BLUES EVOLUTION – INSPIRED (Inner Vision Recordings) First formed in 1990, Blues Evolution is a studio project collaboration between Pittsburgh native, singer and songwriter Elexus Quinn and Johnstown-based guitarist and musical director Ziggy True. Their second CD, Inspired, offers a sparkling set of classic-geared blues, jazz and R&B sounds. From their launching pad of blues, Quinn and True explore different sonic tapestries, tapping various corners of the blues spectrum, from early swing and jazz to gospel to electric blues. The melodies are catchy, and the song arrangements sophisticated; topped by Quinn’s hearty growl, which recalls classic Ray Charles and Louis Armstrong. Helping to bring this music to life is an all-star cast of musicians from western PA plus an additional guest with international notoriety. Bekka Bramlett, the daughter of 1970s hitmaking duo Delaney & Bonnie Bramlett, contributes backing vocals on a hard-driving update of Herman Brood’s “Saturday Night” and duets with Quinn on the boisterous, gospel-driven “In the Name of the Father.” Other guests include longtime Johnstown-based drum master Chuck Kerrigan on six tracks; the bass player stable of Scott Jeffreys, Randy Rutherford, Bill Smith, Steve Spack, Andrew Woodson and Max Everzen; keyboardist and co-engineer Dave Villani; a large brass contingent including western PA contributors Tom MacDonald, Greg Maiocco and Jen Shuty; and a number of backing singers including Johnstown’s Denise Canby. The album begins with a 1930s/40s jazz/blues tone with “Don’t Lose Your Mind,” with Quinn’s growl recalling Cab Calloway. Blues Evolution delivers R&B on the title song “Inspiration” and the uptempo remake of John Miles’ “Out of the Cradle.” They explore a variety of blues flavors; such as the bold “MU Blues,” southern blues on “The Blues Was in Their Souls,” and gospel blues on “When They Seal the Coffin in My Grave.” And jazz flavors shine on two versions of “Somebody’s Everything.” The performances are tasteful and inspired, with Quinn singing each song for keeps with a myriad of emotion, and the contributions of his instrumental cast shaping and supporting each song. Recorded at several studios including Altoona’s Data Music Services and Johnstown’s Fabulous Blue Room, the overall quality of Inspired is clean and full, masterfully mixed to enable all of the components of Blues Evolution’s sound to sparkle. Inspired is inspired, and a tasty celebration of American blues. (The CD can be obtained through Blues Evolution’s website, www.bluesevolution.com.)
MATT OTIS & THE SOUND – MATT OTIS & THE SOUND (no label) After three solo albums, Bedford-based singer/songwriter Matt Otis returns with a full band, Matt Otis & the Sound, and their self-titled album. Now flanked by keyboardist/bassist Sean Cogan, violinist/bassist Johnny Bayush and drummer Charlie McClanahan, Otis explores a range of folk-based rock/pop flavors over the disc’s dozen tracks. The full band’s impact is immediate, as both Cogan and Bayush generate additional texture and mood with their timely flourishes and fills throughout the album. As with his previous work, Otis muses about a variety of thought-provoking and observational themes about the human condition, utilizing clever wordplays to drive his philosophical and spiritual messages home. A number of songs touch on different aspects of human behavior, with Otis offering his own takes on them; on the upbeat “Make,” for instance, he tells listeners to find love within themselves instead of searching for it from external sources. The leadoff track “Take Me Home” addresses the desire to reboot one’s life and start over, while the disco beat-toned “Down, Down, Down” celebrates finding a personal passion. Other songs involve rebounding from life’s pitfalls; “Darkness” comes to terms with sudden heartbreak, “Disease” proposes letting go of internal negativity and hatred to escape the loneliness it produces, “Bones” displays empathy for others experiencing emotional pain, and “You Will Know” with its gang shout choruses celebrates that moment of self-realization and personal healing. On a more playful note, the whimsical “Karma” warns of just rewards for infidelity, and the album finishes with a fleshed-out update of “The Most Important Thing” from Otis’ previous album, Life Love Death. Otis again displays his knack for elaborate yet catchy song hooks, and arrangements that most effectively bring those melodies to life. He gives his most passionate singing performance yet, running the gamut of emotions from gentle to intense. The musicianship is strong throughout the disc and serves to support each melody, and the overall mix and production allows that musicianship to shine. Matt Otis & the Sound is Otis’ next step forward, as he again raises the bar on his blend of songcraft, imagination and creativity. (The CD can be obtained through the website www.mattotismusic.com.)
WINE OF NAILS – WONk THYSELF (Attack on Culture) It is said that no wine will be served before its time…For central Pennsylvania musical adventurers Wine Of Nails, more than a dozen years had passed since their last recorded sojourn, 2001’s On and Beyond. Titled both as a play on the acronym of the group’s name and a reversal of half the phrase “know thyself,” their long-awaited third longplayer WONk Thyself finds Wine Of Nails again pushing the creative envelope, throwing out the genre rulebook and following their collective muses into uncharted territories on the musical landscape. Guitarist/singer John Charney, bassist Scott Jeffries and drummer Domenick Peruso explore a wide expanse of musical turf, incorporating elements of rock, jazz, ambient, international and other forms of music into often expansive, colorful and unpredictable adventures. The group deploys intricate arrangements, oddball time signatures, atmospheric effects and frequent tempo shifts into the fray to keep things continually intriguing and engaging. Breaking with tradition, vocals take a more prominent role on this Wine Of Nails offering, with Charney barking lead voice off the bat on the abrupt hard rocker “The Blight of the Emerald Isle.” The group also sings and chants on the tropical-toned “Eleuthera,” and incorporates vocals into the expansive 11-minute-plus epic adventure “I Walk Alone.” Another vocal number, “Fit Right In,” serves as the message piece of the set as it celebrates the “cult of the real” and heralds those souls who boldly step outside of the box to follow their own muse. The instrumental pieces are dazzling as well; “Enygma” utilizes tricky time signatures and abrupt breaks to add thrills to its basic melody line, while “Dibattito” presents instrumental discourse and argument, with all three musicians playing against and off one another. Another expansive exercise, “Starlit Tippietoes,” elaborates on themes first suggested on “Holy Hoptoes!” from Charney’s 2006 solo album Be Water. The trio’s instrumental feats mesmerize and captivate, and a major part of this album’s appeal is observing how Charney, Jeffries and Peruso navigate the churning musical waters they have embarked upon. Recorded at Johnstown’s Venue of Merging Arts (VOMA) and produced and engineered by Charney, WONk Thyself sounds vibrant and consistent from start to end, and everything sounds clear and balanced through the busy, ever-changing arrangements and overall complexity. WONk Thyself provides Wine Of Nails’ most ambitious and wide-ranging sonic adventure yet; and fans of wide-open, eclectic musical exploration will savor the wine offered up on this freewheeling voyage. (The CD can be obtained through Wine Of Nails’ Facebook page, www.facebook.com/wineofnails.)
MASON PORTER – HOME FOR THE HARVEST (no label) After establishing themselves as adventurers in the Americana and bluegrass realm with their live show and initial recordings, Philadelphia’s Mason Porter emphasizes melodies and mood on their third full-length album, Home for the Harvest. The group’s core roster of acoustic guitarist Paul Wilkinson, mandolinist/guitarist Joe D’Amico and upright bassist Tim Celfo craft eleven engaging melodies with personable, relatable lyrics; blending elements of bluegrass, folk, folk-rock and country. All three musicians contribute smooth, heartfelt singing styles, and blend for tasty vocal harmonies that recall classic Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young or the more rustic side of the Eagles. Their words touch on personal, daily life themes; the bluesy title song, “Home for the Harvest,” addresses the challenges of maintaining stability on the domestic front through the rigors of daily work and other distractions. The disc’s opening track, “Back to Where We Started From,” promotes togetherness and returning to one’s roots. Mason Porter generates upbeat moments such as the love song “Blue Eyes Smile,” the assertive “Fill My Cup,” the drum-driven and boisterous “Can’t See” and the uplifting folk of “There Was a Time.” The group paints more tranquil settings as well; gently pleading for acceptance on “Let Me In” and yearning for stability and comfort in “Little Country Home.” The vocals and harmonies are smooth and bright, and the instrumental performances nicely support each song, with guest drummers Ellen Houle, Colby Wallace and Matt Magarahan adding light percussive punch where needed. Produced by the group, Home for the Harvest flows along smoothly and consistently, and sounds full and simple, allowing Mason Porter’s acoustic artistry to achieve full fruition. With its simple and rootsy tone, Home for the Harvestoffers a pleasant, relaxing listen, as Mason Porter embraces melody and the coziness of folk and Americana styles, and distills them into a restful comfort zone all their own. (The CD can be obtained through the group’s website, www.masonporter.com.)
ANTI CORN LEAGUE – WOMB I & II (no label) Sunflower Spectacle band members Chris Kupchella and Derek Gresh first formed The Anti Corn League with percussionist/pianist Nicole Eicher as a side project in 2006. With The Sunflower Spectacle now on hiatus, The Anti Corn League has unleashed their creativity upon the world with the dual CD’s Womb I and Womb II, revealing compositions and adventures generated during the past three years. Like The Sunflower Spectacle, The Anti Corn League’s sound is rooted in 1960s-era retro rock and psychedelia; but comes from a darker and more unpredictable place. Light and pop-geared melodies intertwine on Womb I with lengthier, ethereal exercises, acoustic interludes and more. The experimentation on Womb II leans toward harder and edgier, at times reminiscent of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd and the more agitated side of John Lennon’s musical persona through the later Beatle years and into his solo career. An interesting array of instrumentation enters the mix as well, including guitars, bass, piano, organ, glockenspiel, farfeeza and more. Although not concept albums per se, the general theme of the albums is reminiscence and nostalgia, and examining why such memories are more vivid with the passage of time. The band members revisited their childhoods and past, even including audio from home videos on Womb I’s interlude “Muttman Prophecies” and Womb II’s “We Are All Now Dinosaurs.” The simple “White (Jarome)” helps set the Womb I’s reminiscent tone, while the catchy and whimsical “Popular Culture” reflects on a childhood adventure. The Anti Corn League evaluates their earlier decisions and beliefs on the lengthy disc-closer “We Were Wrong (You Were the Fool).” The group explores a retro surf-rock vibe on the expansive jam “Mummy’s Tummy,” and taps into ‘90s-era grunge and alternative rock influences on the hard-edged “The Dark Knot.” Womb II’s tone is established early with the disc-opener “Pot Luck (The Memorable Hit)” and the Rolling Stones-toned boogie of “Ch-Ch Eye/Mystery Bus.” Childhood memories are again celebrated with the playful folk of “Lucia Piranha,” based on a fictional character Gresh created during his childhood. The Anti Corn League then digs deeper and heavier with such exercises as the punk-toned “I Have Too Many Carnival Songs,” the brooding “Melon,” and the chaotic “Dr. Zaius the Great Ape.” The group experiments with jazz elements on the expansive and Pink Floyd-like “Indecision (the Eterrnal Burn Run),” and taps into Nirvana-like folk with “Holy Jack.” The ride on both discs is unpredictable, as the Anti Corn League gearshifts in multiple directions throughout the sets as their creative vibe guides them. The recording is basic, raw and organic, and captures the spontaneous and combustible nature of the group’s sound. Together, Womb I and II expose the freewheeling nature of The Anti Corn League, and the group’s unwavering willingness to throw out the rulebook provides an intriguing listening adventure.
(Both CD’s can be obtained through the group’s website, www.anticornleague.com.)