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CD Reviews – April 2017

MAMA CORN – LIVE AND LEARN (Bait Shop Music) Altoona-based bluegrassers Mama Corn enter their tenth year as a band by unveiling their third album, Live and Learn. What unfolds through the disc’s dozen tracks is a skilled band that has evolved, lived and learned over their first decade, and developed a strong chemistry that makes each song a superior moment. Mama Corn has lots going for them here – Guitarist Bruce Forr, banjo player Jeremy Nelson, upright bass player Bryan Homan and dobro/harmonica player Johnny Stevens have all blossomed into skilled songsmiths who know how to craft melodies, spin lyrics and weave stories. They also possess quality singing voices to carry their creations, instrumental dexterity and finesse, and a bond as players that enables them to execute tightly like a well-oiled machine. Every song here is relatable and easy to digest; Bruce’s uptempo opener “I Have a Song” shares how music can provide solace and sanity when times are rough. Co-written with bluegrass legend Peter Rowan, Johnny’s “Nobody Died” addresses the tendency toward frequent loss of life in bluegrass song lyrics; for a fresh change of pace, everybody survives this tune. Meanwhile, Bryan realizes that the climb up the corporate ladder isn’t worth the loss of natural surroundings and tranquility on “In the High Rise.” And on the title song “Live and Learn,” Jeremy extols the value of life’s experiences and lessons. Also strong are Johnny’s two collaborations with Nashville’s Doug Forshey, “Big Ol’ Moon” and “Sing!” plus Bruce’s groove-driven “Goodbye Comfort Home,” Bryan’s inquisitive “Black Crow” and Jeremy’s instrumental closer “Playing with Fire,” highlighted by the sharp fiddle skills of guest Greg Moore (of the Hillbilly Gypsies). Mama Corn also does superb work on two covers, Tom Paxton’s “The Last Thing on My Mind” and the Earl Brothers’ “Hard Times Down the Road.” The performances are upbeat and enthusiastic, and the instrumental interaction between all four musicians and their guests shines brightly throughout the album. Produced by the group, and recorded and engineered by Bill Filer at his Audible Images studio in Port Matilda, Live and Learn sounds warm, full and clear. This is Mama Corn’s finest set yet – Live and Learn offers the sound of a seasoned, tight group that knows their musical turf, and has fun playing on it. This presents a joyous listen, and I highly recommend it. (The CD can be obtained through the website www.mamacornbluegrass.com.)

STRIPED MAPLE HOLLOW – STRIPED MAPLE HOLLOW (Struggle Buggy Records) Since 2009, Johnstown-based group Striped Maple Hollow has evolved their brand of roots music and Americana sounds. Their self-titled debut CD introduces those sounds over 13 tracks, including nine original songs, two covers and two traditional folk numbers. What quickly surfaces as the obvious highlight of this album are the voices and harmonies of singers Jayna Mood and Sonya Giuffre. Their voices soar, blend and play off one another to create beautiful and stirring displays, backed by multi-instrumentalists and singers Micah Mood and Adam Milkovich. The group combines elements of traditional folk, bluegrass, pop and blues into a unique stew of Americana sounds. Their words are mostly about soul-searching; accented by Adam’s harmonica, “My Place in the Sun” muses about a search for identity and purpose, while the waltz-paced “Cog in a Wheel” imagines better times beyond the daily grind. Micah sings the lead on the upbeat “Giving Up on Giving Up,” about going for the gusto in life and leaving apprehensions behind, while the fast bluegrass rant “All My Yesterdays” leaves the past behind and forges forward to better possibilities. Striped Maple Hollow shines on their cover fare as well; opening the album with “There Ain’t Nobody Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone,” a song popularized by Jimmy Martin and George Jones, and giving a bright and playful read to the Turtles-popularized hit “Happy Together.” The group also offers their own interpretations on the traditional numbers “Wayfaring Stranger” and the disc-closing “Sunny Side of Life.” The performances shine; as mentioned earlier, the vocal harmonies make this pleasant listening from start to end, and the arrangements are stripped down and support the melodies, enabling mandolins, banjos, guitars and even an occasional accordion to lightly color the music. Produced by the band and recorded and mixed by Micah, this album sounds crisp and full, allowing this group’s talents to shine at the forefront throughout. Striped Maple Hollow does a nice job on this debut, and introduces a pleasant, vibrant roots-based sound that encourages repeated listens. (The CD can be obtained through the group’s website, www.stripedmaplehollow.com.)

MATT PLESS – TUMBLEWEED, THE BUS STOP E.P. AND OTHER SONGS (no label) Originally from Baltimore, Matt Pless travels and plays everywhere, and recently landed at this year’s Millennium Music Conference, where he performed with Harrisburg’s The Twindows (who he is currently touring with). The CD he was distributing during Millennium, Tumbleweed, The Bus Stop E.P. and Other Songs, is a compilation offering 28 acoustic-geared songs; 27 of them original, plus a cover of Kenny Rogers’ classic hit “The Gambler.” (Five of the songs – “The Computer Song,” “The Legacy Song,” “The Pizza Song,” “The Coffeeshop Song” and “The Bus Stop Song” – clock in from five to ten seconds each.) For a musician who, according to his bio – “…can’t read music…can’t stand most aspects of the pretentious art community, and a writer who usually has fairly poor grammatical skills,” Matt clearly displays a gift for creating compelling songs with simple, catchy hooks and clever lyrics. Armed with acoustic guitar and harmonica, he often channels the folk-rock spirit of Bob Dylan, but filters it through a 20-something/millennial/punk perspective, yielding witty odes to his generation and the crazy times it lives in. His lyrics are sassy and sarcastic, as he busts on a myriad of topics spanning clueless millennials to today’s crazy world. Highlights include several fast-firing numbers where Matt weaves rhyming words and phrases together in a rapid fashion that makes listeners sit up and take immediate notice. Among them are his acidic ode to the technology and social media age, “Talkin’ Information Blues,” his study of directionless youth called “What You Will,” and his analysis of the dysfunctional current-day family on “White Picket Fences.” Matt can also generate tasteful and tender ballads, evidenced by the poetic love ballad “The Book of You and I,” the reflection and self-realization exercise “In the Past Tense,” and the gentle and contemplative “Pretty Bird.” Matt also addresses corporate greed on the folksy “Piggybank,” and celebrates the critters under his feet on “Bugs.” The song arrangements are simple, and Matt’s voice is clear, up front and understandable. His presentation is strong and consistent throughout, and he sells his thoughts and words with enthusiasm and sincerity. It was turbulent times in the 1960s that inspired Bob Dylan and the folk-rock movement to quietly rage against the machine, and some say that the times are ripe today for a the rise of a new generation of songwriters with something to say. If such a generation is set to make that arrival, Matt Pless here demonstrates the songcraft, lyrical prowess and youthful wisdom to possibly be at its forefront. (The CD can be obtained through Matt’s website, www.mattpless.com, and can also be downloaded through his Bandcamp page.)

TOMMI MUSHROOM – 21ST CENTURY BIG MUSHROOM HITS (Canadian American Records) ‘Tommi Mushroom’ is one of several performance aliases of longtime Altoona-bred musician Tom Brunner, whose career spans more than 30 years. 21st Century Big Mushroom Hits is a ‘greatest hits’ compilation of some 21 mostly instrumental compositions that Tom has created during that span, issued on Joey Welz’s Canadian American Records indie label. Besides writing, arranging and producing these tracks, Tom wields guitar, bass and electric ukulele, plus sings on a few of the tracks. This expanse of material reveals a diverse and eccentric range of rock-geared flavors, with hard and heavy rock providing the dominant flavors. Dating back to his early 1980s stint in the Tom Brunner Group (T.B.G.), the opening blast “Time Bomb” features Tom on vocals and bass, flanked by Nitro guitarist John Hazel and drummer Tim Wilson. Other tracks from the T.B.G. era include the air raid siren-flavored instrumental jam “Non Tiki” (formerly “Kon-Tiki Jam,” named after a late ‘70s/early ‘80s Altoona nightclub) and the ominous and hallucinogenic set-closing instrumental “Drone Factor Z.” Tom levies several other heavy-geared instrumental exercises, including the doom-esque “Clam Queen,” the driving “Slow Boat to China,” “Sea Lord,” “Temple of the Shark” and “The Fruit Master.” He also dabbles in surf-rock flavors several times, including “Sunset,” “Surf Pistol,” the Trashmen “Surfin’ Bird”-toned “Living Downtown” and “Mexican Moo Moo.” Tom also represents his costumed ukulele-wielding alter egos ‘Elvis Chicken’ and ‘Sharky’ here with several uke-driven numbers; “Clamboot Boogie” presents an intriguing blend of surf rock and Latin flavors, with Tom’s ukulele presence tying it together. Other ukulele excursions here include “Coconut Island of Love,” “Woo Woo Song” and “Electric Ukulele.” Other curios include the campy Spanish love ballad ode “Senorita,” and a summertime reworking of “Blue Christmas” entitled “Blue Blue Bar BQ.” Tom’s wide variety of styles keeps this set interesting, and listeners cannot predict what adventures the next song will present throughout the album. Because of the wide time frame of these recordings, the sound and production qualities vary from tune to tune, which might present a challenge to the sensitive audiophile ear. As a whole set, 21st Century Big Mushroom Hits presents an intriguing listen, and takes listeners into the adventurous mind of this set’s creator and his musical journeys of the past three decades. (The digital album can be obtained through Amazon and online outlets; the CD can be obtained by mailing Tom Brunner, 3485 Colonel Drake Highway, Altoona, PA 16601.)

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