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CD Reviews – July 2015

THE DIRTY THIEVING GYPSIES – CARNIVAL SMILE (no label) One definition of the word ‘gypsy’ is wanderer. In that sense, Carnival Smile, the nine-song debut album from Harrisburg-based quintet The Dirty Thieving Gypsies, defines the group as musical wanderers that infuse several styles into an eclectic brand of rock all their own. Lead singer/ guitarist/harmonica player (and Harrisburg area radio personality) Michael Anthony Smith, guitarist/singer Rick Johns, keyboardist Frank Seidel, bassist Fran Johns and drummer Leon Grickis Jr. mix up edgy guitar rock, blues, pop and folk flavors; resulting in a collective style that stakes out a comfortable middle ground between the Rolling Stones, Social Distortion, Dire Straits and the Black Crowes. Smith’s lyrics are clever and often witty, brought to life by his vocal blend of grit and vinegar. The driving, Stones-ish rocker “Chinatown (Aching My Blues)” launches the album with a bristling tone. Life’s frustrations and bad luck are pondered on the catchy “Just Like Charlie Brown’s Blues,” with words offering hope that better days and rewards are ahead. The Dirty Thieving Gypsies evoke socially-distorted acid on the hard-hitting ode to drama queen venom “Poison Ivory.” The album’s ‘Carnival Smile’ title is referenced in two numbers, denoting the mystique in a love interest on the shy ballad “You Scare Me to Death,” and defining the appeal of a love interest on the upbeat “Perfect.” On the other side of the coin, deceit is uncovered on the slow-building blues thunderstorm “L Is for Liar,” while age and the passage of time are accepted on the set-closer “The Beacon Song.” The Dirty Thieving Gypsies give a solid performance, with instrumental consistency and Smith’s distinctive vocals tying the set into a cohesive whole. Produced and engineered by Rick Johns, the set sounds clean and full, letting the performances do the talking and the band’s edge cut through. Carnival Smile is a strong set from start to end, and a set that introduces The Dirty Thieving Gypsies as a rock wanderers with edge and personality. (The album can be obtained via iTunes and Amazon, or through the group’s Reverbnation page,

SMOOTH SOUND – IN THE CUTAWAY (no label) Currently six members strong, Johnstown’s Smooth Sound formed four years ago to perform benefit events, before evolving into a full-time performing act. Their debut CD, In The Cutaway, introduces listeners to Smooth Sound’s tasty blend of funk, soul, hip-hop and jazz grooves over its seven tracks. The group features a co-ed singing tandem, Venus Hall and Stephen Lewis, whose voices, interaction and interplay provide some of the disc’s brightest highlights. Their harmony vocals drive the melody of the harder-edged “Up to My View,” their alternating vocals build the boy-meets-girl anticipation and theme of the mellow “Hide N Seek,” and their call-and-response homestretch during “Come See Me” helps the song’s hook stay attached inside the brain long after the first listen. Smooth Sound is instrumentally strong as well; especially demonstrated in the nearly seven-minute title track “In the Cutaway,” where keyboardist Brandon King and guitarist Eugene Sanders showcase dazzling solo work in between Santana-like breaks. King contributes a few raps and rhymes along the way, and his sparkling piano solo provides the perfect touch to the disc-closing slow soul ballad “Night Interlude.” Drummer Jeffrey Wilson demonstrates steadiness and versatility as he and bassist Joseph Morris, Jr. anchor the group’s various funk, jazz and soul grooves. The songs are catchy and detailed, with infectious melodies and grooves, smart instrumental and vocal arrangements, and well-placed bridges and breaks to keep things interesting throughout. The recording and production are thin and uneven in spots, with slight vocal distortion in spots, and spoken/rap passages muddy in the mix. A bigger studio budget might have made Smooth Sound sound smoother. But ultimately, the songs and performances win the day, and In The Cutaway should convince listeners that Smooth Sound has the musical and songcrafting goods, and establish this as a group with abundant potential and a bright future. (The CD can be obtained through Smooth Sound’s website, Proceeds from CD sales benefit The Flood City Youth Fitness Academy.)

THE CLARKS – REWIND (Clarkhouse Entertainment) When The Clarks first formed in 1986 at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, they played songs from their musical heroes in the basements of houses and the corners of bars. Those heroes included early pioneers of alternative rock, and those songs informed the flavor of The Clarks’ early albums, setting the musical foundation of the group moving forward. The Clarks revisit where it all began for them with Rewind, as they perform some of those influential early songs and recognize their musical heroes who inspired them. The founding Clarks cast of singer/guitarist Scott Blasey, guitarist/singer Rob James, bassist/singer Greg Joseph and drummer/singer Dave Minarik celebrate their influences, while giving each song their own signature Clarks flavor. A few names should be recognizable to most, as the Clarks update the Plimsouls’ 1983 minor hit “A Million Miles Away,” tip their hats to The Replacements with a version of “I Will Dare,” give a muscular update to REM’s “Begin the Begin” and thunder out the Smithereens’ “Blood and Roses.” They recognize some forgotten and lesser-heralded names of the early alternative era as well; opening the disc with “Like Wow-Wipeout” from Australia’s Hoodoo Gurus, paying homage to early alt-country pioneers The Long Ryders with a version of “I Want You Bad,” remembering Pittsburgh-turned-Los Angeles rockers The Rave-Ups, and recalling songs from Scruffy the Cat and Jason and the Scorchers. The Clarks also give a nod to the Rolling Stones with their take on “Paint It Black,” and acknowledge their country roots with a disc-closing version of Dwight Yoakum’s “Long White Cadillac.” The performances are enthusiastic, as The Clarks give each of these covers a similar spirit and energy as they give their own material. Produced, recorded and mixed by Sean McDonald, the set sounds crisp and vibrant. Rewind is The Clarks visiting their roots; it should enable listeners and fans to understand where the group came from musically, and how the artists they cover inform their sound. And it also might prompt listeners to dig a little deeper, discover and explore these influential bands on their own. (The CD can be obtained through all digital outlets, and through the group’s website,

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