tracks from the group and made a record. This was only possible because the group was such a tight unit live and seasoned at adapting to dynamic situations in the studio. The end result was an accurate reflection of the band’s talent as well as the studio’s production style.

“I think Perfect Smile is as good of a touchstone for the Saturation Acres vibe as anything out there…Bret Alexander”

And that “vibe” involved trying to make versatile songs that could simultaneously entertain a 5 year old with simple hooks and rhythms while still offering substance for a serious adult listener, much like the balance the Beatles so aptly struck.

The opening, title song was written by Alexander in the car on the way to the studio and recorded that very same day. Its theme was inspired by a quote from Bruce Springsteen; “The true challenge of adulthood is maintaining your ideals after you have lost your innocence”. It also contains a really cool lyric (“my heart’s a gnarled tree”) based on the Native American logic that the trees that face the hardest struggle for sunlight ultimately grow to be the strongest. Musically, the song’s backdrop is a consistently strummed 12-string with some nice decor by a Moog synth and an e-bow. It continuously builds from beginning to end and it jumps keys for the climatic third verse, something suggested by drummer Simasek.

“Uncommonly Blue” is heavily influenced by Steve Earle’s “Transcendental Blues” with a lot of retro instruments like the sitar, the accordion, and the mellotron. Lyrically it contains a mish-mash of lines from discarded songs penned by Alexander and co-writer Mike Naydock, a sort of song collage for the verse, with the brilliant “I see beauty in my mind, makes the world seem colorblind” for the chorus hook. All in all the song seems to be about writer’s block giving way to possibilities.

An experimental guitar sound introduces “Happy Home”, a song completely built in the studio through trial and error by producers Smith and Alexander, including an extreme, exploding guitar lead that shouldn’t really work but somehow does. The song’s theme is covers anger, cynicism, sarcasm, victimization, and revenge – all the happy stuff to fill the happy home.

Almost as a counter-point response to the previous song, comes the perfectly Petty-esque “Someone Nice”. Alexander, at the time, described its theme as “nice guys finish last, but be nice anyway” and claims the phrase “you’ve gotta get up off the ground, boy ’cause time won’t wait for you now” as a candidate for his own tombstone. Musically, the rhythm guitar is pure Byrds while the overdubbed guitar is pure George Harrison as it maintains the overall feel of Tom Petty, all resulting in a flowing, lush, folk-rock sound. This was originally developed as a Badlees song, but they couldn’t quite get it to work. Thankfully, it got a second life with the Cellarbirds.

A smoky room in an off-track betting parlor is the setting for the next track, “Open Ended”, written by Mike Naydock. It is about how getting through some low times can makes the good times all the more enjoyable – “You do for me what hunger does for poetry”. The song contains a slow and spacy guitar and some interesting effects on the vocals in the last verse.

Inspired by the movie American Beauty, “Lester’s Breaking Even” was written on the spot in the studio. A steady, thumping verse rhythm gives way to a grungy chorus hook. Simasek’s percussive excellence really shines through on this one while Alexander doubled up his vocals with octave falsetto harmonies and Smith played a bunch of cello tracks sweeping up a scale for the effect near the end to add true originality to the song. The overall arch of the album kind of changes with this song – Lester’s had enough of trying to be “someone nice”, living in a make-believe “happy home” and looking at the “uncommonly blue” sky of sunny possibilities. No more “perfect smile” for him – he’s taking charge and “breaking even” – marching along to his new freedom from the trappings of trying to keep up with expectations.

“Time For Pride” was written pretty quickly from scratch in the studio. It borrows its theme from several artistic sources and contains some cool new-waveish backing vocals by Smith and a lead synth riff which contribute to its overall, early-eighties feel. The melancholy and dramatic ballad “Starting Over Again” contains watery guitars on top of a rather sparse arrangement. Its overall message is about building on experiences, whether positive or negative.

With lead vocals by Paul Smith, “Any Given Day” is a rant on televangelism and hypocrisy – “blessed are the meek and feeble hard up for self-respect, blessed are my five accountants processing the checks.” The song also has a thicker, heavier feel than most of the rest of the album.

“You Annoy Me” closes Perfect Smile with a Ramones-like punk screed that uncovers and exposes false humility. It was co-written by Naydock with the band adding the “come on” bridge section in the studio. This is like a taunt – I have finally have had enough of you so I am going to lay it all out there. The “come on” chorus is like an invitation to give it right back. In the end, the band blows up all the philosophy and depth with a simple, energetic, in-your-face, garage rocker.

After recording was wrapped, the album was mixed by engineer Dave Goodermuth and released to the world. As mentioned earlier, it was less than a raving success commercially but that in no way diminishes its true quality, which is still quite evident 10 years later.

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This review was originally published at DAMES Of PA on June 27, 2011.


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This Is Cabinet, Set 1


This review was originally published at DAMES Of PA on December 27, 2010.

This Is Cabinet, Set 1A blue grass jam band from Wilkes-Barre with some virtuoso playing, Cabinet has put something together that is truly original with the live This Is Cabinet -Set 1. Recorded at the River Steet Jazz Cafe’ in Wilkes-Barre as well as venues in Erie and Cleveland, the album was produced by Bill Orner, Eric Ritter, along with the group themselves.

The sound is amazingly tight for the pace, amount of improvisation, and amount of musicians. There are six members of the band including J.P. Biondo on mandolin and vocals, Mickey Coviello on acoustic guitar and vocals, Pappy Biondo on banjo and vocals, Todd Kopec on fiddle and vocals, Dylan Skursky on bass and Jami Novak on drums. The recording is pristine for a live situation, with each instrument and voice well-repesented in the mix. It follows the band’s self-titled 2009 debut studio recording and, perhaps, proofs that Cabinet is much more effective as a live band.

The album starts with a medley “Tower/Salt Creek” which establishes the undeniable blue grass backdrop while also giving hints that there is something a little more here. In the instrumental “Treesap”, the band interjects a strategic dose of reggae rhythms while the intense, long jam “Coalminers” has some theatrics and talks of digging and digging all day”, in an almost nineties grunge-style manner. The nearly nine minute instrumental “Shifty Shaft” closes the album, leaving the listener hungry for more, as a member announces “We’ll be right back” at the close of the song. Back soon with This Is Cabinet – Set 2? In fact, Coviello has stated that he hopes this is, in fact, the first of a series of albums.

This may be by design, as the group intentionally books sparsely in their home Scranton/Wilkes-Barre region to assure that all their shows are a true “event”. The group is, in many ways, reminiscent of seventies virtuosos Little Feat and The Charlie Daniels Band. But their is also something really original and edgy about Cabinet and I feel we’ll be hearing much more from them.

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This review was originally published at DAMES Of PA on December 27, 2010.


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Two States


This review was originally published at DAMES Of PA on November 5, 2009.

Love Is Rain by The BadleesIf you are looking for a fluffy, happy review of the new CD by The Badlees, stop reading now. The band’s new release, Love Is Rain, is flawed. The first of these flaws are right up front and immediate. Now, we realize that the art of song sequencing is evaporating with the advent of digital downloads, but as consummate professionals these guys should know that you start off with some of your stronger material. That is not the case here as the first two songs, boilerplate pop songs, are perhaps the weakest of the album.

A few songs down the road are a pair of tunes that have been kicking around the local scene for several years now – “Don’t Ever Let Me Down” and “Well Laid Plans”. Each of these had featured guitarist and primary songwriter Bret Alexander on vocals in their original form, but each have been reconstructed as Badlees songs by dropping in lead vocals by front man Pete Palladino. For us, as local music fans, this seemed like an odd thing to do and begged the question – why?

Although Palladino is the lead vocalist for most of the songs, the true “voice” on the album comes from Bret Alexander. Since the last Badlees release in 2002, Alexander has continued to compose and perform as a solo act as well as with various musical arrangements. It has become clear that he was the driving force behind the Badlees’ success of the 90’s and has become even more refined in his songwriting and arrangements this decade.

But if Alexander is the heart and soul of the Badlees, what is Palladino – the hair and teeth? And, as such, was it preordained that this new album have a quota of Palladino-fronted tunes? Well, it’s not quite that simple. The truth is that this album may, in fact, contain some of Palladino’s finest performances of any Badlees album.

This is most evident in the song “Anodyne”, a shining example of the combo of pop and rock that has made the Badlees so successful in the first place. Palladino’s powerful yet controlled vocal shines brightest on this tune co-written by longtime collaborator, Mike Naydock. It is a perfect concoction – enough 90’s style pop for “that” crowd and enough thought provoking lyrics for “this” crowd – coupled with the rare art of the improvised coda (never has “fading away” sounded so good) that ranks this Badlees song with some of the elites of their past.

This brings us back to the two “do-overs”. The ethereal soundscape of “Don’t Ever Let Me Down” with its appregiated piano riffs and quasi-rap lyrics is a gem unlike any other. Still a fine song with Palladino on vocals, we contend that this was better in its original Alexander-led form. “Well Laid Plans”, upon further review, is a better fit for Palladino’s vocal skills and is a solid and entertaining pop song.

“Radio at Night” is another fine Naydock collaboration that perhaps should have led off the album as it is a nostalgic nod to the Badlees own past. On the surface happy-go-lucky, deeper listening will uncover a tinge of melancholy, a reflective tone that says, “the past isn’t so bad – embrace it and reminisce a bit”.

Then there is the other side of the album – the other “state” if you will – that includes several Alexander-led songs, starting with “Drive Back Home”. Here the album takes a quantum leap as this powerful and emotional song paints a stunning portrait of the journey of life –

“…All my life is like a drive back home/there ain’t no where that you can run to/there ain’t no where that you can go…”

The past is inescapable, always there and part of who you are – a universal message that especially rings true with the mature listener.

“Part of Rainbow” and “We Will” are probably the two most exotic songs ever included on a Badlees album. “Part of Rainbow” is reminiscent of 60’s psychedlia with Harrison-esque guitars, while “We Will” arrives like an early Glenn Campbell tune with an AM radio vibe and use of strings as creative and cutting-edge as Johnny Cash’s use of horns on “Ring of Fire”. Both of these songs feature guest musicians (Aaron Fink on the former, Nick Van Wyck on the latter) and both contain a tinge of “social commentary” that Alexander delivers perfectly – avoiding the trap by playing neither propagandist nor apologist nor preacher – using philosophy and poetry to state his point.

The next couple of songs are a bit lighter on substance, but heavy on style and soundscapes (but the similarities end there). “Way Back Home” reaches the band’s heavier edge and includes driving rhythms and another outstanding vocal performance by Palladino, while “Starthrower” is a melodramatic waltz through Americana sung by Alexander.

All these diverse roads of songs ultimately lead to the twelfth track “Two States”, which is quite simply a masterpiece. Deep does not aptly describe this – to write this song was down-right courageous. It brings the listener to a place remote yet familiar. Unlike the up-front, soft, nurturing love of a mother, there’s the sterner love of a father. Something we possess but rarely tap into. Further, it explores the transformation and revelation we all go through, from a child, “living in a world where heroes never fall” to the old man living in a world where “heroes have all fallen…”

We would be remiss if we failed to mention the absolutely flawless quality of the production of this album as well as the pristine timing and execution of drummer Ron Simasek and bassist Paul Smith – the world’s greatest rhythm section. Further, the ambient sounds that flavor this album throughout are sonic candy to music lovers. The instrumentation and arrangement by producer Bret Alexander are simply masterful. This last point is best illustrated again in “Two States”, where he provides an incredible mix using authentic, acoustic guitar, mandolin, and banjo.

The song sequencing in the second half of the record – in contrast to our opinion of the opening sequence- is masterful. Following the heart-wrenching climax of “Two States” comes the light-hearted, McCartney-ish “Alright Now”, which provides the ride off into the sunset as life goes on. As this musical odyssey concludes, the serious listener is left in amazement at the transformation that takes place between the ears, from the beginning of Love Is Rain until the end.

Yes, we stick to the assertion that this album is flawed. It kicks off with a couple weak tracks, uses the wrong vocalist on another, and, heck, even its title sounds like gibberish absent the proper qualifying context (…struggle is the thunder/Love is rain…). But this lack of perfection should not distort the fact that this may well be one of the finest musical pieces to come out of our region – ever. We do not claim this lightly and we encourage all music lovers to buy this, listen, and send us your own assessments.

In the past we were amazed by how a local band was able to produce an album like River Songs that sounded as good as anything put out by the major labels. Now, we believe the Badlees have put out an album that is miles ahead of your typical production anywhere.

In the past Bret Alexander’s songwriting has been compared to that of Steve Earle, Tom Petty, and Bruce Springsteen. Now, we believe that these comparisons may no longer be relevant. The only one you can now compare Bret Alexander to is himself.

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This review was originally published at DAMES Of PA on November 5, 2009.


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