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CD Reviews – May 2016

jrwolf2JR WOLF – JR WOLF (no label) The brainchild of Hershey-based singer, songwriter, composer and multi-instrumentalist Jason Wolfe, JR Wolf (pronounced “junior wolf”) embarks on a multi-flavored, imaginative conceptual journey on this self-titled full-length debut CD. JR Wolf can’t be pigeonholed; touching on elements of blues, jam-rock, reggae, folk, country and psychedelia over the disc’s 13 tracks. Jason Wolfe pieced the songs and album together over the course of a year, enlisting help from several guest musicians along the way; guitarist Martin Chaudhry, recording engineer and co-producer Derek Euston on bass, Jason Betz, Pat Beseker and Matthew Edwards on drums, Aaron Gainer on cello, Cory Woodcock on pedal steel guitar, keyboardist Mark Brown and Rodney Owens on Uilleann pipes and bagpipes. Packaged with an attached graphic novel booklet, the album is patterned in the tradition of albums like Led Zeppelin III, topped with a Sublime-like modern edge. JR Wolf is eclectic and eccentric, with no two songs on this journey exactly the same; smooth juxtapositions between tracks plus unexpected transitions connect this varied set into a flowing, cohesive whole. A psychedelic-geared blues jam, “Rewind,” commences the album before JR Wolf ponders casting a vote on the funk-driven “Election Blues.” The album veers into reggae forays with the playful “Rastafari Cowboy” and the psychedelic-toned reggae/hip-hop hybrid “Skip-n-Go Naked.” Pedal steel guitar player Cory Woodcock lends a country-flavored touch to “Be Amused” and the trippy “Flash,” and JR Wolf exercises Americana and folk flavors on “Long As You (Get It Done)” and “Credits.” Percussion drives the hearty “So Tired,” while metal guitar riffs ride a waltz tempo on the instrumental “The Red Shoes.” Because of its diversity of musical flavors, JR Wolf is never predictable and engages the listener from start to end. Co-produced by Jason Wolfe and Derek Euston, and recorded, mixed and engineered at The Green Room in Harrisburg, the album sounds clean and balanced, with the various instrumental components coming through distinctly in the mix. JR Wolf’s self-titled album is a creative musical and artistic journey that reflects the adventurous spirit of its creator and indulges his muse, resulting in a unique, personal listening experience. (The CD can be obtained through the website www.jrwolfmusic.com.)

barleyjuice1BARLEYJUICE – THIS IS WHY WE CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS (no label) Since 1998, Philadelphia’s Barleyjuice has created six albums and a two-CD Irish collection, plus has played throughout the country and had their music featured in movies and in television shows such as The Office and King of the Hill. Their latest CD, This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, offers a blend of boisterous and reverent Irish-flavored rock and folk flavors over a dozen tracks. Multi-instrumentalists/singers Kyf Brewer and Keith Swanson pen most of the songs, accompanied by bassist/guitarist Eric Worthington, string/guitar/mandolin player Shelley Weiss and drummer Greg Schroeder (the latter two are no longer with the group). Drinking is a popular lyrical theme, immediately addressed on the rowdy disc-opener “St. Patrick’s Day,” as Brewer growls a tale of misadventures in the Big Apple following the day’s big parade. Whiskey also soaks the two-part “3 Sheets to the Wind,” with a romping sea shanty Pt. 1 leading into an Americana-flavored Pt. 2. And Brewer croons about the joys of whiskey during the holiday season on the bluesy “Whiskey for Christmas.” A double-edged cure to sadness is proposed on the somber ballad “Whiskey & Weed,” while winter solstice, fluids and druids populate the lyrics of the folksy “Longest Night of the Year.” Brewer purges his religious guilt complex on the raucous “Catholic Guilt,” and recalls a troublesome lass on the humorous waltz “”Little O’Belle et Bonne.” Barleyjuice taps into more reverent Celtic folk flavors on the instrumental “Lost on a Foggy Afternoon” and the upbeat “Parish Jig.” They close the disc with an edgy update of the Monkees’ “Sweet Young Thing.” The performances are strong throughout the album, with Barleyjuice mixing up the instrumentation and styles to keep the disc fresh throughout, and Brewer’s gruff, boisterous vocals adding personality and tying the set together into a cohesive whole. Produced and recorded by Brewer, the mix is consistent from start to end, and the sound is crisp, clear and full. This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things provides lively listening to start to finish, and presents a suitable, rowdy option for a St. Patrick’s Day soundtrack. (The CD can be obtained through the group’s website, www.barleyjuice.com.)

dougirwin2DOUG IRWIN – THE BRIDGES THAT I BURN (no label) Bellefonte-based singer/songwriter Doug Irwin is a relative late-bloomer in the world of music, buying his first guitar at age 39. He soon started writing and accumulating his own song material, and just past age 50 has issued his first album, The Bridges That I Burn. Americana is the general flavor through the disc’s nine tracks, but Irwin channels influences ranging from classic rock, blues, folk and country. As a result, each song is different, enabling Irwin to expose different sides to his musical and lyrical personality. Several guest musicians help with Irwin’s journey; including guitarists Junior Tutwiler and Bill Filer, bassist Rene Witzke, drummer Daryl Branford, Rev. James Harton on organ and accordion, Sam Spurrier on dobro, Bill Wilgus on mandolin, fiddler Daniel Collins, upright bassist Bryan Homan and cellist Jonathan Dexter. Irwin touches on topics personal and universal through the disc. He ponders the plight of returning veterans on the stern disc-opener “Rattle the Cage,” rattling reminders of classic Levon Helm and The Band; and remembers those who gave all on the somber piano and cello ballad “Cherry Blossoms.” He weaves a story around the power of water on the swamp rock-geared “River Queen,” and uses the rails as a getaway on the train-themed folk-blues ode “Standing at the Station.” He cherishes a happy family moment with the gentle, acoustic “Dancing with My Daughter,” and savors a friendly reunion on “Where You Been.” Several guest singers – including Miss Melanie Morrison (Miss Melanie & the Valley Rats), Monica Brindle, and his wife Grace and daughter Megan – help Irwin build the a cappella gospel piece “Chalices of Gold.” And on the disc-ending title song “The Bridges That I Burn,” Irwin celebrates the peace of mind attained after dumping dead weight and torching some bridges in his life. Irwin’s voice is sturdy and sincere, with his personality and character showing through in each song. The guests nicely color each piece to give the songs variety and depth. Recorded by Bill Filer at Audible Images Recording Studio in Port Matilda, and produced, mixed and mastered by Filer and Mark Ross; the CD sounds clear, balanced, cohesive and consistent from start to finish. The Bridges That I Burn provides a doorway into Doug Irwin’s musical world, revealing a thoughtful songsmith and the inspirations that drive him. (The CD can be obtained through Doug Irwin’s website, www.dougirwinmusic.com.)

Dana Gaynor Band 2THE DANA GAYNOR BAND – POWER TO THE PEOPLE (Euphoric Rebel Records) Now based in Allentown, Dana Gaynor has built an impressive resume over her music industry career; developing her own talents on lead and slide guitar, and performing with established greats such as Buddy Miles, Vassar Clements, Dan Hicks, Keith and Donna Godcheaux of The Grateful Dead and more. She formed the Dana Gaynor Band with bassist Tony Mancino in 2010, and the group recently issued their second album,Power to the People. The group – Dana, Tony, drummer Frank Zelasney and keyboardist Michael Pozzebon – mixes blues, rock and funk over the CD’s 14 tracks; establishing infectious grooves along the way. Riding a slight Sly & the Family Stone retro-funk vibe, the disc-opening title track “Power to the People” sets the tone both musically and lyrically, establishing the Dana Gaynor Band’s plentiful musical chops, as well as a prevalent theme of people battling big money and corruption. Corruption also informs the words of the funky “In the Land of the Fool’s Gold,” showcasing Gaynor’s blistering guitar solo fireworks in its homestretch; while the group warns listeners about the futile quest for money on the darker funk of “Run for the Money.” The lighter side of money surfaces in the rowdy roots-rock of “Rockabilly Billionaire,” while the keyboard-driven “Money City” touts ways to part with money. Temptation is also a strong topic here; avoiding temptation is the focus of the bluesy “Black Moon,” while guest Robbie Bossert’s pedal steel guitar underscores the lighter funk-toned ode to infidelity, “The Frenchman’s Wife.” Gaynor offers thanks for surviving the ride on the rolling blues-rocker “Tip My Hat to the Maker.” The performances are strong and inspired, with Gaynor’s mild-mannered voice and cadence providing a constant through much of the album. The overall musicianship here is stellar, as Gaynor’s guitar talents shine throughout the disc, and her cast of bandmates and guests – including a three-piece horn section on three songs – get to strut their stuff as well. Self-produced by Gaynor, the disc sounds crisp and balanced, with all of the vocals and instrumental ingredients clear in the mix. Power to the People displays the musical power of the Dana Gaynor Band, and is a lively, fun set that shows listeners this group’s plentiful skills over a wide expanse of musical turf. (The CD can be obtained through the website www.danagaynor.com.)

jeffmamettJEFF MAMETT – HERE’S YOUR HAT (no label) In a modern age where so-called “country” music features digital samples, hip-hop and rock dynamics; new artists who honor traditional, old-school country music are becoming a scarce commodity. Enter northcentral PA-based singer/songwriter Jeff Mamett. Influenced early on by the singing cowboys, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, Jeff became a fan of Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Guy Clark, Lyle Lovett and others. He learned guitar and played bass in bands during his younger years, before entering the cattle business as he started raising a family. His interest in music rebooted after an open mic night three years ago, Jeff wrote songs toward his debut album, Here’s Your Hat. Produced by Jeff, the disc’s sound is very much traditional country and western swing over its dozen tracks; acoustic, electric and steel guitars are constant in the mix, as well as bursts of piano, harmonica, mandolin, fiddle, dobro and more. Jeff’s rugged baritone voice returns listeners to that classic country and western era, and touches of studio reverb recall 1950s and 1960s-era recordings. Jeff’s lyrics follow traditional country themes, including happy and sad love odes, rural and western settings and stories, and more. He celebrates special ladies with the upbeat honky-tonk opener “Isla Mae” and the Tex-Mex-toned “Hot Tamales,” and the joys of horses and the outdoors on the galloping “Watchin’ Our Ponies.” But he closes the book on other love interests on “No More Tears” and the western swing-driven “The Writing’s On the Wall,” profiles a troubled youth on “Careless Boy,” and pays homage to a fallen soul on the mandolin-flavored “High and Lonesome.” He celebrates the western storyteller tradition with updates of Red Steagall’s “About Horses and Wars” and Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty.” Jeff steps toward the rock spectrum twice, on the hard-punching title track “Here’s Your Hat,” and the lighter country-rock of “Wanna Stay Mad.” Jeff’s presentation sounds sincere and authentic, and his arrangements capture the atmosphere of roots country. The mix is clean and clear, and all the instrumental components shine brightly. For country fans wondering where true country has gone, Jeff Mamett provides an answer on Here’s Your Hat; this is the real deal. (The CD can be obtained through the website www.jeffmamett.com.)

andymowatt1ANDY MOWATT – AN END TO THE MEANS (no label) From Lancaster, Andy Mowatt has honed his guitar talents for the past decade, joining Harrisburg jam-based rockers Herbie in 2006, playing in production shows at Lancaster’s American Music Theatre, and recently forming a Steely Dan-inspired ensemble called Andy Mowatt’s Steely Jam. Jazz and fusion strongly inform Mowatt’s latest all-instrumental album, An End To The Means. Through the album’s ten tracks, Mowatt demonstrates guitar mastery and arranging versatility as he and his cast of sidemen explore a colorful array of jazz-rooted flavors. Among those sidemen are Mowatt’s Herbie and Steely Jam associate Aaron Trasatt on keys, as well as Steely Jam bandmates Gabe Staznik on drums and Mike Wittrien on bass, plus pianist Andy Roberts, bassist Andy Alonso and several horn players. Eight of the compositions are original, and each conveys a different mood and atmosphere. With drums and horns setting the initial vibe, the disc-opener “Shoeless Groove” is a jumpy, fun romp where Mowatt, saxophonist Dave Yinger and Roberts seize the moment and ride the melody with dazzling solo work. “Highlands” sets a quieter but equally colorful jazzy groove, while Trasatt’s Rhodes keyboard powers and underscores the driving fusion rocker “Gloria.” Mowatt and mates merge Dixieland and European folk flavors on “Gypsyland,” explore tropical Brazilian samba tones on “Songo,” and fuse jazz with slow blues on the disc-closer “Omniblues.” Mowatt and friends improvise on two instrumental remakes; a jazz-funk reboot of Beyonce’s hit “Love On Top,” and a playful and tasty update of Steely Dan’s “Bodhisattva.” Mostly recorded live with some overdubs, the performances on An End To The Means are dazzling, as Mowatt shares the spotlight with his hired guns and allows their talents to shine as well. The musicianship is consistently stellar, and Mowatt’s bright arrangements keep things sounding fresh from start to end. Recorded, mixed and mastered by Michael Washkevich at MDW Productions in Harrisburg, this disc sounds clean, full and polished. An End To The Means provides an uplifting listen, as Andy Mowatt and his cast of players give their chops a workout and have a blast doing so. (The CD can be obtained through Mowatt’s website, www.andymowatt.com.)

sherrimullen3SHERRI MULLEN – SHADOWS (no label) Through her discography and career to date, Middletown-based singer/songwriter Sherri Mullen has established herself as an acoustic artist and rock performer. But on her latest CD, Shadows, she spotlights her piano skills and strips down her sound to voice and keys over the disc’s ten tracks. And while Mullen’s previous song output leaned toward uptempo and upbeat creations, Shadows finds her exploring darker and more introspective terrain. Her prevailing theme is struggle and encountering personal adversity, and finding the faith and strength to rebound and move forward. Using a dramatic arrangement, Mullen immediately bares her soul for the world to hear on the stern disc-opener “No Apology.” The melancholy title track “Shadows” plunges into the abyss of despair over what used to be, while the somber “Sad Clown” reveals that a happy outer persona can hide a suffering inner persona. With a theatrical style slightly reminiscent of Queen’s operatic tones, “Streets of Strange” reflects on happier and more blissful times. On a more hopeful front, the piano waltz “Unconditional” professes devotion out of loneliness, “It’s Okay” shares an internal pep talk to pick up the pieces and move forward, before “Begin Again” gathers the determination to put the shadowy past behind, and the disc-closer “Exposed” resolves to not surrender to blind despair again. Mullen excels with her song material here; her expressive voice, intensity and powerful vocal range sell the sincerity of her words, while her strong piano mastery provides the stalwart foundation beneath it all. Self-produced and recorded, Shadows sounds clear and prominent, with Mullen’s performances bold and in your face. With her solemn, stripped-down approach, Sherri Mullen faces off against emotional darkness and ultimately triumphs on Shadows, sharing the message that healing and hope begin from within the soul. (The CD can be obtained through Sherri Mullen’s website, www.sherrimullen.com.)

Habatat1HABATAT – HABATAT (no label) Habatat’s story began in 2012, when singer/guitarist Ryan Woods and bassist/percussionist Kris Lupher began to collaborate on songs and forge their musical foundation. The western PA-based group evolved into a quartet with the additions of drummer Justin Banks and rhythm/lead guitarist Cory Mickinak. Habatat’s self-titled debut album introduces listeners to familiar-sounding musical terrain, featuring an emphasis on blues and funk-rooted jam rock. Through the disc’s 13 tracks, Habatat lays down a variety of catchy and intriguing grooves; often crafting experimental song arrangements that ebb and wane, strut and shift gears. The musicianship and performances are strong throughout the album, as Habatat has fun working the nuances and riffs of their groove fest. The guitars and bass pulse and probe, and Banks’ knack for gear-shifting drum rhythms helps each song smoothly move forward. As frontman, Woods belts with a prominent soulful and gritty growl that gives the overall presentation added edge. Classic blues-rock informs the disc-opener “Avenue Blues” and “Fallacy,” while Habatat engages funkier terrain with “Dank Hoss,” “Show You Everything,” “To Be Announced” and the disc-closer “Trans-Atlantic Paper Airplane.” “Gold” rides a slower funk-rock groove as Woods growls a warning of rough times ahead, and “Goodbye” taps into a more southern rock/funk flavor reminiscent of the Black Crowes and Allman Brothers. Habatat generates a fiery funk groove with the highway-themed “Roadwork,” and weave three distinctive grooves into a cohesive epic in “Three Prong Song.” Three of the tracks are instrumental workouts; the punchy “Mick the Mack,” the slinky and improvisational “Octaver” and the distortion-funk exercise “Spaghetti Water.” Produced by Jay Vega and recorded at Wilderness Recording Studio, Habatat’s first foray sounds strong and consistent from start to end, with the instruments and vocals doing the talking without unnecessary bells and whistles. Habatat’s first chapter lays the groundwork for what this group is all about, and fans of classic groove, southern rock and funk will find plenty to celebrate here. (The CD can be obtained by emailing the group at habatat.band@gmail.com.)

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