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CD Reviews – December 2015

MISS MELANIE & THE VALLEY RATS – LIVE AT OTTO’S (no label) For fans who have been waiting for a Miss Melanie & the Valley Rats live album, here it is. Live at Otto’s was recorded live by Bill Filer during one of the group’s weekly Friday performances at Otto’s Pub and Brewery in State College. As explained in the disc’s liner notes, the group decided to strip down their live presentation for the more intimate atmosphere of Otto’s, using minimal amps and speakers, and a snare drum and high-hat cymbal replacing a full drum kit. This enabled more breathing room for the music itself, and allowed the group to stretch out and have some fun on their variety of blues and soul numbers. Group namesake and singer “Miss Melanie” Morrison Zeigler sounds happy and vibrant throughout the album, taking full control and making each song her playground to emote and bare her soul. This is evident within seconds into the first track, the group’s playful update of Louis Jordan’s “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens,” and rides a high throughout the performance, culminating in the bold and boisterous rendition of Etta James’ “Something’s Got a Hold on Me” and the expansive slow blues finale, Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball and Chain.” The Valley Rats own each song as well, from Mark Ross’ tasty and tasteful guitar phrasings to Rev. James Harton’s textured organ underscores, with Jordan Thompson’s light and stripped-down drum rhythms to gently nudge each song along. Miss Melanie & the Valley Rats display abundant versatility on their song selection, from shuffles like Solomon Burke’s “Cry to Me” to upbeat New Orleans funk on Cyril Neville’s “Brother John,” and from the soulful R&B of Jimmy Hughes’ “Steal Away” and the Amy Winehouse-popularized “Valerie” to an expansive, gospel-tinged take on Sam Cooke’s “Bring It on Home to Me.” Live at Otto’s is nothing less than an exciting singer and her seasoned band seizing the moment and having the time of their lives. This set is a nice document of Miss Melanie & the Valley Rats’ live performance, as well as a teaser for their weekly Friday Otto’s session, because there is plenty more where this came from. (The CD can be purchased at Alley Cat Music in State College, or through the website www.missmelanieandthevalleyrats.com.)
THE LEGENDARY HUCKLEBUCKS – HILLBILLY DEATH-WROCK VOLUME ONE (Brain Drain Records) The Legendary Hucklebucks have been barnstorming western Pennsylvania stages and beyond with their brand of amped-up roots rock for more than a decade, and they lay down the fire and brimstone on their latest CD, Hillbilly Death-Wrock Volume One. With the fervor of a snake-handling southern minister, the Hucklebucks – singer and harmonica man Ted Bundy, upright bass player Uncle Piddles, guitarist Dave Fresch and drummer Brian Gault – tear through the CD’s nine tracks with reckless abandon, chugging out punk and metal-infused roots rock, rockabilly and psychobilly. With his bandmates flooring the accelerator and burning rubber, Bundy’s over-the-top howl exudes vigor and vinegar, at times dropping hints of the legendary Jerry Lee Lewis; and his harmonica wail whips up the frenzy on every track. The disc’s opening one-two punch, “Intro” and “Jerkalope,” set the tone and serve as the Hucklebucks’ rampaging statement of purpose; the group also rips and tears with speedy assaults such as “One Less Drunk” and “Black Eyed Susan.” Marching with a bluesy swagger, “3 Sheets” profiles a troubled loner coming to grips with the man in the mirror, while the rockabilly-fueled “Ballad of J.D.” rides the fence between sin and salvation. The Hucklebucks celebrate Pittsburgh horror-movie nostalgia with the raucous “B-Movie,” with lyrical references to George Romero’s groundbreaking horror flick Night of the Living Dead and “Chilly Billy” Cardille’s late Saturday night Chiller Theater TV program. Surf rock informs the stern “Don’t Feed the Rats” and the disc-closing go-for-a-ride anthem “Porkrinds and Gasoline.” Produced, recorded, mixed and mastered by Eric Wrecker at Red Room Studio, this disc sounds consistent and captures the group’s edge, even while each song stands with a uniqueness of its own. Hillbilly Death-Wrock Volume One captures the essence of what The Legendary Hucklebucks are all about; in-your-face, fun roots-rock swagger and attitude to get heads banging and fists pumping. (The CD can be obtained by visiting the website www.braindrainrecords.com/hucklebucks.)
THE TOMMY ROBERTS – THE TOMMY ROBERTS (no label) Formed in early 2014, The Tommy Roberts is a State College-based duo featuring Philadelphia native Brian Cleary on electric and acoustic guitars, and York native Nathan Cutshall on acoustic guitar and harmonica; both sing. Their eponymous debut CD introduces listeners to the duo’s brand of roots-based original music, which incorporates elements of blues, rock and hip-hop over ten groove-driven tracks. Cleary and Cutshall show a knack for catchy song hooks, and demonstrate the vocal and instrumental chops to bring them to life. Their arrangements are mostly stripped-down and simple with guitars, harmonica, vocals and harmonies. The disc opens with a swamp-blues tone on “Way to Go,” with guest and album co-producer Mark Ross helping out on baritone guitar. That vibe also permeates “Fishin’ for Pearls,” coupled with a slight Marshall Tucker Band flavor. Guest and co-producer Noah Figlin contributes pedal steel guitar to the tender folk ballad “Walking Back (to Tennessee),” and the pair rides a Little Feat roots-funk groove on “In the Fall.” They throw an unexpected twist into the mix with the playful bare-bones funk and hip-hop of “The Moon,” tap into a light country flavor with the gentle “Ladybug Love Song,” and craft a rustic waltz on the disc-closer “Worried and Wondering.” The set is cohesive and consistent from start to end, and the production and mix by Ross and Figlin gives The Tommy Roberts fullness and clarity, enabling the duo’s skills to shine front and center throughout the disc. This CD reveals the skill, simplicity and diversity of The Tommy Roberts, and provides a pleasant, tranquil listening experience. (The CD can be obtained through the websitewww.thetommyrobertsmusic.com.)

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