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CD Reviews – August 2014

By: Jim Price

THE CLARKS – FEATHERS & BONES (Clarkhouse Entertainment) Closing in on three decades together as a band, Pittsburgh rock music institution The Clarks still are capable of showing a few new wrinkles in their sound, evidenced by their ninth studio album, Feathers & Bones. Reliably still the foursome of singer/guitarist Scott Blasey, guitarist/singer Rob James, bassist/singer Greg Joseph and drummer/singer David Minarek; The Clarks still generate that comfortably familiar blend of catchy, punchy rock and acoustic tones that fans have grown accustomed to over the first eight albums. But continuing where their last album, 2009’s Restless Days, left off; The Clarks again dabble in country flavors as well, and mix a few unexpected twists into Feathers & Bones’ eleven tracks. The group’s songwriting is more personal, with lyrics tying into themes of family and personal loss. Penned by Joseph, the opening title track “Feathers & Bones” comes to terms with the loss of a loved one, as does the album’s closing track,” the slow-evolving “Broken Dove.” Several songs deal with stardom and the limelight; the rural-toned “Irene” tells a tale of innocence lost to stardom, the hard-charging “Map of the Stars” plots out the map to music scene conquest, and another country-toned ode, “Magazine,” reflects during the ride back down the hill from the limelight. The Clarks still deliver plenty of punch, evidenced by the explosive choruses of “All or Nothing,” the raucous mischief of “Nothing Good Happens After Midnight,” and the boisterous country-rock of “Take Care of You.” As expected, The Clarks execute like a well-tuned machine, and the performances are strong and inspired. Guest pedal steel player Gary Jacob and keyboardist/accordionist Skip Sanders flesh out the more rural-sounding moments on the album, and guest singers Joy Brown, Bernice Wilkerson and Noah Minarek add depth to the vocals. Produced by Sean McDonald, Feathers & Bones sounds clean, balanced, and ultimately – like a Clarks album. This group has been around long enough to understand their turf and how to expand upon it; and with Feathers & Bones, The Clarks retain their signature style and sound, while freshening it and keeping it invigorating. In the best tradition of their past output, this is another feel-good Clarks outing. (The CD can be obtained through the group’s website, www.clarksonline.com.)

BETTY JO ROCKWELL – TRANSFORMATION (Canadian American Records) A longtime performer and music teacher who calls Shepherdstown, West Virginia her home base, Betty Jo Rockwell demonstrates a jubilant voice and love for life over the course of her latest album, Transformation. Atop a changing platform of styles ranging from folk, pop, rock and country; Rockwell demonstrates a strong, clear voice that borders on operatic, exuding a bold vibrato and abundant passion over the album’s dozen tracks. She also contributes acoustic guitar, flute, bells and other percussion to flavor the songs, and is supported by husband Scott electric and acoustic guitars, bass, banjo, drums and percussion; plus backing singers Gena Rockwell and Jade Pope, and keyboardists Terry Tucker and Joey Welz (who produced three songs on the album and who owns the album’s label, Canadian American Records). Her lyrics are often optimistic and hopeful, and she frequently offers wisdom for living life. The uplifting opening track, “Living in the Present,” encourages listeners to embrace the here and now, while the punchy reggae-driven “Beautiful” appreciates the world in its glory, and “Listen” invites people to stop and pay attention to that world around them. With its slight retro Byrds flavor and gentle flute midsection, “Love Always Prevails” offers a hopeful message, while the title track “Transformation” closes the disc with hope for the future. Rockwell tackles edgier themes as well; pondering the soul of stardom on the harder-rocking “Famous Rock Star,” exploring instantaneous change on the Latin-toned rocker “Desperation Shuffle,” coming to terms with splitsville on the country-flavored “It’s All for the Best Anyway,” and considering reality vs. illusion on “Lights, Camera, Fire!” The melodies are catchy, variable and engaging; and Rockwell’s voice shines clearly through all of them. The arrangements serve each song, and the variety of styles, instruments and vocal harmonies keeps this a fresh listening experience throughout. Betty Jo Rockwell’s Transformationoffers a vibrant welcome into her musical world, and its simple and thoughtful words make it a pleasant listening experience. (The CD can be obtained through the website www.bettyjorockwell.com.)

 

PURE CANE SUGAR – LIVE AT THE STATE THEATRE (no label) State College’s Pure Cane Sugar quickly forged an identity based on captivating folk-rock arrangements and exceptional two- and three-part vocal harmonies; and drove those qualities home convincingly on their 2010 debut studio CD, Come Back Home. But anybody who has seen this group onstage can attest that their live show delivers even more convincing magic, and Pure Cane Sugar captured that magic during a special concert at State College’s State Theatre on April 10, 2013. Through 15 tracks, Live at the State Theatre documents that night, and displays Pure Cane Sugar in their full glory. Spirited, soulful lead vocals and delicious vocal harmonies from Natalie Race, guitarist Kate Twoey and percussionist/pianist Molly Countermine are constant; making this disc a must for any fans of female voices in unison. But arrangements and musicianship are also big highlights here, as the ladies and bandmates Daryl Branford on drums and Jason “Junior” Tutwiler on guitar weave captivating arrangements on their Americana-geared original songs, plus offer inventive updates on a number of time-tested classics. The group breathes extra life into songs from Come Back Home such as “No Regard” and the funky update of “My Favorite Song,” and introduce exciting new numbers such as “Alone Again,” the punchy “Gimme Some of the Good Stuff,” the driving “Leg Up,” “Ghost of You and Me,” “Let it Ride” and “Breathe.” The group gives a makeover to “Babblefish,” a song Countermine wrote and previously recorded with Maxwell Strait. And Pure Cane Sugar stamps their signature on several familiar classics, offering innovative takes on Neil Young’s “The Needle and the Damage Done,” Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” Gillian Welch’s “Scarlet Town,” Gregg Allman’s “Midnight Rider” and Stephen Stills’ (Buffalo Springfield’s) “For What It’s Worth.” Fleshing out the arrangements and giving extra musical spice to them are a number of special guests, including Daniel Collins on fiddle, Jason McIntyre on guitar and mandolin, Corry Drake on bass, Cory Neidig (Grain) on banjo, James Harton (Miss Melanie and the Valley Rats) on keys, and Dave Staab on bongos. The performances are strong throughout, as Pure Cane Sugar gave it all to the audience on this special night, and the audience’s responses seal the deal with immediate and strong applause. Recorded by Curtis Craig, and mixed and mastered by Bill Filer at Audible Images Recording, Live at the State Theatre sounds clear and balanced, and as pristine as live performance recordings are likely to sound. Live at the State Theatre not only captures the essence of what Pure Cane Sugar’s live performance is all about, but also serves to alert listeners to what a special entity this group has become. This disc is the next best thing to actually attending a Pure Cane Sugar live performance. (The CD is available at shows, or through CDBaby, www.cdbaby.com.)

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