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CD Reviews – June 2014

THE STRAYERS – THE STRAYERS (no label) The Strayers – Bill and Denise – were married in 2003, and started making music together six years later; with Bill playing guitar, and Denise taking up accordion. Both sing. They brought aboard percussionist Josh Troup to round out the trio as they recorded their self-titled debut album last fall. The Strayers’ blend of acoustic guitar, accordion and soft percussion immediately gives them their own distinctive folk/Americana style and sound over the disc’s ten tracks; six original songs and four interpretations. Produced and mixed by Mark Ross (Miss Melanie and the Valley Rats) and Noah Figlin (The Nightcrawlers), The Strayers has a simple, rustic quality to it; with Denise’s prominent accordion groan providing a constant and soothing underscore to the melodies. Those melodies are engaging, as The Strayers sing about personal experiences and observations along life’s journey. Displaying a rugged, hearty singing style, Bill shares lessons learned on such numbers as “Remind Me I’m Kind” and “Sometimes the Sometimes,” and asserts his resolve on “I’m Not Running.” On “Things Got the Best of Me,” he repents for a moment of haste. “Nothing’s Gonna Change” shares frustration over the troubled state of today’s society and world, while “On My Way” is more hopeful in tone. Denise shares her cautious and modest singing style on two of the group’s remakes; the Avett Brothers’ “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise,” and a catchy folk spin on the Divinyls’ “I Touch Myself.” The performances are honest and heartfelt, and the vibe is tranquil and informal; the listener can sense the relaxed, comfortable atmosphere that went into this recording. The Strayers provide a unique and memorable folk-based sound on their debut; a captivating set that sets the table for what this group has to offer, and establishes a foundation for them to explore from. (The CD can be obtained through the group’s website, www.thestrayers.com.)

MISS MELANIE AND THE VALLEY RATS – YOU’RE ALL I GOT (no label) Miss Melanie and the Valley Rats exploded onto the Pennsylvania blues scene three years ago; introducing the fiery and emotionally-charged voice of singer and namesake Melanie Morrison Ziegler. Setting the table with their 2011 half-studio, half-live debut Slow Down, the group further defines and expands their blues horizons on their sophomore studio album, You’re All I Got. Again, Miss Melanie is front and center throughout the disc’s ten tracks, flexing her vocal range and exuding a broad variety of passion and emotion with every note. She owns every song she touches; pushing the highs higher on the rousing disc opener “Tell Me Where It’s At” and the slow blues of the title track “You’re All I Got,” growling deeper on the rowdy motorcycle-themed joyride “Let’s Ride,” getting playful on the alcohol ode “Whiskey & Me,” and offering reserve and reverence on the beautiful disc-ending treatment of “Amazing Grace.” Helping Miss Melanie shine is the band surrounding her, as they skillfully support her performance with appropriate mood-setting backdrops. Guitarist Mark Ross, keyboardist Rev. James Harton and drummer Matt Zelenz provide the perfect blend of tones and intensity to color and shape each song. Ross styles and profiles on his guitar strings during punchier numbers like “Lookin’ for a King Bee” and the jump blues of “Good Man,” and he and Harton provide the dynamic peaks and valleys to enhance the moodiness of James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.” Harton’s organ groan ranges from soft to boisterous, and his gentle accordion tones color the Tex-Mex-flavored “Promise of Dawn.” Several guests help out along the way, including sax players Doug Bernstein and Tom Gallagher, and bass players Rene Witzke and Pat McGinnis. Recorded, mixed and mastered by Bill Filer at Audible Images Recording Studio in Stormstown and produced by Theo Wesley Maxwell, You’re All I Got sounds clean, balanced and polished; with Miss Melanie’s voice and all the instrumental ingredients standing clear and distinct. You’re All I Got is the creation of a focused, seasoned band, as Miss Melanie and the Valley Rats show their mastery on a variety of blues tones and flavors. (The CD can be obtained through the group’s website, www.missmelanieandthevalleyrats.com.)

DAVID UOSIKKINEN’S IN THE POCKET – SESSIONS: ESSENTIAL SONGS OF PHILADELPHIA (no label) Known as the drummer for one of Philadelphia’s most famous rock band exports, The Hooters; David Uosikkinen has assembled an all-star cast of Philadelphia-based musicians to form his project, In The Pocket. On Sessions: Essential Songs of Philadelphia, Uosikkinen and In The Pocket celebrate Philadelphia’s rich musical heritage by updating ten songs either created by the city’s musicians or recorded in Philadelphia; and a portion of proceeds from the album’s sale benefits Philadelphia’s Settlement Music School. The cast of performers here is vast; including Uosikkinen and his Hooters bandmates Eric Bazilian, Rob Hyman, Fran Smith Jr. and John Lilley; as well as Scandal singer Patty Smyth, Tommy Conwell, Jeffrey Gaines, Schoolly D and many more. The songs targeted on Sessions cover a wide swath of Philly music history and are all given upbeat treatments, resulting in a joyous and celebratory vibe throughout the album. Two of the most well-known songs are Todd Rundgren creations; the rousing disc-opening version of Nazz’s 1968 chestnut “Open My Eyes” with Jeffrey Gaines singing lead, and the Cliff Hillis-fronted remake of Rundgren’s 1972 solo hit “I Saw the Light.” Another clear highlight is the rock-infused update of Trammps’ 1977 disco-era hit “Disco Inferno,” featuring lead singer Graham Alexander, midsong rapping by Schoolly D, and backing vocals from Richie and Charlie Ingui of the Soul Survivors (known for their 1967 hit “Expressway to Your Heart”). Patty Smyth provides the voice on In The Pocket’s update of the A’s 1981 minor hit “A Woman’s Got the Power.” Early Philadelphia rock’n’roll is remembered with the Tommy Conwell-fronted version of The Dovells’ 1963 hit “You Can’t Sit Down.” The musicians pay homage to Philadelphia rocker and hitmaker Robert Hazard by revisiting his 1983 song “Change Reaction,” and they recall early 1970s group The American Dream by covering their minor hit “I Ain’t Searchin.’” And two Hooters numbers are updated; the group’s 1980 song “Soon You’ll Be Gone,” which pays tribute to departed band members John Kuzma and Bobby Woods; and the disc-ending impassioned rendition of “Beat Up Guitar.” The performances are vibrant and spirited, as the assembled musicians put heart and soul into their celebration of their city’s musical heritage. The sound is full and edgy, allowing the energy of each remake to shine. Sessions offers an exciting listening experience as well as a Philadelphia music history lesson. Here’s hoping it’s just the first of more such chapters recalling Philly’s rich music tradition. (The CD can be obtained through the website www.songsinthepocket.org.)

GHOST OF WAR – ONLY DEATH IS REAL (no label) Since their formation in 2010, Gettysburg’s Ghost Of War has made their presence felt on the mid-Atlantic metal and rock scene, performing at several major festivals and serving as backing band during recent East Coast tour swings by Metal Church singer Ronnie Munroe and Anthrax’s Neil Turbin. Ghost Of War’s debut CD, Only Death Is Real, presents their terse statement of purpose; mixing classic, power and thrash metal fireworks through nine songs. Guitarist Thane Farace, bassist Gary Daniels and drummer Jim Mathis provide the instrumental thunder and aggression behind singer Ronnie Peterson, who combines full-bodied vocal power and range with a savage bark. Following the introductory doomsday interlude “This Is Not a Test,” Ghost Of War lays down the law with rampaging Slayer-ish power metal on the title track disc-opener “Only Death Is Real” and the multi-speed “Heaven’s Burning,” and they also turn up the aggression during “Falling into Eternity” and “Absolute Nothing.” The group recalls classic Ronnie Dio-era Black Sabbath with darker-toned rockers like “Beautiful Lies” and “Future of the Past,” and conjures an Ozzy-like acoustic-geared ballad on “She.” Ghost Of War also gives power metal makeovers to two classics, their hammering take on The Crazy World of Arthur Brown’s 1968 hit “Fire,” and a full-throttled rendition of Grand Funk Railroad’s “We’re An American Band” to slam the exclamation point on the disc. The performances are tight and powerful with the band clicking on all cylinders, and Peterson exudes a commanding voice and presence throughout the disc. The mix is balanced and full, and enables Ghost Of War to show their teeth and sharp edge. Ghost Of War connects with the jaw on Only Death Is Real, as they tap traditional classic and power metal influences and integrate them into a brash and bold direction all their own. (The CD can be obtained through the group’s website, www.ghostofwararmy.com.)

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