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CD Reviews – September 2014

MAMA CORN – HOLD THAT CROOKED LINE (no label) Mama Corn introduced their brand of ‘Allegheny Mountain Bluegrass,’ a sound rooted in traditional bluegrass and folk, on their self-titled 2011 first full-length CD. On the follow up, Hold That Crooked Line, the Blair County-based quintet picks up where they left off and hones their style and sound; mixing colorful original songs with select remakes through 14 tracks. All five band members contributed songs to the album, and each brings a different flavor and slant to the mix that keeps the disc captivating throughout. With his yodeling chorus, dobro and harmonica player Johnny Stevens prefers country life over city life on the whimsical “About a Minute Ago,” recovers quickly from a breakup on the catchy “Another Couple Days,” and salutes a yearly bluegrass festival party in the northern PA Wilds with “Smoked Country Jam.” Waxing introspective, guitarist Bruce Forr contemplates the future on “Someday Knock on Wood” and temptation on “Holdin’ Pen.” Upright bassist Bryan Homan contributes the obligatory murder and hanging song on the album (almost every bluegrass album has one); recalling local history, “The Hanging of Alfred Andrews” documents a famous 1889 Centre County murder case. Mandolinist Chuck Cox also offers a local history lesson with “Red Arrow Train,” his ode to the tragic 1947 passenger train wreck near Altoona that claimed 27 lives. Banjo picker Jeremy Nelson celebrates the life of a bluegrass whiskey drinker with “Old Whiskey Still,” and opens the album by bringing to life the picturesque “Shenandoah Mountain Tops,” a song penned by his father, Ben Nelson. Mama Corn also presents their take on State College native Si Kahn’s blue-collar ode “Aragon Mill,” offers hopeful advice on their serious-toned remake of the traditional “Keep on the Sunny Side,” and closes the disc with their joyous update of Gus Cannon’s “Walk Right In.” The performances are enthusiastic and heartfelt, and listeners can sense that Mama Corn had a blast creating this album. The songs and lyrics are catchy and interesting, the voices are in great form, and the instrumental execution is fast-firing and tight. Produced by Mama Corn and recorded and engineered by Bill Filer at Audible Images Recording in Port Matilda, Hold That Crooked Line flows together smoothly and sounds crisp and vibrant, with all instruments and voices shining brightly in the mix. After the first album set the table, Hold That Crooked Line offers a hearty meal of personable, likeable Pennsylvania bluegrass and folk; and reveals more of the personalities and nuances that converge into the jovial and talented presence that is Mama Corn. This album should win the group many new followers, or as the band calls them, ‘corn-stalkers.’ (The CD can be purchased through the group’s website, www.mamacornbluegrass.com.)

MFG – DON’T KILL THE MOMENT (Frontbros Records) MFG is an acronym monicker for a new studio collaboration featuring three well-known central PA music scene names. The ‘M’ and ‘G,’ guitarist/singer John McKelvey and singer/guitarist/keyboardist Bobby Gates, have worked together for more than three decades as part of Altoona band institution The Front, while John and the ‘F,’ drummer Skip Fisher, have collaborated more recently in the band Issues. The trio’s first MFG album, Don’t Kill the Moment, offers a blend of rock and pop styles over its eleven tracks, allowing the musicians to flex their creativity and musicianship over some uncharted terrain. Brit-pop styles inform a lot of the album, including the disc opener “Lauren,” an ode to Gates’ daughter that first surfaced as a Front original during the early 1990s. Also showing some British pop influence are the upbeat “By My Side” and “To Love Again,” the darker-toned “Time and Tide” and the boisterous “Neverland.” The title track, “Don’t Kill the Moment,” offers a bright encouragement to make love last, while guest keyboardist Phil Steele’s arrangement escalates the lightly-funky “Party Time” into a dance floor rocker. “Klepto” steams with punk rocking vinegar, while the reflective “Fire Tower Road” hints at Springsteen-esque storytelling. Buoyed by McKelvey’s chunky riffs and Fisher’s beats, “Good Against Me” channels metal-toned aggression, while “You’re Not In My Arms” ends the disc on an angrier, distrustful note. The songs largely work, with simple choruses that hang around in the cranium after several listens, plus relatable and easy-to-digest lyrics. The performances are solid throughout the disc, as all three musicians know their turf and fulfill their respective roles well. The presentation is relaxed and even playful at times, with Gates’ voice seizing the moment and riding each song’s mood. Besides the aforementioned Phil Steele’s cameo on keys, guest Rogan Allen contributes guitar and bass on two respective tracks. Produced by MFG and Rick Claar, Don’t Kill the Moment sounds clean and cavernous, with each song sounding broad and deep. Fisher’s drums could sound stronger in a few spots, but overall this is a solid, cohesive set. After establishing themselves through their well-known previous band institutions, McKelvey, Fisher and Gates turn a new page with MFG, and Don’t Kill the Moment charts a new, fresh and listenable course. (The CD can be obtained through the website www.mfgband.com.)

BAND BURRAGE – HEAL (no label) Now based in Bellefonte and teaching music and arts at Penn State, drummer/composer Ronnie Burrage has enjoyed a storied career performing alongside such jazz greats as Wayne Shorter, Sonny Rollins, Pat Metheny, Jaco Pastorius and more. The latest album by his group project Band Burrage, Heal takes listeners on a wide-ranging, freewheeling jazz-based journey. Also featuring guitarist Eric Slaughter, bassist Nimrod Speaks, alto sax player Rick Tate and singer Shenel Johns; Band Burrage uses modern jazz as the launching pad to explore a variety of flavors, including experimental and fusion jazz, R&B, hip-hop, funk and even rock over Heal’s eleven tracks. Although not a concept album per se, healing is a prominent theme during Heal, with the mostly instrumental compositions communicating an overall message of calm before and recovery after the storm, unity and happiness. The storm is the racial tensions that fueled the equal rights turbulence through the 1960s; perhaps the centerpiece of the album, the bold “A Time in Amerikkka” sonically depicts that turbulence with an opening hard rock/funk fusion arrangement, leading to a climactic transition into a more peaceful homestretch featuring passages and samples of Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Also captivating is the two-track combination of “In Nebular Nexus” into “Flight Endless,” Burrage’s space jazz portrayal of the cosmic creation of the universe as a clean canvas ready for painting creative adventures. The following track, “Movement,” offers a tranquil Latin-toned arrangement with Johns’ scat-vocal accompaniment, signifying worldly calmness. The vocal “Baptism” and rhythmically diverse title track “Heal” are odes to healing after the storm. With its angular tropical jazz vibe, the disc-opening track “Martinique” reflects on a festive island destination. Burrage takes the spotlight on the expansive disc-ending exercise “Mr. Drums,” with his elaborate drum rudiments and arrangements weaving together a sonic adventure of tempo and chord shifts, scat singing melodies, and unpredictable twists and turns. The arrangements are inventive and adventurous, the melodies are intricate and engaging, and instrumental prowess rides at a constant high throughout the album, with Burrage and his cast free to improvise and explore. Produced by Burrage and recorded and mastered at several studios, the album flows along smoothly and sounds clean and pristine. Heal is a sonic joyride that reveals more nuances with each listen; it’s an impressive set by jazz adventurers who clearly know their turf. (The CD can be obtained through Ronnie Burrage’s website, http://ronnieburrage.biz.)

AMERICAN BABIES – KNIVES AND TEETH (The Royal Potato Family) Formed in 2007, American Babies is the band vehicle for singer/songwriter/guitarist Tom Hamilton to explore, experiment and indulge his song creations. On their latest full-length album, Knives and Teeth, Hamilton shares feelings and observations on a myriad of life situations, set against a multi-tiered musical backdrop that fuses together rock, folk, punk, worldbeat, blues and more. Hamilton offers an edgy, witty writing and singing style that recalls classic Lou Reed, Bob Dylan and Tom Petty; and his wordsmith skills successfully communicate the personal messages and themes conveyed through the disc’s ten songs. Coloring the songs is Hamilton’s core cast of keyboardist Adam Flicker and drummer David Butler, plus a number of guest performers and backing singers. Opening the disc on a hopeful note is the worldbeat-toned “When I Build My Fortune,” a song about sharing lessons learned. The folksy “This Thing Ain’t Going Nowheres” ponders accountability and the concept of ‘no deposit-no return,’ while the rootsy “They Sing ‘Old Time Religion’” examines spirituality and setting one’s own moral compass. American Babies plays the tattletale on the shadowy “”Cold Blooded,” dodges being the target on the rollicking “Bullseye Blues,” and rails against mass media agendas on the harder-hitting “Fire Sale.” The melodies are catchy and captivating, and American Babies changes up the flavors for each track, keeping the disc interesting from start to end. Produced by Hamilton, the songs are cleverly arranged, and the mixes are balanced and busy for each song. Knives and Teeth is an engaging listen, as American Babies provides edgy, intelligent songs and multiple angles of attack. (The CD can be obtained through the group’s website, www.americanbabies.net.)

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